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Employee Engagement – Get it While It’s Hot

Welcome to the second installment in our series of business lessons learned in unconventional places.

Definition: Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

Are your employees engaged? Hot topic in today’s workplace, particularly as the pandemic has made it tougher to feel a sense of community. I learned a great lesson recently from an unlikely source — a fast-food cashier.

I have a habit of asking front line staff “how’s business?” when I’m checking out of a store or restaurant. Why? I read an article that said an enthusiastic response promotes repeat business, but a funeral dirge keeps people away. The response I get from fast food employees is typically “fine”. Yawn. But a while back I asked that question at my local Firehouse Subs, and the young lady behind the counter responded “well, we’re the least profitable unit in our store owner’s chain right now”. I remember thinking ‘wait a minute, that’s a real answer’. When I asked her to elaborate, she said

“Our owner has four stores. She meets with employees every month to discuss how we’re doing. In our case, we have a very difficult location that makes it tough for customers to find us. That makes our walk-in sales lower than her other stores. She really wants to keep our store open, so we are trying to help make it successful.”

Now that is employee engagement. A front-line worker so in tune with the business that she wants to work with the owner to make improvements. And she was right, by the way- the location is horrible. Down the hill from a major traffic area full of competing restaurants, and the store is hidden behind a rock wall. Yikes.

How did the owner promote this level of engagement? Part of it was frequent communication. Employees cannot connect to the business if they don’t understand the business. The fact that the owner took the time to go over results and challenges with the employees got them invested in success. The second critical element was rallying the employees and ownership around a common goal- keeping the store open. It was presented as an opportunity, not a threat: We have a tough location and we can’t move the store, so what can we do to make us successful?

Did it work? Absolutely. The store is still open despite the pandemic. In fact, it might still be open because of the pandemic. One of the pre-pandemic ideas was to focus on lunch delivery to businesses, cancelling out their location disadvantage. When the pandemic put a premium on delivery, they already had the processes in place and were ready to go. They were also the first restaurant in the area to adjust instore delivery methods for the pandemic. I remember telling my wife they had a terrific setup to minimize contact and get customers their food quickly. They were doing things in April that didn’t become commonplace until September.

Am I 100% positive those ideas came from the engaged staff? Nope. But I am positive that the staff bought into them 100%. And it wasn’t about throwing parties or doing team building events- it was about making sure people saw that their interests and the interests of the business were one and the same.

That’s how you drive engagement.

Ralph Smith

Check out the rest of the series on Unexpected Sources of Business Education:

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