Three ways to boost commitment at work

March 3, 2011: 1:37 PM ET

The average worker seems to be sleepwalking their way through their jobs, according to the latest employee engagement surveys. Here are three mostly free tactics to give your team a boost.

By Daniel Debow, contributor

While the U.S. economy recovers, the average worker seems to have lost a sense of meaning at work. They're disengaged -- and that disengagement is costing companies big money. According to a 2010 employee engagement study by Gallup, "disengaged employees erode an organization's bottom line, while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process. Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to the bottom line to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone." Ouch.

More importantly, that's a lot of people who are sleepwalking through the activity that takes up the majority of their lives: their job. And it's quite clear that throwing money at employees is not the answer. As Daniel Pink explains in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it's "not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine-to-five. It's whether our work fulfills us."

I run a tech startup. Startups are known for their employee engagement practices. We have to be good at it. They might seem glamorous in movies like The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg goes from Harvard dorm to executive boardroom in 90 minutes of screen time. Working at a tech startup translates to years of long hours, below-market salaries, and the nagging fear that all of your friends are on the Facebook rocket while you've picked the MySpace horse and buggy.

So tech startups have some common practices to keep their talent motivated and engaged. While the basic principles behind these techniques are low-tech, tech companies have, unsurprisingly, found ways to enhance them by using technology. But the trick is to keep it simple. It's not rocket science -- it's about human connection.

Here are three ways I try to keep my team engaged:

1. Make time for face time: There's no substitute for personal contact. The personal touch can be challenging for today's distributed workforces, but technology can help. We link our Toronto and San Francisco offices with a corporate video Skype portal, so teams at one location have instant video access to teams at the other.

2. Say thanks: In 2009, during the depths of the economic downturn, a McKinsey study found that the most important incentive a company can offer to engage employees is praise and commendation from their immediate manager. Sixty-seven percent of survey respondents ranked praise as "effective" or "very effective," well above stock options (35%), an increase in base pay (52%) and even cold, hard cash bonuses (60%). My company uses software that lets everyone thank each other publicly by awarding each other badges for everything from great coding to hitting their numbers. But a simple thank you, in person or by email, can go a long way.

3. Connect work with meaning: In his new book PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, Chip Conley discusses encouraging housekeepers at his Joie de Vivre hotel chain to think of themselves as "clutter busters" and "the peace of mind police." While those labels may sound a little ridiculous, reframing the job encourages employees to connect their work with its impact on the people around them. My company uses a public company-wide feed (like a Facebook wall but only visible to our employees) to post positive feedback and stories we hear from our customers.

The best part of all these tactics? They are mostly free. That's critical for a startup running on investor capital. But in these uncertain economic times, isn't effective plus free the right answer for just about every business? Spending a little time to save some of that $300 billion in lost productivity every year sounds like a bargain to me.

Daniel Debow is co-CEO of Rypple, a social software company that allows people to stay on track, share continuous feedback and coach each other at work.

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