By Gloria Lombardi

Tim Eisenhauer is President and Co-founder of Axero Solutions, the company behind Communifire’s modern, flexible intranet solution.

Eisenhauer is also the author of the newly released ‘Who the Hell Wants to Work for You: Mastering Employee Engagement’, a manual that takes a practical approach to core employee engagement topics.

In this interview, he discusses the studies he undertook in order to base his book in reality. He explains how to tackle the “employee disengagement epidemic”, and why it is now critical to fix this enormous problem.

Gloria Lombardi: What prompted you to write ‘Who the Hell Wants to Work for You: Mastering Employee Engagement’?

Tim Eisenhauer: Back in 2014, I wrote a big listicle article about boosting employee engagement. Considering our focus on communication, we figured engagement would be a hot topic, and bring us some extra traffic from Google searches!

It was, and is, a popular and important topic, and as I saw the interest the article gained, I wanted to know more, especially around what people and organisations did once they’d identified poor engagement levels. Our research indicated that the employee engagement problem was often masked with creative strategies or new software; organisations were not addressing the critical matters that messed up engagement in the first place.

So I decided to take our research further and find the companies that were doing employee engagement well, and understand exactly how they addressed the issues. In May 2014 we released the results as a free e-book called, ‘22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement’, with the aim of helping HR and communication professionals. Close to 20,000 people downloaded it, and we asked each of them to tell us their biggest challenge at work.

People wrote to tell me all kinds of workplace problems, and I saw common themes emerge, and a clear need for practical guidance. Ultimately, this research journey and those common themes formed the basis of my new book, ‘Who the Hell Wants to Work for You’.

GL: What themes did you find in people’s answers, exactly?

TH: I grouped them into three areas, which forms the three different parts of the new book.

Part one is called ‘Empowering the individual’, and it defines what employee engagement means. Engagement is big business. Gartner, and other big analyst companies, devote a lot of time to the topic, with whole departments focused on the problems and supposed solutions.

In part two I talk about ‘Empowering the relationships’ —  between managers and employees. Authenticity at work is as important as elsewhere. Managers should get to know people, understand their motivations, and provide opportunities for people to excel – to work on things they enjoy and are good at. I talk about career development, recognition, and peer support.

Finally, part three looks at ‘the culture’ and how the business can sustain employee engagement.

GL: What was the most surprising insight to come out of your research?

TH: I was shocked at the scale of the problem — employee disengagement is an epidemic of epic proportions.

Yet it’s so vital, so important to business success. Employee engagement has been linked to just about every positive business outcome: innovation, productivity, customer loyalty, employee loyalty, even stock performance. Gallup estimated that the loss of productivity due to the actively disengaged people in America was around $550 billion per year. It’s even more now, at almost $600 billion per year. Globally, Gallup estimate the loss at something like $ 7 trillion.

It’s a massive problem, and I don’t believe the proposed solutions are working. I think a lot of analysts, journalists, and companies are off-track with their software products and engagement activities. I don’t think engagement itself is being addressed.

GL: What is your advice to leaders when it comes to overcoming this epidemic of disengagement?

TH: Engagement is all about empowering people. But before you consider other people, you have to do a lot of work on yourself. Do you understand your motivations and how seemingly small issues derail your engagement? Can you see how others might be motivated by different things? Are you genuinely enthusiastic about every aspect of your job? And what about the less interesting parts?

The book goes very deep into this idea of turning the mirror on yourself and making sure that you’re engaged. Leaders, at every level, should understand what frustrates their work and supports their achievements.

Engagement isn’t binary, it’s granular and contextual. Moving the needle from ‘actively disengaged’ is a long journey, but every step in the right direction is valuable. Leaders must know the direction needed.

GL: What else can organisations do to improve employee engagement?

TH: Engagement starts from day one, with the recruitment process. A lot of companies out there hire based on skill and, personally, I think that’s the wrong way to hire. Some people talk about ‘hiring for fit’ and I do think organisations should hire on the basis of personal traits and behaviours; skills can be taught.

Once on board, employees need embedding – they should be personally and warmly introduced to teammates, colleagues, and customers. As is often said, people want to make progress in meaningful work, and so you need to help new employees set realistic goals that are aligned with business needs but also aligned with their personal strengths and motivations.

Beyond immediate colleagues, is the whole networking aspect. Individuals want to understand the impact of their work, their contributions. When properly connected to colleagues and customers, they get to see outcomes and the value of what they do. If you can’t see the outcome, how do you get excited about the work you do? What would you be proud of? Networking, being truly involved with stakeholders, peers, and colleagues helps you see the effect of your work and then you can understand why the work is important and valued. The whole ‘why’ thing is so important for engagement.

Leaders need to actually care about people, and demonstrate that care. For example, the workplace can’t all be about work all the time – you need to empower people to be innovative, to trust their own ideas, to develop their career, and to help shape the future of the company.

Think about the frustrations that can trip up seemingly simple tasks. It’s hard to be engaged when you’re fighting with software or outdated processes to get things done.

Providing decent collaboration tools can streamline day-to-day work, and modern, flexible systems can adapt to support nascent needs and new ways of working.

Using employee-focussed communication (and networking) systems will enable you to better understand what’s happening across the business — when you talk with people, as opposed to talking at them, they’ll respond, and you’ll learn what’s working and what’s not. I mean that in a practical sense, around work, but also in the sentiment sense, around engagement. People want to share; they want to help colleagues and they want to feedback to leaders. A big part of employee engagement is talking with people, and a big part of talking with people is listening.

GL: What should organisations urgently prioritise? What can they do right now?

TH: Focus on communication. There are three critical streams of communication that need addressing.

The first one is the traditional top-down communication. This is the ‘company’ telling employees what the company wants them to know. People want to understand how their work fits in with the overall company direction, but broadcast communications can be too broad at times.

Secondly, you need to listen. You need to provide channels for bottom-up communication. People need to be empowered to share their experiences, and they need to know they are heard.

Finally, you need to make them feel safe about sharing their ideas across the organisation. Colleagues need to be able to connect and work with each other easily, without hierarchy getting in the way too much.

The usual ‘good communication’ principles apply of course — knowing your audience, being employee focused, using everyday language, and being straight and honest. But keep listening – make sure you’re part of the workforce, and party to the conversations that are going on all the time.

You can get Eisenhauer’s new book, ‘Who the Hell Wants to Work for You: Mastering Employee Engagement’ from Amazon.