Managing Employee Engagement When You Have No Employees

Work is what you do, not where you go
Creative Commons Attribution by Flickr user   Thomas Leuthard

Contract workers, contingent workforce and “solopreneurs” are on the rise. It is not just by a little bit.  The combination of a slow economy, technology that lets people work from anywhere and a structural shift in the understanding that work is something you do and not just some place you go is driving changes in the workforce.

Here’s the situation: People are leaving BigCo Inc. because they are lacking engagement.  Those same people are starting MyCo LLC. because they desire the freedom to engage professionally on their terms.

Hard to believe?  A key motivation for highly skilled workers to give their own business a go is their experience as salary men and women.  A recent Harvard Business Review article cited research that states, “74% of respondents cited a lack of employer engagement as their principal reason for leaving (emphasis added).”

Communication is at the core of engagement.  Therefore it should be no surprise that the massive increase in social media technology is found at the core of worker engagement discussions.  Whether document sharing, real-time chat, email or online communities the recommendations abound.  But it should be noted that no employer getting left behind by a do-it-yourselfer lacks email or a website.  The implication is that those types of technologies, alone, do not make for more or better engagement.

This is because engagement is first about the human being and only then about the technology.  Scholarly research in this area abounds (see the cite at the end of this article).  Most arrive at the conclusion that the three pillars of engagement are:
1.       A combination of rewards
2.       Involvement in major activities
3.       Active participation in decision making

One company doing it right is Field Nation. Field Nation was built as a place where independent contractors and big business could engage with each other on more than just the hourly rate and start date.  Take a look at how they address each of the 3 scholarly engagement pillars in real life.

Field Nation actively invites users to rate and review each other.  That kind of recommendation and review elevates a user or small business profile in the system which leads to new opportunity. Other rewards are monetary or thank-you related where Field Nation rewards their users (contractors and businesses alike) for participation, interaction and referrals.  The important piece is that rewards are meaningful to the users.  Meaningful rewards are rarely trade-show schwag.  Companies looking to engage their contract workforce in a meaningful way need to go beyond giving them a mug and get down to rewards that matter to the contractor.

When you run MyCo LLC., “major activities” are completely different than they are for BigCo Inc.  Major activities for independent and small businesses are much more about connecting with other independents and small businesses.  The ability to meet up either physically at an event like AIIM Minnesota’s Thirsty Thursday or virtually in one of Field Nation’s hundreds of community groups is an important way to stay in touch.  These kinds of groups provide better interaction than most corporate intranets because they have a higher critical mass of users and a broader diversity of insight and experience.  Meanwhile they’re filtered a bit more than similar public groups on sites like LinkedIn or SlashDot. The feel in these groups is much different than the caricature BigCo Inc. “recycling team” or “Hawaiian shirt day” which are (rightfully) universally reviled.

Finally, an active role in decision making is predicated on meaningful participation.  A corporate suggestion box that never sees suggestions acted on or sees only the most banal recommendations implemented is a drain on engagement.  Fortunately, contractors and consultants are hired for their expertise.  They are there for their skill.  This means they already have the ear of their employer.  But nothing is more demoralizing for an employee than to believe that their experience, expertise and thoughtfulness don’t matter. At Field Nation users are engaged in the most meaningful decision possible – take this job or not. At BigCo Inc. employees are still restricted by org chart hierarchy and “that’s not your job” mentality.  There are notable exceptions, and they should be held up as examples.  But the exceptions prove the rule which is still that 74% of people who leave BigCo do so because of a lack of engagement.

Companies are losing more employees and using more independents than before.  Engagement is the key to keeping them if they’re yours; or keeping them happy and productive if they’re their own.

Citations: Factors Persuading Employee Engagement and Linkage of EE to Personal & Organizational Performance, Rashid, Asad, Ashraf, Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, September 2011, vol 3, no 5.

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