May 29, 2024

The #1 engagement strategy that no one is talking about

Are you looking to increase employee engagement? Read this blog post to learn a creative strategy.

Are you an HR leader looking for higher employee engagement?

Do you not know where to start?

Have you experienced any of these challenges?

  • Poor engagement survey results
  • Difficult turnover numbers
  • Negative Glassdoor reviews
  • Trying several approaches to engagement and not seeing results or only marginal improvement
  • Fearing the loss of a culture you’ve worked hard for because your company is growing

You are not alone in your struggles.  It's hard to deny the scale and urgency of the engagement problem when you look at these numbers:

That's an annual loss of $8.5 million for the average 500-person company.

Now imagine that you're able to solve the engagement problem.

Your engagement scores are going up.  Productivity is surging and moving the bottom line.

Your Glassdoor ratings are rising and you have more referrals than you can handle.  Retention numbers are the best they’ve been, as employees don’t want to leave the company.

The other executives look at you in wonder. You've moved the needle on engagement and they want to know how you did it.

How can you make this a reality?

In order to overcome the engagement problem and drive company success, you must establish meaningful connections among employees.

Decades of research show that meaningful connections is the variable that moves engagement more than any other.

This type of people strategy is a new focus of organizational design and is used to drive success at companies like Cisco, Google, Paypal, TJX, and Zappos (see Who has this approach worked for? section).

Let’s dig in, starting with some common misconceptions.

Misconception #1: It's just too difficult to improve employee engagement

We all know this feeling. Engagement is too tough to wrap your fingers around — too tough to actually move the needle on. Maybe you can make small improvements by adding work-from-home days or other benefits, but fixing all of engagement is impossible.

But using a piecemeal approach rather than a focus on meaningful connections makes the prospect of solving employee engagement especially daunting.

According to Babson expert Rob Cross, the far-reaching power of connections affects engagement and a host of other employee-specific variables: "Effective management of social capital within organizations facilitates learning and knowledge, sharing, increases employee retention and engagement, reduces burnout, sparks innovation, and improves employee and organizational performance." (Cross, Harvard Business Review, To Be Happier at Work, Invest More in Your Relationships)

Misconception #2: Social connections are not critical to engagement

Engagement is influenced by more than employees’ day-to-day roles.  Social connections are so powerful that they can overcome even the limitations of the job function itself: "People whose work is mundane or demanding are just as likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled as those with fun or inspiring jobs if they proactively invest in relationships that nourish them and create a sense of purpose." (Cross, Harvard Business Review, To Be Happier at Work, Invest More in Your Relationships)

Needless to say, the opportunity to facilitate employee connections gives hope to companies that struggle to inspire through the work they ask of their employees.

Misconception #3: We need to focus on digital tools like Slack and MS Teams to create meaningful connections

Our research has shown that HR leaders believe Slack and similar platforms are the answer to their employee isolation problems. But while Slack may improve communication efficiencies, it cannot replace real human relationships.  In fact, when real-time digital communication replaces more authentic human exchanges, it may actually hurt those relationships and contribute to isolation.

The popularity of digital tools like Slack have led to record highs in employee isolation and disconnectedness — ironic when you consider there are now more avenues to “connect” with colleagues than ever before.

As Dan Schawbel explains in his book, Back to Human, "Tech devices trick us into thinking they're helping us connect with others, but in reality they're a barrier that undermines and weakens our relationships." (Schawbel, Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, Page 18)

This concept is not new. It can be traced at least back to the introduction of email to the workplace. In 1999, author Ned Hallowell wrote in his book, Connect, "When presence is lacking, such as when communication modes like electronic mail limit access to non-textual cues, or when multi-tasking limits attention to the other, connection suffers." (Hallowell, Connect)

How to finally create meaningful employee connections

Meaningful connections are what move employees from silos to community.  And, community is critical.

“An analysis of employee survey responses across 47 countries found that people at Great Place’s 25 World’s Best list cherish the ways their companies act as ‘communities.’ Companies the world over would do well to focus on this driver of workplace greatness as well as on the trusting relationships that are the foundation of a strong culture.” (Ed Frauenheim, Workforce, A Great Place to Work Takes a Great “Community”)

So, it's HR's role to create a community experience by pushing people toward meaningful connections -- for the purposes of both the company and the employee.

Characteristics of a meaningful connection

Meaningful connections can be broken down into the relationships that employees form based on two things:

  1. Professional needs
  2. Personal attributes

Other interactions, such as someone you catch up with at the coffee machine every few weeks, are unlikely meaningful until they are characterized by one (or both) of the above.

Leveraging meaningful connections based on professional needs

Companies have natural hierarchies that include executive, manager, and contributor roles. An employee can rely on this hierarchy to solve some professional needs -- but not all of them. Professional needs may include:

  • Learning a skill from a colleague
  • Identifying a colleague with certain skills for a project
  • Coaching or mentoring
  • Networking for career growth
  • General networking

As opposed to sending and receiving quick answers through tools like Slack, these types of needs call for more human interactions. They often require in-person meetings with those in the office, or video or phone calls with those at other offices.

And while a team can open some doors to connections through their internal networks, it would be limiting to rely on teammates for all introductions to meet business needs. However, that is what employees tend to do -- out of convenience and social safety.

