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Had written this article for Xoxoday on 'employee engagement'. After I left the company, it appears someone in SEO/content added irrelevant images to the post; I don't approve of it. - Shantanu.

5 Unique Employee Engagement Strategies to Deploy in 2020

Ensuring an employee’s well-being and career growth are two of the most powerful employee engagement strategies that the HR leaders can plan for in 2020. Gallup’s research has proven that talking to employees about their career growth periodically, creating a feeling of being cared for, and helping them build a tribe to belong to ensures deeper engagement. Here are some practical initiatives to execute at your company in 2020.

Tour of Duty

Companies of all sizes - large or small - often have a reactive approach when it comes to employee retention and engagement - hire for new skills and fire employees to save costs. The approach seems legitimate, serves the business requirements in the short term, but becomes counter-productive in the long term. Employees too take the clue from such arrangements, behave like free-agents and jump the jobs whenever a new opportunity comes their way.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn proposes an adaptive approach in one of his books The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. The approach is called ‘the tour of duty’. The concept comes from the military where officers work on a single assignment or deployment and then move on to the next, defining their entire military career. This helps them grow their skills and experience, and avoid reaching an unexpected plateau in their careers. They get to know the entire organisation rather than feeling stuck in a single role for years. The organization also gets to develop the talent from an internal pool of employees and solve their succession problems.

In the ‘tour of duty’ approach, the company and the employee agree on deliverables and expectations from each other, and the timeline of the tour. At the end of one tour, the employee may choose to go on another tour of duty within the company, instead of choosing one with a competitor.

Isn’t it counter-intuitive to encourage employees to seek new assignments? The start-up world has demonstrated that encouraging entrepreneurial employees actually makes employees stay deeply involved. Will they leave if the company fails to provide another tour of duty? Yes! But keeping such employees even for a relatively shorter time may provide huge benefits to the company and of course, the employee as well.

How is ‘tour of duty’ different than normal -”hire, check for performance, continue or let go”? In the case of ‘tour of duty’, it is amply clear that the arrangement is going to end. The promise to the employee is not just a salary; it is increasing his / her employability. The duration is pre-decided and it is usually kept at two years. There is no fuzzy expectation of “being a good employee” and no fuzzy commitment to the employee. Time-limited mutual commitment with clear goals and expectations is the hallmark of ‘tour of duty’. This may seem transactional, but is better than buying time for money and driving employee retention via vague notions of loyalty.

Alumni Networks and Employee Peer Networks

Some of the leading technology companies such as Intuit actively run alumni networks. The benefit is obvious - tap into the network intelligence. At one end, such initiatives enable HR to tap back into the past talent for a rehire or get recommendations on new hires. However, more importantly, companies stand to benefit from the knowledge and information with people outside the company.

Traditional wisdom may dictate to shun away past employees, sign strict contracts, treat exists as permanent. However, once again, lessons from start-ups and some forward-looking organisations have demonstrated that it is far more rewarding to engage alumni and employee networks than to shun it without maintaining undue apprehension.

Build and activate the network of your employees. Teach them how to seek and reach out to such networks. Inform your employees about non-public vs proprietary information. The latter is confidential and must not leave the walls of the company. On the other hand, non-public information is what they can exchange and seek, such as newer trends they are observing in the industry, changes in the technology, etc. Encourage them to expense meals with outsiders and in return share their learning within the company. Create an alumni network on LinkedIn, organize major events at company premises, invite influencers to speak, offer free tickets to your alumni and their guests. Take every opportunity to build relations. If you don’t have enough resources to pull off such elaborate programs, simply go round the table, ask for new information that the team has come across lately. And in return, simply offer heartfelt appreciation to share this information which they might have gathered from alumni or their own network. Eventually, employees will start recognising networks and actively manage those.

Employee Well-being Support Mechanisms

Whether you like it or not, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, your employees do come to work while they are battling challenges in their personal lives - broken relationships, major health issues, terminally ill family members; the list is endless. The common wisdom will guide you to expect employees to come unaffected to work and deliver 100% on their goals and shine. However, as the HR leader, you know that your engagement programs are probably not giving you desired results because you are not connecting with your employees deeply enough.

Patty Azzarello, a former corporate leader and a now business consultant and coach, mentions that she was able to increase the engagement and performance of her team members with a simple question “what do you want me to worry about you?”. With this simple question, she created a trusted environment for people to open up and share their vulnerabilities in personal lives which were affecting their performance. She then went on to facilitate helping the employee transition out of his / her challenge by offering support.

