Especially in a tight labor market, companies are looking for ways to retain employees by taking care of them and ignite them to do great things in their careers and for the company. In this recent “We’re Only Human” podcast, Ben Eubanks, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research and John Taylor, practice development manager at RiseSmart, talked about some best practices for engagement, retention and productivity for HR leaders. Below is a recap of that conversation. Listen to the podcast in its entirety here.

Ben: What sort of things are companies thinking about in terms of engagement?

John: I’d categorize what I’m hearing into two groups. One is a “wait and see” strategy and the other is a “let’s plan proactively for what’s ahead.” I encourage both types of organizations to drive towards the end zone, to use a football analogy.

Companies are facing a very uncertain future. We know about the millennials, the gig economy, and the booming U.S. economy, and companies are nervous. HR leaders at these organizations are identifying the people who are top contributors now and the people with skills that will be needed in the future. And then, they’re finding ways to not just keep those people, but fully engage them.

While everyone is aware of what the predictions for the future are, how individual companies plan to get there varies. Some organizations are holding back and waiting for the dust to settle while others are moving ahead. Those who realize that the dust never settles are moving from workforce planning to workforce shaping – which is more than just semantics. It’s about thinking strategically, agile thinking, and doing scenario planning.

Ben: When someone sees that their industry is about to go through disruptions, how do you help someone evaluate what that impact is going to be for their company and for their people?

John: I think I’d start by getting an historical perspective and ask the following questions:

  • What sort of disruptive changes have you been a part of in the past?
  • What happened at that time?
  • How did you proceed to change?
  • Did your organization and or people develop resiliency?
  • Has your organization developed the awareness that change can be a good thing?

Depending on the response, I would help them understand that the world ahead is largely unpredictable and as a result, we want to continue to grow and develop a hunger for change.  As the landscape continues to changes, our ability to learn and apply our learnings and the skills to whatever new opportunities come along is going to be absolutely critical.

Related content: Finding the Human Factor in Change Management

HR leaders and other executives within organizations need to ask themselves, “What’s my readiness for change?” If you jump into one of those later steps without really having grounded yourself on what’s ahead, it could set you back in terms of making the best use of your time that you devote to really influencing the future.

The answer to how to respond to an unknown future is never obvious. The answer is going to call for people to be creative and adaptive. Everyone has the potential and the talents and skills to really make a significant impact on the organization and the business world. And we in HR, I think, we have an obligation to ignite those combustible ingredients and really transform the business landscape.

Ben: You’ve talked about creativity and agility and these are types of things I consider soft skills.

Soft skills are hard to quantify, they’re hard to measure, they’re hard to teach in some cases, but those are the critical points for someone to survive and thrive in the way we work today.

John: Absolutely. And the difference between someone who is just carried down the stream and someone who’s got the ability to swim and to swim upstream and do it almost effortlessly, is this whole concept of resiliency. My concept of resiliency as it relates to how we equip ourselves for what’s ahead is not simply the bounce back, but to reorient oneself in such a way that the person becomes more aware and becomes stronger and more capable of dealing with change and challenges that come their way at points down the road.

Related content: How to Build Resilience in Organizations Undergoing Change

If you don’t have the ability to embrace change and leverage it, they you’re simply going to always be in a reactive mode that’s tremendously stressful to the body and the mind. It calls for almost a different mindset as to how we help the business in which we operate. To really transform ourselves and teams in such a way that we end up with the complete makeup and knowledge, combined with adaptability and resiliency means we come out of this saying, “There’s nothing we can’t do. Let’s bring it on.”

“If you don’t have the ability to embrace change and leverage it, they you’re simply going to always be in a reactive mode that’s tremendously stressful to the body and the mind.” John Taylor @KarenScates1 #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

Ben: Let’s talk about some creative ideas, tactics, strategies for keeping people engaged.

John: Lots of companies have put significant focus on providing flexibility to their employees – hours, schedule, work schedules, locations, and even benefits. Depending on who you are, those options can be incredibly helpful and can make you feel like your employer really understands your world. As a result, your engagement goes up.

In other cases, companies are putting more focus on recognition with a micro approach. Mass recognition of the same type doesn’t do much anymore. Instead, it needs to be customized to the individual where possible. Recognition needs to mean something to the individual and it needs to be delivered on a timely basis. Companies are putting some innovative thinking into the whole recognition aspect. When they dial it in correctly for their employees, almost one by one, you can see the increases in engagement and retention.

“Companies are putting some innovative thinking into the whole recognition aspect. When they dial it in correctly for their employees, almost one by one, you can see the increases in engagement and retention.” John Taylor @KarenScates1 #SmartTalkHR

Companies are also putting more emphasis on mentoring. It could be offering mentoring from someone more senior, or someone from another function, and even the opportunity to mentor someone else. When there are options to contribute in different ways, employees feel like they have a range of ways to contribute. That can lead to increased momentum, in terms of that person’s perspective on the organization. Engagement goes up and when people spread the word to their peers, it can lead to a groundswell of greater appreciation for the opportunities the organization provides.

Finally, organizations are putting more focus on helping their employees grow and develop, not simply raise their engagement. They’re creating a workforce that is more capable and has greater possibilities for moving into different roles. Career development isn’t simply a path to promotion, although there are people who think like that.

However, career development has taken on a whole different color because now growing and development one’s career often entails horizontal opportunities as well as potentially vertical ones. Opportunities to be a part of some key project teams, to take on special assignments, to be on committees, gives employees the opportunity to not only learn some new and different things, but to get greater visibility amongst leaders with whom those employees don’t normally interact -- opening up opportunities in different functional areas.

Related content: How to Improve Productivity and Engagement

The challenge is that engagement can be hard to measure. Engagement surveys help get a general pulse on how different opportunities are viewed by employees, but it really does take a combination of an attempt to measure the impact combined with good old-fashioned conversations with employees. Combining qualitative feedback on a one-on-one basis, along with any other data that you have at your disposal is one way to approach measuring impact.

Employee engagement is on the shoulders of HR

Ben: As HR professionals, we have to create these opportunities for people and it’s on our shoulders. At the same time, it's a big responsibility, but it's also a big opportunity to do great things and help people find what they love, what they enjoy, what their strengths are, and to leverage those and make work just an amazing experience for them and the company reaps the benefit for that.

John: I think that it's not simply a nice thing for us to do as HR practitioners. I think it's a needed thing because the nice part means if it works out, then we feel really good about what's happened. But I will submit that the way the world is going in the global economy, we have to find ways to be more efficient, more effective, and more competitive.

In an older world, in HR, we tended to lean into the policies and procedures and employees needed to kind of step in line. At various times, and still in certain places, that's incredibly important. But at the same time, we, as HR professionals, to be more strategic than ever, to be more proactive than ever, to do more about situations or brainstorming where we say, "Well, what if?" or "Why not?" and be a catalyst for important change. I'd rather have it start with HR leading the charge versus waiting until we hear about it from some other organization or part of the world. We've got this incredible opportunity. Let's really seize the day and leverage all of our talents and passions and knowledge in HR and break free of the shackles of "same old, same old.”

Hear the podcast in its entirety at or share this episode and blog with another HR leader who might see it as a valuable resource in their daily work.

01 February 2019

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