The Key To Employee Engagement? A Sense Of Belonging

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Hannah Yardley, chief people and culture officer at Achievers Workforce Institute, on how to make talent feel valued.

How do employers increase the chances that their key talent will stick around? 

Foster their sense of belonging, says Hannah Yardley, chief people and culture officer at Achievers Workforce Institute, based in Toronto, Canada. Yardley spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how this and other supportive measures can lead to greater retention—and productivity.

Talent shortages are a major challenge across industries, while employee engagement is also suffering. How would you advise HR leaders to approach a talent acquisition and retention strategy? 

We’re in the second year of the supply and demand for talent, and what was considered a minor thorn in year one has turned into a gaping wound in year two. Organizations are reeling from the impact and ripple effect that constant high attrition has on their employees. Existing employees are grappling with high stress and extreme burnout—symptoms of survivor syndrome—and business results are likely to begin to suffer if they haven’t already.

HR leaders across industries are aware of all that though, it’s no secret, but they are struggling to arm themselves with the right knowledge to impact both recruitment and retention strategies. Thankfully there is insight now that finds the feeling of belonging is absolutely critical. It is known that employees with a strong sense of belonging are twice as likely to be engaged—leading to higher productivity, resiliency, and a more enthusiastic and committed experience. The question that HR leaders should be considering now is: how do you continue to create moments where a sense of belonging gets reinforced?

At Achievers, this idea of belonging is reinforced at each stage of the employee journey. So while we have a comprehensive welcoming process for all new hires, it begins before they even start working. Because we know that culture is so important, each employee needs to witness what we highlighted in the recruitment process within the early days of their onboarding experience. However, it can’t stop there—create opportunities in the first 90 days and beyond to consistently re-welcome, re-include and re-connect employees at each step of their journey. 

As leaders continue to adapt and react to the changing workforce, how has the shifted dynamic impacted the relationship between C-Suite execs, HR leaders and employees?

I see one of the largest shifts in culture as the balance of choice in the employee experience. 

For so long, the employee experience was what the organization and HR chose to deliver to their employees. Most of the time it hit a decent number of elements the employee was looking for, but in recent years that is no longer good enough. There has been a shift toward the employee voice in influencing the decisions regarding their experiences. Employees are moving away from simply accepting what was once deemed “normal.” They are now advocating their demands for flexibility and changes such as remote work and hours of work.  

For companies and leaders that can’t accept the shift in this new world of work or are slow in adapting, it will continue to have an impact on their overall retention strategy. A recent survey found that 39 percent of employees would be willing to job hunt to get their preferred working conditions, citing their top three reasons to job hunt as being for career progression, better work-life balance, and better compensation and corporate benefits.

What types of processes and strategies can HR leaders implement to support employee engagement? 

I believe that recognition is at the heart of employee engagement. Not only does it help reinforce the right behaviors, but it boosts morale and deepens the connection with an employee—fostering a true sense of belonging.

In a recent report from the Achievers Workforce Institute, 46 percent of respondents who were recognized weekly reported that they were highly engaged and more likely to recommend their company to others. Two-thirds also stated that feeling recognized would reduce their desire to job hunt. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of respondents who are never recognized said they are highly engaged in their current role and of those only 3 percent would recommend their company to others. 

Recognition may sound simple in theory but there are many factors to consider in how recognition is delivered. Specifically, organizations and leaders should focus on meaningful recognition. Meaning that the recognition should highlight something specific the person did, spotlight the individual or something they value, or focus on the way in which the person being recognized made a difference to the person giving recognition. 

However, HR leaders also understand that salary and compensation are still key. Forms of reward and recognition have been used to compensate for the increasing struggle with employee engagement, but none so dramatically as base compensation. In this current market, compensation has become a major attractor and differentiator for those that place significant emphasis on keeping up with market rates.

While I’m a strong believer that total rewards are more than a paycheck, I recognize that it’s hard to compete with the paycheck that’s consistently in your bank account every couple of weeks. We don’t have that same kind of consistent communication plan with any other total rewards, and so from that perspective alone, it’s hard to compete. 

That is, with the exception of recognition. 

Recognition is something that is frequently top of mind and impacting employee feelings of belonging, inclusion, connectivity—and therefore retention. More than half of employees actually state that feeling recognized for their efforts would reduce the negative impact of a salary freeze.

If your employees are feeling burned out or concerned about their productivity, traditional reward approaches with compensation can only go so far. Organizations need to double down on the things that make employees feel valued and supported, which means leading with a strong recognition strategy.

Some experts say that DEI is the most overlooked issue facing HR today. What practices are critical for HR leaders focused on inclusion and belonging?

When employees experience their workplace as a welcoming and safe environment, their engagement increases, their productivity ramps up and they’re more likely to share ideas that can contribute to greater company-wide innovation. Yet, despite the indisputable importance of organizational inclusion, just 36 percent of employees say that their leaders create empowering environments where they feel a true sense of belonging.

Many organizations have implemented a formal DEI program in recent years. These programs play a significant role in advancing efforts of inclusion and belonging, but as is true with many aspects of workplace change, real transformation will only happen with a shared mindset and relatable workplace initiatives woven into day-to-day interactions across the entire workforce.

One way to achieve more integrated DEI is through the support of a recognition program. Recent data has suggested that recognition programs can help to promote diversity and inclusion by serving as a key driver of welcoming and inclusive behavior within organizations. Layering in recognition at every level also encourages managers and employees to recognize each other for taking an active role in D&I initiatives, and for expressing their unique ideas, perspectives and skillsets. This type of recognition behavior not only promotes a more inclusive culture but also helps to accelerate the advancement of diversity among employees.

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