How do you as the HR leader bring about such strategies in your organisation and institutionalise those? Consider engaging experts - be it life coaches, trained instructors from globally recognised spiritual organisations, lawyers, physicians, etc. who provide life skills and expert advice on a regular basis. Formal programs such as these which are done continually offer employees a chance to go deeper and make the most of these facilities. Don’t just organise dental check-ups. Go beyond and invest in your employees in a structured manner and more deeply. Sure, there would be cost associated. But think of the cost of attrition and the cost of disengagement which is huge. Such programs offer HR the opportunity to improve employee productivity, engagement on the job, and other associated metrics which directly impact the firm’s profitability.

Business Know-how

People, in general, are stuck in their small world - limited friends, limited issues about life and work. With this view, even a small problem assumes a big disturbance. But once we truly realise how nominal our existence is on the planet and the galaxy, we get a bigger and newer perspective about our lives. Similar is the situation at modern workplaces.

Most likely, employees at your organisation are busy with their core jobs - day in and day out, without knowledge of what’s happening in other teams and divisions or geographies. A technical team member might not be interested in how marketing is promoting the company’s software products. And a salesperson might not be interested in how logistic is meeting the challenges around inventory, and pilferage. Perhaps all they know is via the newsletter from the CEO. And that siloed work environment makes their world too small within the company. This limited vision about their work and the company’s operations makes it easier to trip off and disengagement can happen at any time. Employees get stuck with very minor discomforts and may end up leaving jobs or underperforming.

There is a way out of this. Make them see the larger picture. Make them see where their job fits into the money-making for the company. Help them understand how the company fits into the overall industry and how perhaps the industry is fairing with the overall economy. Encourage them to teach and share business know-how. Formalise routine programs where such know-how exchange happens. Document and socialise these learnings. Start with understanding the nuances of your company.

As the business book author Josh Kafuman outlines, to understand any business, know the five core parts of any business - value creation, marketing, sales, value delivery, and finance. Value creation is about creating a product or service to offer to the customers, marketing is about generating interest of customers, sales is about signing up customers and accepting money, and finally value delivery is about actually delivering products and services the customers have paid for. Apply the same model to understand businesses which are similar to that of yours. Such foundational models will help HR to understand the business themselves and garner support of the leadership and managers to improve the business know-how of all the employees, thereby creating meaning around their jobs.

Inter-team Collaboration

Not just in large companies, but even in companies with 150+ employees, teams compete more than they should be collaborating with each other. This is one of the major problem areas which business leaders face. HR leaders can play a key role in helping business leaders achieve the required collaboration among teams and business units and improving the productivity of the entire organization. Teams bid for the same projects and compete to get a major share. They try to hire and build skills for themselves instead of borrowing those from other teams. Eventually, the skill sets in the entire organisation get skewed, and business leaders find themselves in difficulty of maturing the organisation with more relevant skills to deliver on new business opportunities. Who is then asked to solve this skills conundrum? You, the HR leader!

Such scenarios of lack of collaboration and inter-division rivalries happen as teams do not understand the roles that play to create value and deliver value. They may understand at an information level, but they might not have internalised other team’s challenges and uniqueness. Take this opportunity and make them wear each other’s hats or get into each other’s shoes.

Consider this case at the Diagnostic Imaging unit at Toronto’s Hospital for sick children. Case Reference:

At the hospital, kids are required to undergo an MRI scan. If they don’t remain still for 4 minutes, it makes the job of MRI technicians difficult, increasing the time of completing a single scan and thereby delaying other kids. Lab technicians demanded that kids be sedated, while the nurses opposed the idea of sedating young patients for two hours for a process that could be completed in 10 minutes. These differences further reduced the collaboration between the technicians and the nurses affecting the whole hospital’s service delivery. Multiple attempts to make these two groups work together failed until in training sessions, they were asked to reverse their roles. Each group then enacted the abuses, the problems, and the complaints that they would often receive. Soon enough they realised each other’s situations and started coming up with ideas to better collaborate. Eventually, the hospital was able to bring down the MRI scan time significantly, maintain a continual collaboration between the nurses and the technicians and improve the overall profitability.

You as the HR leader can identify and facilitate such collaborations as respective business leaders may not be able to achieve this due to systemic constraints.


Many of these engagement strategies would force you to go beyond your comfort zone, revisit your definition of employee engagement programs, and perhaps make you uncomfortable in the board room. However if you stick it at, these employee engagement strategies will most certainly give you the maximum return on investment. Which ones are you going to start with in the year 2020?

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