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3 Insights from 3 Days at HCI Employee Engagement Conference

/ 8.3.15

Industry conferences can be hit or miss. Like Goldilocks’ search for the perfect porridge, vendors like us can leave a conference thinking it was too big/too small, too broad/too narrow, or too academic/too practical. We spent last week at HCI’s IMG_3692[12]Employee Engagement Conference in San Francisco. For those on the front lines of architecting highly engaged workplaces, this event was just right.


Imagine 350 HR executives mixed with 20ish leading vendors spending three days digging deep in all things employee engagement. We heard from major brands like Tesla, Salesforce, and Colombia Sportswear. Equally as impressive were presentations from emerging growth stories like Hulu, Box, Tufts Health Plan, and Credit Karma. Let me share my notes on the three most compelling observations I brought home from this event.


1. Engagement always starts with the voice of the employee.

Vendors, researchers, and practitioners don’t seem to be arguing about nuanced definitions of engagement and complex models anymore. Just a few years ago, presentations at events like these almost always started with one slide defining “employee engagement” and a second, more colorful slide showing an “engagement model” replete with arrows and cool geometric shapes. And presenter after presenter would each have meaningful differences in those definitions and models. I didn’t see that last week. That doesn’t mean the world conformed to a single universal definition. In fact, I sensed cynicism about the idea that a universal engagement model exists. It was most evident each time a speaker mentioned “I have a best friend at work” and earned venial laughter from the audience. I believe those on the leading edge of engagement science have learned to accept that engagement is best defined and modeled at the company level—and sometimes perhaps at the team level. Today, leaders are building employee engagement surveys and programs based on what they WANT engagement to look like at their company—not what they read about in the last HBR article. And the programs they’re building have employee feedback loops at the beginning and the end.


2. There is a gap between what HR leaders are describing as their biggest challenge and what engagement vendors are prescribing.

Practitioners are collectively saying, “we need help figuring out how to DRIVE engagement, not just measure it.” Yet most of the established vendors and the start-ups seemed to be focused on increasing the frequency of feedback loops (think pulse surveys). Problem: more instances of feedback will not be helpful at companies whose biggest challenge is demonstrating action on survey data. Asking the same questions more frequently could even create bigger problems. Think about Tesla, Screenshot 2015-08-03 09.11.53 arguably one of the most innovative companies in the world. @LouisEfron started from a blank page when his team designed its first ever engagement survey. And they designed their core engagement survey to be administered annually. The moral of the story? For those looking for fresh ideas with engagement survey programs, focus more on how and when to equip managers for acting on results. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking daily, weekly, or monthly surveys offer true “innovation.”


3. Analytics for Return-on-Engagement seems to have shifted from company-wide linkage down to individual employees.


Everyone was talking about performance. But instead of full organizational performance like linking engagement to revenue growth or profitability, the discussion involved engaging humans at a micro level. Analytics-minded leaders want to know, if Jackie is all 6's on our survey, will she stay? Will she crush her performance goals? Will she be a brand advocate? This is interesting territory. Engagement data has always been confidential. And the more curious we get about linking engagement to micro indicators, the more pressure we’ll have to begin attributing employee feedback to the individual. This is still a ways off. But for now, know that the gate between employee engagement and performance management has fallen down. Employers want to merge data sets between employee attitudes AND behaviors. This opens up opportunity to re-imagine performance management. What if performance was less about annual reviews and more about ongoing recognition, goal setting, and goal attainment?


Thanks HCI. Creating a great conference experience is hard. And you delivered.


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