Janet Swaysland of Bluefire Partners works with leaders and teams to understand what's working and what's in the way; create new structures and frameworks for more effective communication; devise creative approaches to content and channels; and help internal teams up their game and gain new influence across the organization. In this expert interview we discuss how to spot employees who are genuinely engaged workers. We also explore when an employee is motivated, what are they connected to that motivates them? Most importantly, we talk about the business impact of an engaged workforce.
Interview with Janet Swaysland
Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essential Series. I’m Mari Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It’s my pleasure to welcome you today to this conversation, which is an expert interview where we explore topics related to employee wellbeing. My guest today is Janet Swaysland. Janet has been working as a leader and a consultant in marketing and communications for twenty-five years, and is applying that discipline and creativity to connecting with what is perhaps the most essential stakeholder group of all, those inside the organization charged with developing and delivering value for customers, investors, and the community. Her experience at Weber Shandwick, Iron Mountain, Monster, and with the Conference Board Great Places to Work Institute, and Beyond, make her a current expert on this topic. She now works with organizations on insights and engagement strategies through her Blue Fire Partners consulting practice. I also learned about one of Janet’s superpowers, that is, asking the interesting questions that make everything else so much easier. So, welcome, Janet, I’m delighted to have you here today.
Janet Swaysland: Thank you, I’m thrilled to be here.
Mari Ryan: Great. Employee engagement; this is a topic that we hear a lot about. It’s had huge amounts of press and a lot of research associated with this over the last few years. So, engaging workers in the workplace is an important topic for any business. We know that attracting them and retaining them is important, but what happens when they are in the workplace is so key.
Janet Swaysland: That’s right, and maybe a good place to start, Mari, is what does an engaged worker look like? What is engagement after all? I think it’s become such a topic that people are almost going in circles, talking about it without really grounding it. Now it’s time to do that. Where there’s high engagement in an organization, it’s a win-win. It’s a win-win for the employees because they are happier; they feel like they are doing meaningful work, they’re making a difference, and for the organization it’s a huge advantage in terms of business performance. It’s a competitive weapon like no other. That’s why, I think, it’s attracting attention now, and it’s no longer a question whether it matters, it’s more a matter of what to do about it. I could spend just a second on the characteristics of an engaged employee …
Mari Ryan: That would be great.
Janet Swaysland: So, how are they different? How do they manifest this engagement? The difference between engaged employees, and less-engaged or unengaged employees is a matter of commitment. Are they inclined to go above and beyond? What is the bare minimum of what is expected? Folks in the HR world call this “discretionary effort.” Will they do more than they’re asked? Will they pitch in? Will they share their very best ideas? Are they looking around all the time for new jobs? Are they loyal?
One of the real characteristics is are they willing to recommend the company or the organization as a place to work. So, there’s a net promoter test. Would you recommend this product, this service, this company to someone? Those are the characteristics; they are motivated to do their best.
Mari Ryan: When someone is motivated, what is that driver? How did they get connected? What are they connected to that motivates them?
Janet Swaysland: When you think about engagement drivers, the things that employees are looking for, either consciously or unconsciously, it starts with a big picture. Why are we here? Why does this organization exist, besides making money, probably for other people? What are we solving for customers at the minimal, for the world, even better? What is our purpose, our highest expression of value? That’s one thing that people are looking for.
The other thing that they’re looking for is how do we do this work? It’s great to have kind of a goal, and a mountain to climb, but if you can’t get there, it doesn’t matter. So, how effective are we? How efficient are we? Do we live by our values? Am I going in circles trying to get my work done? Are we at cross-purposes internally? The how is as important as the why when you think about it that way.
Then, there’s a who. Who do I work with? Do I like them? Are they good? Do I trust them? The manager is a whole other story that we can talk about. The manager is absolutely key. Then, feeling connected to all this, feeling connected to purpose, feeling connected to others. We’re social beings, so that feeling of “connectedness” and having a voice, not just being invisible is equally important.
The last thing I could say that wraps it all up is what is my life? What is my future here? How do I learn? How do I grow? How do I progress? We are momentum-oriented creatures; where does this go for me?
Oh, important point; did you notice I didn’t say anything about pay or benefits? Those are not engagement drivers. Those are table stakes. Those are table stakes that people expect right off the top that you are going to be paid fairly, and that your basic needs are going to be taken care of. No amount of pool tables or fancy snacks will compensate if the drivers that I mentioned earlier are not present. It might be enough to keep people who are just floating along; it won’t keep your best people.
Mari Ryan: Wow – great answer. That’s so multi-dimensional. What is the business impact of an engaged workforce?
Janet Swaysland: The business impact takes many forms, and thankfully there is a ton of data now that helps connect this business with engagement performance. If you are a public company, you will see metrics like earnings per share higher. If you are lucky enough to be on Fortune Magazine, “The Best Companies to Work For” list, in all likelihood, you are outperforming your peers on many factors. There is so much research that has been done to say does it really matter to be on that list? It’s not that you’re being recognized, it’s that you’re actually doing that work to generate the conditions so that people are engaged. You will innovate faster. Your productivity will rise because the data says engaged people are out less, they are actually out sick less. They are present more.
Then, of course, there is retention, which is one of the biggest attention-getters for a lot of businesses, is attracting and retaining employees. It is extremely expensive to replace people. Very expensive, I mean, billions of dollars.
Mari Ryan: It makes sense that there is a close connection in between engagement and retention. It seems pretty natural.
Janet Swaysland: Yes, especially for certain markets. Unemployment is very low right now in many places and where people are upping their game in a big way now because of that. I think there are many reasons, there are many business reasons why engagement gets leaders’ attention, and recruitment and retention is certainly one of them right now. If for no other reason, that gets their attention.
Mari Ryan: What would you say are the most essential ingredients or approaches for organizations who are looking to up their engagement as a business driver?
Janet Swaysland: First of all, I think understanding what matters to employees, the drivers that we talked about before. If you understand what really matters, that it’s not the pool table, it’s not something fancy, understanding those drivers is really important, and then understanding what your current state is – where are you? How is your engagement? What do employees think right now, so that you know what’s working, what’s not, and there’s usually pockets of strengths and pockets of places that need some support. Just like in other parts of the business, it’s like let’s find out. Let’s get some data.
Mari Ryan: Clearly engagement is multi-dimensional. There’s a lot of different elements and levers that the organization needs to address when they are talking about engagement. Clearly, this is your area of expertise. If our audience wants to find out a little bit more about the work you are doing, the impact you’ve had in some of your client organizations, where can they find that information?
Janet Swaysland: Oh, thank you. You can find me on LinkedIn, and my company is called Blue Fire Partners, bluefirepartners.com. You’ll see some resources, I have a blog that I very occasionally post to, but you’ll be able to find me that way.
Mari Ryan: Excellent, thank you. I really appreciate your time today. I love this conversation, it’s so in alignment with the work that we do in trying to create workplaces that foster a culture and an environment where the wellbeing of the workers is looked after, and certainly engagement is a key part of that. So, Janet, thanks so much for being here today.
Janet Swaysland: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
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