But, the true power of a business network comes when employees can easily discover the professional human resources around them. Meaning, if I need to find someone skilled in SPSS for my project, I can leverage a database or repository to quickly and accurately find that person. Ideally, I can then write a post or "review" to alert other employees that the person I connected with is a helpful resource for SPSS. In a large company with many different teams and roles, this validation is especially important.

The payoff for such an interaction around a professional need is:

  1. The immediate return on an exchange of information
  2. The meaningful connection that results from this interaction
  3. The connection and endorsement data captured at an admin level

The connection and trust that result from this interaction establish both parties as resources (to each other) for future needs. So, if I have questions about SPSS in the future, I now know I can call on this colleague for additional related help. Similarly, this new connection affords my colleague the familiarity to leverage me going forward as well.

As employees use the repository to identify resources and review expertise, they find information and build trust among colleagues -- expanding the company's map of meaningful connections. Gradually, the map shifts from a hierarchical structure to a network structure with many more touch points between previously disparate groups of employees.

As Rob Cross writes, the creation of an employee's network structure is critical: "networks [are] a significant component of people's experience in organizations that can either promote performance and engagement or inhibit personal effectiveness and thriving." (Cross, Connected Commons, Connect and Adapt, Page 2)

When these interactions are logged in a repository that captures connections and endorsements, you can dig into powerful insights. According to HR expert Josh Bersin of Deloitte, "by leveraging technology to evaluate the organic way in which people interact and operate, organizations can not only improve their performance by moving toward a more team-based environment, but simultaneously empower their workforce, thereby unleashing their full human potential." (Bersin, 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends)

Leveraging meaningful connections based on personal attributes

The power of personal connections at work is, in large part, grossly untapped by businesses. It's ironic, considering that 79% of engaged employees cite relationships with co-workers as the top condition for being engaged. (SHRM, Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement)

Further, Gallup reports that employees who have a best friend at work have a 92% chance of being engaged; those without a best friend are seven times less likely to be engaged. (Gallup, Your Friends and Your Social Well-Being)

Clearly, it’s in the best interest of companies to allow their employees to make social connections and friendships. In our research, the companies that say they've got it right point to their employee resource groups (ERGs) as the proper outlet for personal connections.

Why the Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a double-edged sword

The challenge with ERGs is that they are both inclusive and exclusive. If you think back to high school, you'll probably remember the lunch tables where "similar" students would socialize. Those at each table may have felt included at that particular table, but do those independent groups sum up to community?

The exclusive feeling that an ERG can produce may prevent some people from joining the group. For purposes of an example, let’s take an employee that is considering joining the company's Veterans Group. He's not a veteran himself, but his father is, so he's interested and wants to support the cause. Yet, he finds the group is designed for veterans only and he would be an "outsider" at their meetings, so he elects not to try to join it.

Outside of such stories that our research uncovered, we found that ERGs at many progressive tech companies are run through archaic channels like email. Where email aliases are the standard ERG communication, people outside the group have no access to information on meetings, events, or communication. This lack of accessibility creates a natural wall for group outsiders who might otherwise consider joining.

But the greatest challenge with ERGs is that they are altogether limiting -- meaning, most employees don't fall into any of the groups available to them. A truly inclusive community would have a table for everyone that walked into the "school lunchroom," wouldn't it?

Why you must expand your definition of employees' personal identities

Your company must expand its definition of personal identity in order to break down silos and create an environment where more connections are possible. It must evolve beyond two-dimensional traits like gender and ethnicity to also include things like skills, passions, and interests.

Why? Because an environment that promotes all aspects of employees creates more opportunities for meaningful connections. It allows for things like:

  • A reading lover to start a book club
  • A new mother to learn from other new mothers
  • A music fan to connect with a colleague who shares her love of a niche genre
  • A charity enthusiast to find recommendations on where to volunteer
  • A rock climber to expand his group of weekend climbers
  • A Frisbee player to know who he can call on when he's short a player on game day
  • An aspiring guitarist to identify someone for lessons
  • A baseball fanatic to find a group to watch the playoff game

Helping employees connect in these ways is in the best interest of the company. Meaningful connections that arise from personal attributes give your employees an enhanced sense of belonging. It allows them to feel more like themselves and endears them to a business that promotes the things they care about by hiring other people who care about these things.

Ultimately, an expanded view of personal identity enables true inclusion at your company.  It bridges gaps between groups based on gender and ethnicity by allowing people to connect over the things that are important to them.  It ensures that employees can bring their full selves to work, and don’t need to check their personal attributes at the door.

Which leading companies use strong relationships to achieve their success?


From the start, I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal.


Our culture places great value on relationships, which has been a key to our success since our founding and is now a guiding factor driving our inclusion efforts.


At Zappos, they work on developing employee relationships to increase engagement. In fact, Zappos strongly believes in that emotional connection and has made "building a positive team and family spirit" one of their core values.


"If we look at some high-performing organizations such as Cisco, Google, and others, they are promoting teaming and networking within their organizations.” (Bersin, 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, Page 53)

"The single biggest reason [people stay at the company] is because of other people." ([Lazlo Bock on Google], Schawbel, Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, Page 11)