Get Curious: A Simple Question to Ask Your Employees

June 28, 2018

Rachel Druckenmiller, MS – Director of Wellbeing

How do we engage our employees?

This is a question I hear on a weekly basis. With employee disengagement hovering around 70%, it's not surprising that this question keeps coming up year after year.

Often, we expect a vendor or a portal to solve our employee engagement challenge, and are disappointed when they don't deliver on their promises. We send out emails or letters telling our employees that they are our greatest asset, yet our words aren't carried through in what we do. Little seems to change. Each year, companies conduct engagement surveys asking the same scripted questions and often getting the same answers but often fail to take action. Justifiably, employees begin to think that what they want doesn't really matter and remain stuck in a state of disengagement and resentment.

What can we do about it? Is there anything we can do to effectively and authentically engage our employees?


It's almost too obvious, too simple, yet few organizations are doing it in a meaningful way.

Ask people what they want, and then respond.

Something I learned through my training as a Thriving Workplace Culture Consultant that has stuck with me ever since is this:

People only support what they help create.

Does your approach to employee engagement involve the co-creation of solutions with all ofyour employees, not just the higher-ups and shareholders? If employees don't feel like you genuinely care about them and what they want, they will not be engaged.

Each month, our employees come together for an all-hands meetings for company-wide updates. Having been an employee of SIG in some form for nearly 15 years, I've been to dozens of these meetings. At our most recent meeting, our CEO, Richard Silberstein, went off script to bring a simple question to our attention:

"What is something we could bring to you that would help make your life better or improve it in some way?"

He asked us to turn to two people sitting near us and discuss our responses to this question. After a few minutes, we went around the room, and each small group shared some of their top "wants". A few themes emerged that encompassed most people's wishes. I thought I'd share with you some of our employees' input, as these topics very likely are important at your company as well. Having said that, the only way to truly know what your people want is to ask them a similar question.

Work-Life Integration

This was the most common response across the board.

How do we balance work commitments, family, kids' activities, staying organized, managing time, running a household, doing laundry, and preparing nourishing meals in minutes?

All of us are challenged to figure out how to integrate all of these different aspects of our lives and meeting the demands of multiple roles. In response to employees' requests for help with organizing their homes, we will be looking into bringing a local home organizing expert to our employees. Imagine how much bandwidth could be freed up if your employees didn't have to worry about staying organized on their own? You can find a home organizer in your area here on thumbtack. Also, if you have kids and multiple schedules to coordinate, download the Cozi app. It's free and includes a shared family calendar, to do lists, grocery lists, and recipes.

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about 6 Tips for Healthy Meal Planning Made Easy. In it, I share my top pantry staples, resources for recipes, online meal planning services, and a list of meal kit delivery service options, which are perfect for busy families and have become a weekly staple for my brother, his wife and their three kids. I look forward to seeing what we come up with to address the challenges of work-life integration and will share them with you in the future!

What do you do to help your employees effectively integrate and blend work and the other demands of life?

Financial Advising

Budgeting, one-on-one consultations with a financial planner, 529 planning, budget travel with and without kids. These are just a few of the topics that emerged as areas of interest for our employees.

I'm grateful to have been raised by a mother who is a Certified Financial Planner because I have had a lifetime to learn about the importance of living within your means, not living on credit, saving for retirement as soon as I was able, and paying down debt aggressively. The more time I spend at companies listening to their employees and the concerns they have, the more I realize how great the need is for guidance like what I have received at just about every organization.

In our credit-centric culture with student loan debts as high as some mortgages, we need to provide support for people to better manage their finances. As long as employees are distracted by financial concerns, they will not be able to perform at their best for you.

We have a financial tracking tool, SmartDollar, in place for our employees and have brought in financial education sessions in the past, but we will be looking into what we can do to provide our employees with more individualized support in this area.

Ask your employees what their primary financial stresses are and see if there is something you can do to help them.


Managing Technology

In our digitally connected, always on culture, it's difficult to figure out how to disconnect from our devices. Compounding that challenge is managing the technology usage of our kids. Our email is on our phones. Social media tempts us with each ding, like or comment. Even when we are on vacation, we are accessible in ways we never have been before. How can we manage the overwhelm so many of us feel when it comes to technology?

I'll never forget a conversation I had with our receptionist about a year or so ago. I was heading out on a week-long vacation and stopped by her desk to chat and say goodbye. "I'll be off the grid!" I told her. She laughed and double-checked to make sure she heard me correctly: "Really? Most people tell me all the ways people can reach them if they need to when they are away on vacation."

Not me.

