Let’s face it, your first, second, third, and probably 10th hires were not HR professionals (or, if haven’t hired 10 people yet, they aren’t going to be).
Developers, marketers, and designers, to name a few, are more likely to get the invite to help skyrocket your hot business idea to Fortune 500 stardom long before Johnny HR.
At the same time, you don’t have to search very hard to find startup advice stressing the importance of a driven and competent team as the number one most important factor in the success or failure of your fledgling company.
But it quickly becomes apparent that employee engagement as a startup holds a contradiction:
You probably don’t have or want to spend the money to dedicate a salary to employee relations at this point, but you also need to convince your talented employees that their work is valuable, impactful, and, well, continually worthwhile.
This is especially important when many employees are working for lower salaries than they could achieve elsewhere, fueled by the excitement and opportunity of building a new company.
The challenge for you is keeping this initial flame from dying out over time.
So what do you do?
In a nutshell, you return to your roots as an entrepreneur, and focus on eliciting in other people as much of the excitement that drives you to spend your nights and weekends buried in your company as possible, and you find a way to do it on the cheap.
Section #1) Becoming A Cheerleader
First things first, let’s get your head in the game:
Whether you’re going it alone as a CEO or have a team of co-founders, you’ve got to get comfortable with the idea of servicing HR needs in your own quirky way for the foreseeable future.
Gary Vaynerchuk had a Q&A video recently where a young couple who had built their own company had some concerns about employee engagement.
The husband asked Gary, “How can we get our employees as excited about our company as we are?” to which the social media guru responded in typical, blunt Gary V fashion:
“You can’t. That’s selfish.”
Luckily, the conversation didn’t end there.
What Gary went on to add was something like this (bear in mind I’m putting my own spin on this here):
Your company, your startup, is your baby. You can get people excited about it, and in fact that’s your job, but asking someone to care so much that they turn your business into their life passion, when the ultimate payout is yours (whether from a financial and personal fulfillment perspective, or both) is unrealistic.
Think about it like this:
Remember when your friends all started having children and flooding your Facebook feed with pictures of their newborn, then their toddler with chocolate pudding all over his or her face, then their child running around in a pumpkin patch or on their way to their first day of school?
You may have thought the pictures were annoying, or maybe you thought they were cute, but either way you were never going to care or see the same value in those updates as the parents did.
Running a startup is the same in many ways. If your love and passion for your company is a 10/10, the best you can ever expect from employees, who don’t have the same sense of ownership that you do, is an 8 or a 9. And that’s still asking a lot.
And asking someone to start at an 8 or a 9 is downright ridiculous.
As a CEO, Gary suggests that it’s your responsibility (and necessity!) to go out and find the people who can come in as 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s and then be turned into 8’s and 9’s via your own ability to motivate, kick ass, and transfer your vision.
Here are a couple of small ways to stay on track:
- Actively involve yourself in each of your employee’s tasks without micromanaging. Take the time to find out and keep your finger on the pulse of the individual tasks and challenges of every employee. Disconnected managers kill engagement, so show that you care and are there to offer input when it’s needed or requested. If you think you don’t have time to do this while accomplishing your own tasks, well, you’re probably wrong; cut out Netflix, shift personal activities from the evening to lunch time, cook more dinner for leftovers the next day so you don’t have to spend time packing a lunch, then bring some work tasks into the time you save to free up some office minutes. Do whatever it takes to carve out more time to be attentive to employees during the day.
- Say something nice to every employee, every single day. I love referencing as much as I can in my posts, but I don’t think I need to offer you up any scientific evidence that getting recognition and encouragement feels good. This is one of the best ROI moves you can make in employee engagement; it takes a few seconds, but makes a huge difference in employee perceptions of how much they’re valued in a company.
- Eliminate “but statements” from small talk. Deep strategy discussions deserve critique, but don’t engage in employee engagement or small talk that brings “but” into the equation. “Great job on that webpage, Kevin, but let’s try and get things moving a little faster the next time around.” Ugh.
Think it, don’t say it. You can always offer structured feedback later on, but in the moment statements like that only serve to completely negate the original praise or achievement.
You need to be infectious. Not in a diseased way, but in an ‘oh my god this guy is so excited and happy about this company and work that now I’m kind of feelin’ it too!’ kind of way.
Even the most driven and independent workers are going to follow your lead to an extent; remember, you’re the 10, and if you want your employees to crank it up to 8 or 9, you’d better learn to drive home that enthusiasm.
Section #2) Execute Awesome Employee Engagement Events That Have Absolutely Nothing To Do With Work
Employee engagement ‘events’ are big right now. With new companies springing up and then growing at light speed, there’s certainly no shortage employees to be engaged.
The biggest problem is that employee engagement events are often confused with ‘workshops’.
They’re turned into generalist ‘team building’ or ‘on the job learning’ sessions that may teach your team something, but go over like a lead balloon when it comes to cultivating warm and fuzzy feelings about your company.
The point of an employee engagement activity should be to elevate your company culture and the sense of engagement employees feel with each other. Changes in perception of or feelings toward actual day to day work activities (the goal!) will result from good employee engagement events, but more as a peripheral effect than as a direct focus.
How do you find employee engagement ideas? Look to your employees, of course!
Ask about employee interests outside work.
What do they like to do for fun? How do they spend their evenings and weekends?
