According to the Human Capital Institute, companies with highly engaged employees enjoy profit growth at three times the rate of their competitors, and increased engagement reduces turnover—one of the largest hidden costs in business—by 87 percent. How can a restaurant owner move past the “buzzword” phase and truly transform enthusiasm fakers, paycheck collectors and clock-watchers into employees who truly feel like they have a stake in the restaurant’s success?
Michael Houlihan, coauthor along with Bonnie Harvey of The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand (Evolve Publishing), says there are no shortcuts to creating an engaged workforce. He speaks from experience. He and Harvey are the founders of Barefoot Cellars, the company that transformed the image of American wine from staid and unimaginative to fun, lighthearted and hip. When they started their company in the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse, they knew almost nothing about winemaking, the wine business or leading a company. The Barefoot Spirit, a New York Times bestseller, tells their California-style rags-to-riches story in a compelling and colorful fashion and reveals just what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.
“Michael and I learned early on that our growth and success depended on our employees: how hard they worked, the ideas they had, how committed they were when times got tough, the types of relationships they formed with customers and so much more,” Harvey says. “Keeping our employees inspired and happy, and honestly acknowledging how much we appreciated their loyalty and efforts, were some of our top priorities as business owners.”
Here are 11 tactics Houlihan and Harvey recommend to bump up engagement among employees:
1. First, ask yourself: Would I work for me? Before you can make much progress in increasing employee engagement, you need an accurate understanding of what it’s like to work at your company right now. Houlihan recommends asking yourself the following questions and answering honestly—even if doing so makes you uncomfortable:
• Do I treat my employees’ labor as a commodity? Do I try to figure out how little they will work for? Or do I see my people as an asset, rewarding them for performance and acknowledging their achievements?
• Do I acknowledge producers publicly, or am I afraid they will ask for a raise?
• Do I think that giving time off will cause me to increase or lose production?
• Do I see medical and retirement benefits as a cost or as an investment in long-term stability?
“If you’re fooling yourself about what it’s like to work at your company, you won’t make much progress in increasing engagement,” Houlihan points out. “You need to make sure that you aren’t falsely blaming outside factors for low morale, low productivity, low enthusiasm and high turnover if you’re really to blame. Take your temperature in this area on a regular basis.”
2. Hire smart. Some job seekers are looking for just that: a job, a way to fill their days and pay their bills. Others are looking for something more: a career. Career seekers don’t just desire a paycheck; they’re looking for purpose, fulfillment, education and advancement within your company. For that reason, they are much more likely to engage with your company (and stay engaged) as long as you provide them proper incentive.
“A good rule of thumb is to avoid hiring solely based on someone’s technical skill set,” Harvey advises. “You can always teach that. Instead, hire people with foundational qualities you can build on: integrity, enthusiasm, a willingness to learn, a sense of humor and a sincere interest in your business, to name a few. A good way to test this is to give job candidates a verbal run-down of the position, your company’s challenges and your expectations for the position. Then, have the candidate send you a one-page summary on a deadline. This will tell you volumes.”
Giving employees tools to thrive
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3. Go overboard with orientation. After bringing new employees on board, don’t stop with job-specific orientation and explain your system. “When everyone clearly understands what’s going on both inside and outside of their own areas of responsibility, they’ll be more invested in the overall organization,” Houlihan explains. “At Barefoot, we spent hours making sure each member of our staff understood the ‘whys’ of what we were asking them to do. This extra time and energy spent in big-picture education paid off handsomely with fewer mistakes, fewer misunderstandings and more efficiency.”
4. Share the wealth (as long as people are helping create it, that is). No worker is going to turn down a generous paycheck. And yes, a higher-than-average salary will often prevent employees from jumping ship and going over to the competition. But employees who stay with you solely for the sake of money are merely mercenaries, points out Harvey. To create true engagement, she says, you must tie money, employees’ personal success and the future of your organization inextricably together.
“Sharing the wealth allows you to reduce turnover, attract go-getters, and motivate people to produce even more,” Harvey says. “Best of all, increased profit is ‘found money’—it really costs you nothing. With this compensation system, non-producers can’t afford to work for you, and producers can’t afford to leave.”
For obvious reasons, employees feel very positively toward an employer who says, “Hey, you know what? Why don’t you take a day off? You deserve it. And it won’t come out of your vacation or sick days.” Not so obvious, but equally true, is that these unworked hours won’t mean a loss of productivity and revenue.
“At Barefoot, we decided to give employees a Friday off during each month that didn’t already have a built-in three-day weekend,” Houlihan shares. “We found that these ‘Barefoot Days,’ as we called them, didn’t hurt productivity at all. Our folks regularly put in extra hours to finish their work before the weekend. They didn’t want to take their unfinished projects with them, or worse, worry about them while they were on holiday. And when they returned, they were recharged, refreshed, and ready to get back to work.
