“Most workers, many of whom are millennials, approach a role and a company with a highly defined set of expectations. They want their work to have meaning and purpose. They want to use their talents and strengths to do what they do best every day. They want to learn and develop. They want their job to fit their life. Leaders have to create cultures that reflect the wants and needs of the modern workforce, regardless of job type or industry. They must give employees a reason to choose them, stay with them and perform at their best.”  ~ Gallup State of the American Workplace

Gallup® recently released their 2017 State of the American Workplace report and one of the most remarkable observations they made is, Employee engagement is not the same as engaging employees. Employee engagement is the outcome of actively engaging employees through a strategy that drives improved performance — achieving engagement is simply not as easy as putting together a survey to measure employees’ level of engagement.Many firm leaders miss the difference between employee engagement and engaging employees, and they become frustrated because they’re doing so many things to make their people happy and it never seems to be enough.

Viewing employee engagement as the outcome of a strategy and creating a culture that supports that strategy can get you there. As firm leaders know, when you have a defined strategy, you can then define specific outcomes and results with specific actions and owners for each. Now, executing your firm’s strategy for employee engagement seems more attainable.

So, what should your firm include in your employee engagement strategy? Let’s explore the top five attributes employees look for from their workplace as identified by Gallup in their report.  And, let’s apply those attributes to your firm’s employee engagement strategy (and they apply to both retaining and recruiting talent).  Employees want their work environment to provide:

  1. The ability to do what they do best.
  2. According to Gallup, “When organizations and managers focus on giving people an opportunity to do what they do best, they can better attract, engage and retain employees.” To do this, leaders have to put aside the concern that others will feel left out or that it’s not “fair” if some employees have access to certain opportunities while others do not. Parity does not drive employee engagement. Parity causes us to manage and lead to the lowest level and our highest performers are not challenged or developed and often end up leaving.

    Instead, firms should create career paths and roles that play to an individual’s strength. The most engaging firms have moved away from a one-track “cookie-cutter” approach to career development to a multi- or unlimited career track environment, especially as firms work to develop and deliver more value-added and consulting services. Individual career conversations between a career advisor and his or her advisee that identify what that team member likes to do and wants to do more of as well as what they don’t like to do or would like to do less of will uncover the team member’s aspirations and ideas for their unique contribution to the firm.

    Gallup data show that a lack of development and career growth is the No. 1 reason employees leave a job.” To avoid this, set individual, one-size-fits one goals and help employees create and navigate a development plan that is meaningful to them and contributes to the firm’s purpose (see #5 below). Firms that customize career pathways will thrive, because people are working at their highest and best use, feel like they’re winning, and can see direct contributions from their efforts.

  1. Greater work-life balance and better personal well-being.
  2. People are focused on their lives, not only their jobs. They do not want to compromise one at the expense of the other. As such, 53% of employees say a role that allows them to have greater work-life balance and better personal well-being is “very important” to them,” according to the Gallup report. Most firms say that they offer flexible work programs – according to our 2018 Anytime, Anywhere Work™ Survey (full results will be out in October), 95% of firms report offering flexible time options and 98% offer remote work options. However, 24% of firms report, “Flex is not strategic for us and, while we have people using flex programs, there isn’t a lot of support for them, so some people feel guilty.” Gallup confirmed this disconnect between what employees perceive is available to them and how those programs are actually implemented. Gallup cited a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management that states only 44% of employees say their company offers flextime compared to 54% of human resource professionals.

    To shore up this perception gap, more frequent and more specific communication is required. Firm HR professionals and leaders should understand which benefits are most important to team members, as a whole and at the individual level, and then create specific targeted messages to ensure team members are aware of all that the firm has to offer and who to talk to for questions or how to access those benefits. Don’t rely on your firm’s orientation process and employee handbook as your sole expectation communications vehicles.

    Firm leaders have to ensure that they are walking the talk and supporting flexible work arrangements, too. This entails refraining from side comments that usually show up as sarcasm or jokes, or what we call “sludge,” about remote or flex workers (see my previous blog on The Biggest Barrier to Anytime, Anywhere Work – Sludge). Firms that have success with remote and flex workers have been shoring up communications gaps, including ensuring clear expectations are set about deliverables, timelines, availability and responsiveness between both traditional and remote or flex workers.

