What Employee Engagement Looks Like

Last year, a small team of volunteers from Venmo went to the Rockaways to help rebuild a home devastated by Hurricane Sandy.  We all traveled from Manhattan or Brooklyn to be at the site by 9 AM on a beautiful fall Saturday, suited up to spend the day sanding walls, painting the deck, and replacing rusty nails with new ones.

There were 6 of us:  three whom had been with Venmo for <1 year, and three whom had joined Venmo back in 2011/2 when the company first set up shop in NYC.  I found this team make-up to be utterly remarkable.  Why?  

Because although we represented about 7% of Venmo’s NY office, we included 43% of the ‘Venmo veterans’, and only 4% of the rest of the employees.  These ‘veterans’ were the same folks who would work late into the evenings after everyone else had left; who spearheaded informal community-building efforts; and who were the most welcoming to new hires, leading them through a weekly series of talks about the history of the company, the Product workflow, and a tutorial on how electronic money moves.  They felt ownership of Venmo — the company, the employee experience, and the employer brand — and were empowered to improve and build on what had been created.  

To me, this small, dedicated group represents the goal of employee engagement efforts.  They each had become multipliers of a culture and ethos that infused employees with a sense of mission, purpose, and empowerment.  They cared about each other’s development and growth irrespective of the needs of the company — and through this, made learning (through post-mortems and through failed efforts) a central part of the culture.  These pieces — in aggregate — created a work environment that attracted and retained some pretty phenomenal people.  We all felt so lucky to be part of the Venmo story.

With this level of engagement and personal caring for the company and its people, you’ll find that the typical “HR stuff” gets done much more smoothly, and by the employees, not just HR people.  Employees will organically hold social gatherings on their own; they’ll be more likely to feel beholden to each other in giving high-quality feedback; they’ll be more likely to listen to others and try to come up with a solution that works for many.  In summary, they “give back” to the company because they want to.

McKinsey works this way.  There is a very thin HR presence, mainly in recruiting; nearly everything is driven by the staff.  From the creation of learning and connectivity committees, to giving each other feedback, to proposing new colleges to recruit from, things happen because employees are empowered, encouraged/expected, and recognized for their contributions.  From Day One, you are encouraged to “make your own McKinsey”, which could literally mean starting your own functional practice or spearhead research in an area of passion.  (Practically-speaking, to be successful “making your own McKinsey”, you needed to get the buy-in and support of senior leaders and/or have clients be willing to engage you for your work.)

How do you replicate this from scratch?  I don’t actually know, because I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked at a few places where this type of engagement was a product of history and a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.

Ideally, I would say that the leadership of a company would exemplify the type of people you want to employ, and would document and promote the shared values that they want to perpetuate.  Even though the following values sound super-generic in this enlightened age, to truly live them is entirely a different thing.  They might include:

  • People first.  Everything else is a distant second (but completely dependent on the People).
  • Always strive to be better.  Improve a little each day.
  • Humility.  Don’t let your ego ever get in the way of the right answer.
  • Trust others and be trustworthy.  Expect that your colleagues will be responsible and have good judgment.
  • Be open and forthright.  Be transparent and don’t shy away from discomfort.
  • Focus on your learning and the learning of others.  Learn from failure, don’t assign blame.
  • Be accountable for your work and your commitments.
  • Be inclusive and see each other as fellow humans.
  • Care about the community and the individual.

I’m sure there are many things I’m forgetting here, but these are what are on my mind right now.  

As you can see, none of the above are about parties, free food, in-office yoga, or anything like that.  Which is not to suggest that those practices aren’t effective ways to make people feel cared for, but whether or not the people are actually cared for depends on why these types of perks are installed.  Often, these perks are set up to remain competitive in hiring and retaining talent.  It’s very much a means to an ends.  

For companies short on resources, the good news (in my opinion) is that authentically caring about upholding values like the ones I listed above trumps perks and costly activities any day.  Once you start plotting yoga classes and birthday parties, it may be too late, because you are catering to employees who aren’t actually engaged, but are there as takers, not givers.


PS>>  I probably haven’t satisfied the readers who are seeking facts and data that prove out the importance of employee engagement.  For those folks, take a look at these articles I googled, where you can see charts entitled, “Employee Engagement Affect Key Business Outcomes” and the like.  While the facts are there, I find these articles very clinical and check-the-boxy, and anyone who has their “a-ha” moment by reading these may not be the right owner to lead a genuine employee engagement initiative.

PPS>> Full transparency — at the company where I work, we do offer yoga classes, birthday parties, and free snacks.  Perhaps a topic for another time, but taking away something you already have in place is very delicate thing, so unless you have solid reasons to do it, probably not worth the sturm und drang that will inevitably follow.

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