As my dad says, I'm not curing cancer or closing the hole in the Ozone layer. I do my due diligence to tie up loose ends before I leave, so all urgent matters are addressed. Whatever someone needs while I'm away can be handled by a co-worker or wait until I return from my trip. If you haven't truly checked out and taken a quality vacation lately, the case for vacation is data-driven and compelling, yet few of us truly disconnect from work when we go away.

Why is it so hard for us to check out and sign off?

One, we teach people how to treat us. If you have taught the people you work with that you will answer on the first ring at 11pm, then you have to own that. If you're an ER doctor who needs to be available at all hours because of a life-or-death crisis, then please answer the call. But the rest of us cannot honestly say that what we do on a daily basis is that urgent. How you behave teaches people what is acceptable for you, so be careful about responding to emails at 2am, unless you want to create an expectation that you'll feel pressured to consistently meet. I could have easily blamed my employer and heavy demands at work when I got mono last year, but I had to own my contribution to that situation.

Secondly, if we're honest, we can chalk up at least part of our inability to disconnect to an inflated sense of self-importance. Technology and social media make us so self-consumed that we think the world will not go on without us if we are out of touch for a week. This is why you have co-workers to share the burden with, so you can have peace of mind as you recharge. Our CEO went on a trip to the Galapagos Islands for over a week last year and completely checked out. He had no access to technology, but he trusted the team of people he has hired to handle things while he was gone, and lo and behold...everything was fine.

We are going to address this problem as a team, but in the meantime, if you'd like to make changes in this area of your life, check out these Harvard Business Review articles on the topic:

If you'd like to observe a company-wide day of unplugging, check out this national organization devoted to helping you do just that.

What do you do to manage technology for yourself, your team and your family? Have you found any strategies that have worked for you?

Slowing Down

Our desire to slow down is undoubtedly linked to trying to manage competing life priorities and our incessant need to be digitally connected.

One of the questions Richard asked everyone to consider and to discuss with their manager is what they would do with five extra hours of time each week. Few of us slow down long enough to consider how we'd respond to that question, but we'd benefit from doing so.

We're bringing mini meditation sessions to our company in May and are also looking into using Muse to make meditation easier for our employees. Mindfulness may not be the answer to every challenge related to slowing down, but here are a few benefits you can expect from a regular practice.

What do you do to promote a culture that creates margin and gives people permission to slow down?

Stress Relief

When you think about the compounding effects of financial stress, competing priorities, struggles with managing time and staying organized, and our addiction to technology, it's no wonder so many of us feel stressed. To add to that, many employees these days are taking care of aging parents and raising children of their own. We have a lot to juggle and a seeming lack of time and resources to do it all.

For many organizations, the response to dealing with stress is sending employees to an EAP or bringing in massage therapists. We bring quarterly massages to our company for employees, but we do it as a perk, not as a strategy to dispel stress. Think about it. If you send a stressed out employee to an EAP but put them back in an environment with unclear expectations, a poorly trained manager, a lack of autonomy, and inadequate recognition and appreciation, they will probably not change long-term. That's why it's more important to look at the root causes of stress in your organization than it is to only offer surface solutions that don't address the underlying problem.

In an effort to identify the drivers of stress for our employees, we are going to ask them for their perceptions about the current state of our company compared to how they would like it to be. We are going to be using the Thriving Workplace Culture Survey to obtain that information in the next few weeks. If you'd like to learn more about how to bring that survey to your company, send me a message.

I'm also developing training drawing on research about how reframing stress can help us enhance our performance and forge deeper social connections and look forward to sharing with you when that training is available. I've also been delivering trainings to other organizations and leadership teams about the motivational power of gratitude at work, how we can beat burnout and live our best lives, and how we can live happier, happier, more fulfilled lives. The self-care component of leadership is rising in importance, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to speak into that space at organizations. We are planning to bring in other management and leadership training as well to better equip our people to lead effectively as another strategy for addressing stress.

What do you do to address stress at work and equip employees with tools to more effectively address it?

Work-life Integration. Financial Management. Disconnecting. Slowing Down. Rethinking Stress. These were just a few of the challenges our employees are facing, and they're asking for our help. We're now in the process of coming up with a strategy for how to respond in a way that makes our employees feel heard and valued. I look forward to sharing what happens in future posts and presentations!

Next Steps

If you'd like to learn more about how to bring resources like these to your organization to help you recruit, engage and retain top talent, message me or comment below. We support companies to become top workplaces through strategic plan development, training, workshops, and consulting. You can learn more about us on our website here.

If you're interested in digging into these topics around how to help people bring their whole selves to work and home each day, join me at the Fusion 2.0 conference this fall in Minneapolis. I will be leading a Learning Lab session, and the keynote speakers will inspire and empower you to re-humanize your workplace. Learn more and register here.