Is anyone talking about this? In looking for ways to innovate and grow their business right now have any companies thought of placing a renewed emphasis on employee engagement? Along with profit-to-earning-ratio calculations and the slashing of expenses are businesses calculating the total cost of owning a disengaged talent pool?

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The opportunity cost of failing to keep employees engaged—the cost of creating corporate zombies in a down economy—is considerable, precisely because employees are the only ones who can innovate us out of this mess. Keeping employees motivated and engaged makes all the difference in the world—especially now.

I’ve spent most of my career in corporate communications—in what’s considered the corporate staffing side of the equation—but I’ve also had the opportunity to work in the trenches, on the business side in marketing and sales. I know what it means to beat the pavement for a sale, and what it means to cold call—to pick up that telephone (or other channel used to drive sales) for yet another time—to muster the courage to be “appropriately persistent” one more time with that business prospect you’ve been working with for six months or a year.

You have your own inner fire and yes, motivation comes from within. But believe me, an employee’s understanding of particular company’s culture can become a game-changer in this situation: Are senior leaders trying to be transparent? Are they committed to using two-way communication channels in order to incorporate my feedback into their decision-making? Does the company recognize the value of my contribution to the bottom line? Is there a career-path for me here, developmental opportunities, work-life balance? When it comes to capturing the discretionary effort of employees—that extra something—company culture and the perceived value of the employee deal can make the difference between success and failure.

Yet many organizations have been slow to capitalize on the inherent value of interpersonal connection. We can’t control some of the mediums (social media) that enable two-way communication and doesn’t networking serve a purely social function, senior leaders reason, one that is best left outside the workplace doors?

The reasoning of social media consultants like Stacy Wilson www.eloquor.com/blog has not yet made an  impression on these senior leaders:

“Even the term ‘social media’ is driving fear. Along with podcast, blog, wiki, etc., these are just different technologies that can serve as different communication channels to enable culture change—they can drive collaboration and dialog more effectively than traditional channels,” says Wilson.

“If we work with senior leaders to help them understand the business value and benefit of conversation, dialog and collaboration, the fear melts away,” Wilson adds, noting that social technologies drive innovation:

“Innovation is an important business driver because it takes a lot of ideas in the pipeline to come up with that one marketable/patentable idea; conversation and dialog help to generate a constant stream of ideas.”

We have not yet begun to fight, said that lion of perseverance, Winston Churchill, as he faced down the adversities of World War II. For our purposes, the company’s battle to be profitable is over before the first shot is fired if it lacks one indispensable asset; namely, engaged employees.

During a recent business visit to a Fortune 500 company in the Midwest I learned that retention is no longer part of the vocabulary of many talent management professionals. Since jobs are scarce, they reasoned, where were employees going to go? What’s more appalling is that many employees are told that the elimination of their job is a distinct possibility or that it’s being “explored,” yet no voluntary package or reasonable severance is made available so they can at least move on with dignity. So they remain at their jobs, plodding on like corporate zombies, waiting for the axe to fall.

Much of this sentiment was reflected in a recent Business Week story by Krisztina Holly and Jim Clifton, which suggested that improving employee engagement is the surest way to turn the economy around. Less than 30% of corporate workers really care about their jobs—and nearly 20% actually want to undermine their co-workers, according to the Gallup study, yet boosting engagement just a tenth of a point can have a huge impact on a company’s sales, they reason. Is this not common sense?

For more on this you can check out this presentation from Netflix, which is a great example of a company that understands culture and employee engagement: Seven Aspects of Culture.

Let me know what you think.

Photo Credit: Archie McPhee Seattle’s Photostream, Licensed under Creative Commons.

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