In general, you’ll find one of two things. Either A) your employees share some common interests, and it’s pretty easy to spot activities that would be of interest to a large portion of your workforce. Or B) interests are all over the place, with little overlap at all.
Either scenario is perfect, so don’t sweat it. Let’s take a look at how you service each.
In scenario A, turn that common interest directly into an event. We’ve got a lot of gamers in the house here at Responster, so every Friday afternoon we take the last half hour or hour and unwind with an office gaming session (Counterstrike or Team Fortress 2, in case you were wondering). Come to think of it, that’s in a couple of hours, nice.
Maybe in your office you’ve got a lot of readers – form a book club. Flooded with musicians? Challenge the office to write and record a song in one afternoon.
It’s about creativity, something you should already have tons of on tap in your startup roster.
That’s all well and good when employee interests are well-aligned, but what about scenario B?!
If your workplace interests are all over the place, consider activities with broad appeal, or which incorporate a range of interests.
Easy contenders are things like:
- An office talent show night (a few beers can enhance this one, but you didn’t hear it from us).
- Weekly ‘teach something’ sessions where one employee shares their interest or teaches an aspect of it to their coworkers.
- Rotating events that change each week to service a different interest.
But, again, put your own spin on it. Make these events something your company can really ‘own’.
Regardless of what exactly you do, it should incorporate these 3 elements of a good employee engagement event (and cost nothing, or close to it):
- It’s relevant to genuine employee interests.
- It make employees interact with each other in new ways or over new topics than what they’re used to in the office environment.
- It’s fun, and not just work or training disguised as fun.
Additionally, your event should ideally take place on company time; good employee engagement events are a give not a take.
Using company time for an employee engagement event is an investment, and one that’s shown to payoff in spades:
“A Towers Watson survey found that companies with highly engaged employees improved operating income by 19.2% over a period of 12 months, while those companies with low engagement scores saw operating income decrease by 32.7%. Another source, the Work Foundation, suggests that If organizations increased investment in good workplace engagement practices by just 10%, they would increase profits by $2,400 per employee per year. It also found that a 1% increase in employee commitment can lead to a monthly increase of 9% in sales.” – Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove
Just as in any good business relationship, employee relations benefit from an approach in which your strategy for getting value is to give as much of it as possible.
Of course, just like any aspect of startup life, being able to measure your progress with employee engagement is essential, which brings us to:
Section #3) Quantifying Your Employee Relationships
Metrics MetRiCs METRICS! We love them. As startups, we’re taught to revere the numbers.
Employee engagement should be no different.
But, as eloquently put in an early 2015 article by Inc.com on employee engagement, “the human heart is one performance variable that’s impossible to measure.”
But we do our best.
The easiest way to do this is to create a routine survey, so that you can track week over week and month over month feelings of employees toward their work and employment circumstances.
Employee engagement surveys work for a number of reasons, but some upfront benefits are that they show that you care about how your employees are feeling enough to regularly check in (though this is only relevant if you’re willing to actually act on the feedback you get), while at the same time requiring very little upfront time investment from you.
In fact, there are a number of companies that will do this for you… for the low, low price of multiple thousands of dollars.
I don’t care if you just closed a massive series C round, that’s a waste of money.
Instead, make your own employee engagement survey (hint: we made we made Responster to do exactly that).
Regardless of how you make and distribute your survey, we suggest sending out you survey mid-week and opening with:
“On a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with your work so far this week?”
Why It’s Important: Leading off with this quantitative question establishes a measurable metric that employees will come to expect week after week, and which also gives you firsthand feedback on work satisfaction – so we make it direct and clear.
It’s also effective to end your survey with something like:
“On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you right now to recommend working at [Company Name] to a friend or family member?”
Why It’s Important: The Net Promoter Score question type is held in high regards by marketers, so why not re-purpose it for employee engagement? The largest benefit to asking this question isn’t the first answer you get (though of course it’s wonderful if every employee is dropping you 9’s and 10’s on week one!), but the ability to track changes over time. Having a consistent, measurable metric coming in week after week which directly correlates to an employee’s likelihood to recommend your company as an employer is extremely valuable, and can alert you when something is or isn’t working.
These are actually questions 1 and 5 from straight from our 5 Question Blueprint for Killer Employee Engagement Surveys (it’s completely free, and you’re welcome to download it if you’re so-inclined!).
In addition to collecting the hard data, your survey should also included some qualitative questions that give your employees some open-ended space to make suggestions.
Applying This To Your Business
NONE OF WHAT YOU’VE READ HERE WILL HELP YOU…
…unless you’re willing to act on it.
You can read a million guides to motivating, managing, and engaging employees in your startups, some even better than this one, but it won’t make a difference unless you act on what you learn.
Is this the perfect, end-all be-all blueprint for engaging every single employee that walks through your doors? Of course not, but you’ll find what works best for your office by doing, not thinking.
So get out there and be a cheerleader.
Go plan events that make employees laugh, think, and love the office they spend so many hours in each week.
Send out that engagement survey over Slack, email, on an iPad kiosk in the office, or handwrite the damn thing if you have to.
And remember, your startup is your baby, so treat its caretakers like the family they are and you might just be surprised at how much of a difference you can make.
Now let me know you’re still alive by leaving a comment – what is the first thing YOU are going to do to better engage your employees?
To your success,
Brandon Landis is the Chief Customer Success Wizard (CCSW) and Community Manager for Responster, the cross-platform survey tool that helps businesses make smart decisions.