  1. Greater stability and job security.
  2. We can tell our team members that we’ve been in business for X years or this is the Nth generation of the firm. However, a personal, compelling story about how a firm weathered an economic downturn or how it handled consolidation of a particular client segment will better exemplify how your leadership has endured these normal business cycles. And, your team members want to know that your leadership team has a plan – and what that plan is – for the future so they can feel secure about it and therefore their own. According to Gallup, “Leaders have a duty to show employees where the organization is headed and inspire them to see a better tomorrow, especially when economic conditions change.”

    In public accounting, this includes a clear, mapped out succession plan with a plan for transition for retiring partners and leadership and career development (see #1) for your high potentials, as well as a buy/sell that is sustainable for the firm and future buyers. It also includes a plan for your firm’s growth, with a clear go-to-market strategy and development plan for future rainmakers, understanding that they will not necessarily develop business the way your retiring partners made rain. Plans to be future-ready in the areas of technology, process improvement, talent and client experience are required, too.

    Lastly, your team members have to witness follow through and accountability to the results of each plan to have true confidence in the future. This requires unity among the partner group by leaders both in action (following the plan) and word (not triangulating or having “outside the meeting” conversations that undermine the plan).

  1. A significant increase in income.
  2. According to the Gallup “41% of employees say a significant increase in income is “very important” to them when considering a new job. Highlighting compensation packages is important when recruiting employees (but not the only factor, so remember to highlight the others discussed here, too), and important for current employees to understand how they compare to market as well as how they can directly impact increases to their compensation. Firms need to ensure that they are paying at or above market and pay special attention to current employee salaries when hiring someone from the outside to determine if any compensation adjustments need to be made.

    Since an increase in compensation is often tied to a promotion, career paths and development plans are critical (as discussed in #1 above). And, tying compensation to individual performance, through a bonus program tied to goals or a business development incentive, are key, too, as is transparency (see my blog Asking For Transparency – What Does That Really Mean?)

  1. The opportunity to work for a company with a great brand or reputation.
  2. If a job were just a job, it would not matter where someone worked. But in a uniquely human twist, employees want meaning in their vocation. In fact, for millennials, it is among the strongest drivers of retention. Firms need to ensure that employees’ basic needs are met – compensation at or above market, health insurance, 401K plan, flexibility to meet demands outside of work, and learning and development. Beyond that other perks are “nice to have,” but not required according to Gallup.

    What is required is that firms have a clearly defined and articulated purpose – or “why” – that is tied to an actionable and measurable strategic plan. Then, develop employees’ goals so that they can see how they are directly contributing to that purpose. Employees want to feel good about their organization and what it offers the world. They want to be able to say, ‘I like what this company stands for.’” And according to Gallup, an organization’s brand can be the tie-breaker when the role, flexibility and compensation are equal.

    Firms should demonstrate the fulfillment of their brand using videos, images and stories in social media. Also consider including client and employee testimonials, media coverage about awards, events or social causes that highlight the firm’s purpose and how it makes a difference in the lives of its clients, team members and community.

An overarching message Gallup underscores throughout the report is the importance of the role of the manager in retaining and engaging employees. Gallup states, They {highly-engaged organizations} ensure that managers are engaging employees from the minute they show up on their first day. These organizations have well-defined and comprehensive development programs for leaders and managers, and they focus on the development of individuals and teams. Employee engagement is a fundamental consideration in their people strategy, not an annual “check the box” activity. According to Gallup, a manager or management is one of the top five reasons an employee leaves an organization. So, it’s critical that manager developing and training to transform your managers into effective coaches is an essential component of your employee engagement strategy.

Read the entire State of the American Workplace for more insights and specific actions you can incorporate into your employee engagement strategy. Be intentional by defining your employee engagement strategy if you don’t have one, the culture and behaviors your partners and leadership team are expected to demonstrate to foster employee engagement, and specific actions (and start with just a few), clear deliverables and by-when dates that you can report on to your entire team.

“The one thing leaders cannot do is nothing. They cannot wait for trends to pass them by, and they cannot wait for millennials to get older and start behaving like baby boomers.” ~ Gallup State of the American Workplace

Which employee engagement attributes have you found to be the most successful? What will you address next to increase employee engagement in your firm? Please share so firms working to solve this employee engagement puzzle can learn from you!