6. Be a mentoring matchmaker. King Arthur had Merlin. Harry Potter had Professor Dumbledore. And Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi. While your business operates in the real world instead of in the fictional realm, you can still learn a valuable lesson from these famous pairs: Mentoring works. When a new employee comes on board, try to match him up with a more experienced worker who can advise, teach, challenge, and encourage him.
“Mentoring relationships boost employee engagement in multiple ways,” explains Harvey. “When rookies are taken under the wings of respected veterans, they learn more quickly, make fewer mistakes and have tangible evidence that their employer cares about their success on a personal level. And on the other hand, asking experienced employees to guide new hires shows these veterans that you notice and value their expertise.
“Overall, mentoring relationships guarantee that valuable institutional knowledge is passed on while knitting your team more closely together,” she adds.
Appreciate your staff
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7. Say “thank you.” In a recent Gallup survey, 57 percent of disengaged employees said they felt ignored at work. Well, isn’t that what employees want—to not be micromanaged, and to be left alone to do their jobs in peace without commentary from management? you ask. Not exactly. While nobody wants to hear a constant stream of criticism or anxiously delivered “suggestions” from the boss, workers do want to know that they’re doing well. According to one New York Times commentator, “regular praise…would go a long way toward getting the checked-out to check back in.” And Houlihan agrees.
“A great way to build team spirit is to send out written acknowledgments or make an announcement when a person does something that positively affects business,” he adds. “At Barefoot, we did this on each employee’s anniversary. Not only does saying ‘thank you’ as publicly as possible give individual employees the warm fuzzies, it causes the whole team to gain more respect for their coworkers.”
In many companies, employees avoid making mistakes at all costs. After all, who wants to be called into the boss’s office for a harsh lecture, or even worse, be chastised publicly in the middle of a staff meeting? Yes, responding harshly to employees’ mistakes might cause them to occur less frequently, but only because it stifles the spirit of creativity, innovation and growth that inspires people to take the risks that can lead to mistakes. (Hint: That’s a bad thing.)
“Employees who are afraid of doing something wrong will never live up to their full potentials or take any unnecessary risks—including the kind that pay off big,” Harvey comments. “They’ll also feel like children who dread displeasing a parent, instead of valued partners in their company’s success. Your employees shouldn’t be afraid to make or report mistakes (unless, of course, they involve bad behavior or an inability to perform, which should not be overlooked).”
She adds: “At Barefoot, our approach to mistakes was to say, ‘Congratulations! You found a new way to screw up, and that’s a good thing. We didn’t know that this could happen, but now that it has, we can keep it from happening again.’ Then we would brainstorm what went wrong and make technical adjustments. ‘Celebrating’ mistakes in this way not only helped us to make real progress and lasting improvements; it also used a potentially divisive situation to bind employees closer to our goals and mission.”
Remember your values
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9. Tap into your values. According to Gallup, only 41 percent of employees say that they know what their companies stand for. If that’s the case in your organization, you’re missing a golden opportunity to add meaning to your employees’ work. While employees will (and often do) work solely for financial reasons, they’ll feel more motivated and more loyal to you when they also have a social reason to do their jobs.
“This is a concept that we applied to Barefoot from the start, and to great success,” Harvey recalls. “From our earliest days, we made it clear to our team and to our customers that we wanted to use any growth and success Barefoot Wine might experience to help worthy causes. These centered around local parks, civil rights and environmentalism, which Michael and I had felt strongly about long before creating our company. Even when we didn’t have cash to spare, we still donated bottles of wine, as well as our time, to events that various nonprofit organizations held in our community.
“Far from being unwilling to participate in these ‘non-work-related’ activities and efforts, our employees pitched in wholeheartedly and looked forward to working with our partner nonprofits,” Harvey continues. “They loved being associated with an organization that was actively working to make their community a better place.”
10. Have heart. Your attitude and outlook will affect those of your employees. If you come to work each day excited about what your organization does, optimistic about its future and happy to spend time with your team, there’s a good chance your employees will feel the same way. On the flip side, if you’re a grumbling, grouchy, pessimistic Scrooge, your employees probably won’t be able to jump ship soon enough.
“The type of attitude that creates employee engagement—which Bonnie and I call ‘heart’—isn’t something you can fake,” Houlihan warns. “Instead, it’s something you have to find within yourself. Heart is what drives you. It’s the way you look at the world around you. Heart is about your belief in your own eventual success, regardless of the odds, the naysayers, or the time it takes. It’s the tenacity that keeps you going. Heart is having a sense of humor in the face of hardship and not taking yourself too seriously. It is about being true to your core values. In a nutshell, heart is what makes you feel good about what you do—and helps your employees to feel good about what they do, too.”