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Looking For Employee Engagement Ideas? Look Beyond Ping Pong Tables!

I realize now how naive I was when I entered the workforce in 2010. With the post-recession economy barely emerging, the insufferable optimist in me was confident about my job prospects. And I did land a job! In lower Manhattan! In an iconic skyscraper with tons of elevators! Alas, I soon realized the opportunity would not pan out. At 21 years old, I thought I wanted an office with the newest and greatest employee engagement tools. I wanted to work in a place that had racquetball courts, scooters, free lunch, and a CEO that addressed employees like a motivational speaker. The experience ended in disappointment, but not because my office wasn’t a hipster country club.

 I soon realized that a traditional office environment worked fine for me but poor information management did not. Important working documents and case studies were kept in brown accordion folders. Those folders were arranged on any horizontal surface in the office -- bookshelves, the sofa, on top boxes filled with other files -- and in no particular order. My proposals to create a digital workplace were denied and I grew despondent seeing a future of searching forever for files that might not exist. I left the job.

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Fast forward a few years and I am sitting in our consulting firm’s office after returning from a conference for the Technology Affinity Group (TAG) in New Orleans. TAG is a group of mostly large family and community foundations with significant and evolving IT needs. The attendees of the conference were mostly information officers, IT managers, systems analysts, trainer supervisors, and operations managers. At one session, the speaker asked how many people routinely heard staff say they couldn’t find information that was known to be in a system of record. Next question: how many of you would say that employees use email as a content filing system? Nearly 100% of attendees raised their hands. It turns out that the kind of excruciating pain points I had encountered in my first job were mirrored at some of the world’s most progressive and influential foundations. My reaction at that time was to run for the hills. Did staff at these organizations feel the same way?

How often do you read articles about a new office setup that will improve your company culture and increase productivity? It’s a staple on my LinkedIn feed. Team lunches, standing desks, mindfulness meetings, flex schedules, all were supposed to revolutionize the way we work. But what if employee engagement is only marginally influenced by how desks, bodies, and computers are arranged? What if ping pong tables and dance parties are only engaging because of their novelty and not because they fundamentally change the way we work? Gasp… What if your HR department just fell into a consumerist trap and purchased all this stuff as a quick fix to avoid solving more complicated challenges? 

The key to engaging your employees is making sure that they have the resources to do their jobs. In most cases, these resources are in the form of content - knowledge, information or data that’s somewhere in your company but may be nearly impossible to find. Oftentimes this content is hidden deep within the most complex systems: your employees’ brains. It’s a common trope in knowledge management that 80% of knowledge is tacit and the other 20% is explicit. That means that any employee, no matter their aptitude, is probably missing four fifths of the knowledge that their predecessor had when they left. If their employer cannot capture some of that information, the new employee will almost certainly feel lost and disengaged from day one.

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Over the past few years, Gallup has compiled a collection of employee engagement statistics that paint a dismal picture of the American workforce. These low engagement trends are especially strong with millennials, who will soon make up the largest generation in your office.

I won’t rehash Gallup’s conclusions but there are a few figures here that are telling. Only a third of American employees actually know what’s expected of them on a daily basis! A similar number of American workers report that they are not engaged at the workplace with millennials feeling the least engaged. A minority of millennials feel like they have learned something new in the past month and the majority of them are open to new job opportunities. Perhaps most telling, when Americans look for new jobs they are not just looking for a different position with their current employers. 90% of those seeking new jobs leave the companies they are with.

Millennials want to learn and we perceive frequent and meaningful learning as an important component to our professional development. Most of us are happy to entertain a new job offer, too. If requisite knowledge in your company is not being found and learning isn’t taking place, you can plan to bid farewell to your best young talent. I don’t think these trends are true of just millennials. Everyone in the 21st century constantly seeks out new knowledge and the growth of entire cottage industries supporting DIY projects is evidence of that. And 9 out of 10 American workers will not only leave the job they’re in if they’re not engaged, they’ll leave the company! That’s not an indicator of one bad boss or the wrong job description, that means employees have a problem with the fundamental functioning of their organizations. 

You would never accomplish a woodworking job if every nail you needed was hidden in a different place. A law clerk would never ask a judge to search around a courtroom for case files. Why would you expect an employee to explore the annals of your digital and physical filing systems just to find one piece of information that is crucial to them completing an assigned task? If you are looking for employee engagement ideas, consider that it might not be the lack of a zen garden in your office. It might be that they just can’t find the information and knowledge they need to do their jobs. 

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