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Listening to your employees

Features, Management | July 1, 2009 | By:

Learning what matters to your employees is a key step in making your business more productive and profitable.

As economists and politicians carry on the debate about whether we have seen the worst of the global economic meltdown or if there is more to come, business people across all industries focus on their companies’ financial indicators and the steps they must take toward profitability. Cutting costs, reducing staff and justifying every dollar spent are still very much a part of the current economic business climate.

However, the best and brightest CEOs, business owners and managers understand that now more than ever profitability also involves focusing on hiring, training and retaining engaged employees. A 2006 Gallup poll demonstrates that today’s innovative business leaders aren’t just looking to traditional sources like research and development departments to contribute big new ideas. Rather, they’re counting on ideas from their employees, customers and partners to help drive their organizations forward.

Talent management

The industry term for seeking to maximize the asset of high quality employees is talent management, and experts say that it must be considered an important part of strategic business success. Talent management should address the company as a whole—not just the executives—and what can be done to build culture and engage employees. It can include reviews and assessments of groups and individuals, career planning within the company, skills development and meaningful company research. To this end, fabric structure manufacturer Eide Industries, Cerritos, Calif., strives to “create an environment of opportunity for our employees,” says Joe Belli, vice president of marketing. “We offer continuous formal and informal training … and great growth potential to those employees who have the desire to grow, perform and advance.”

“Engaged employees boost productivity,” says Doug Klein, president of Sirota Survey Intelligence, Purchase, N.Y. “Since we began doing our research in the 1970s, we’ve found that worker indifference is a big problem for companies. When employees are not engaged and their needs as an employee are only marginally met, over time they begin to temper their expectations, attitudes and performance to match what they are getting in return. The cost of indifferent employees—even more than difficult employees—is a huge drain on companies.”

What to do? “Find out and give employees what they want,” Klein says. “Corporate management will see employees stay longer, perform better and provide better customer service if they gather employees’ opinions and ideas and then act on them.”

Employee communication

For Chris Nolan, managing director of the Nolan Group, owner of Nolan Warehouses, an Australia-based wholesale distributor of specialty fabrics products, dialogue with employees is so important that the process starts almost as soon as an employee is hired. “We hold new-employee focus groups where we discuss our code of ethics in running this business,” Nolan says.

“No matter what the company size, small group discussions and one-on-one meetings between management and employee are essential,” says Sirota’s Klein. “Take, for example, the brown bag lunch with the boss. The first time, it can be scary for the employee. But if done regularly and not as a platform to correct or push through an agenda, honest dialogue begins. Supervisors and managers should schedule one-on-one time with their people every month.”

“Employee surveys, which can be done cost effectively, are an excellent way to get good feedback from employees about company culture, leadership, strong points, challenges, and more,” Klein says. “At least once a year, connect with your employees and find out what’s on their minds,” says Gwen Gierke, president of Gierke Consulting in Hudson, Wis. “Gather your results and get additional feedback through follow-up sessions. Then put the plan in place; action and communication must follow the survey process.”

For Pete Weingartner, president of Cincinnati-based Queen City Awning, successful employee communication has come with the combination of informal discussions coupled with surveys. “Several years ago we put together a survey to find out what our employees valued most about their jobs,” Weingartner says. “Job satisfaction was very high for our employees … Another time, as we faced rising healthcare costs, we conducted a benefits survey to gauge our employees’ feelings about various benefits packages.”

An attractive work environment

There are a variety of elements that must be available to employees to create an attractive work environment, something that survey expert Klein labels a partnership culture. “Our research shows that these companies are the most likely to be able to create a highly engaged workforce. Here, performance matters, although there is room for mistakes and growth, and collaboration, transparency and reward are key.”

At fabric manufacturer Hiraoka and Co. Ltd., Tokyo, the company’s more than 200 employees seem to value similar corporate characteristics, says Yoshiaki Hiraoka, executive managing director. Hiraoka cites job stability and security as his employees’ top concern, followed by job satisfaction and challenge; rapport with, and recognition by, co-workers and management; good wages; and professional fulfillment and advancement.

Moto Nohmura, IFAI Japan honorary chairman, adds that to create a culture of engaged employees, “Company leaders must explore and emphasize each employee’s strengths so that they can contribute to the short- and long-term success of the business.” Nohmura also spent nearly 20 years working in California.

Employees also want to feel that their work, and their presence at work, is meaningful and important. “My father built this business from scratch, and he said good morning to every employee and insisted that they do the same to him,” Nolan says. “Today, basic courtesies still matter to us. My sister runs our human resources for the company and makes a point to acknowledge everyone’s birthdays. Things like this make people feel connected to the company.”

Retention of talent has become a key strategy for companies of all sizes around the world, and some offer telecommuting, flexible scheduling, on-site childcare and fitness centers, and creative bonus plans to attract and keep employees. “We also provide pay for performance opportunities for some of our employees,” says Queen City Awnings’ Weingartner. “Under these plans, our employees feel they’re contributing more and also reaping the benefits. We feel it is important to give employees room to grow and as much leeway as possible to be successful.”

The changing employee pool

As retirement approaches for baby boomers, who make up a majority of those employed in the trades, employers will experience a shortage of skilled workers in a wide variety of fields. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of vacant skilled-worker positions will be more than five million by 2010, and that number could multiply to 14 million by 2015. However, “The current economy has provided us with the chance to hire a number of people who’d previously had their own companies but now want the security and benefits of working for us,” Weingartner says, “So we are seeing some very qualified applicants coming in.”

Times of cost cutting and downsizing have dramatically impacted the way employees, especially young ones, look at their careers. Employees at all levels now know better than ever that job security is not something they can count on. Many have let go of their feelings of corporate commitment and become free agents in search of the best available opportunities. They feel they must focus on the big picture, look at other options and do whatever it takes to prepare themselves for the future in the job market. “A 20-something employee today wants to make sure they are getting the landscape of experiences needed and getting paid what they’re worth,” says Klein.

“We try to encourage organic growth and offer training for our young graduates in our branch management positions,” Nolan says. “But if that isn’t available or fast enough, they move on with our blessing. Recognition of talents and achievements is very important today, and we learn a lot from young people and their energy and enthusiasm.”

As more company owners and managers focus not only on the bottom line but on finding and keeping the best employees (of any skill or experience level) productivity and profitability will emerge as the economic scene brightens. “Right now, in this economy, there is a surplus of candidates available in nearly every industry,” says Gierke, “so there is more opportunity than ever for hiring managers to get it right.”

Amy Orchard is a writer and editor living in Dellwood, Minn.

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