I Can't Hear You: Increase Employee Engagement by Decreasing the Noise

One of the first things I notice when I walk onto any plant floor is a sign about safety. It is typically not crowded by other signs and is written in very clear language. The message is easily consumed.

Imagine if that sign had nine other signs right next to it that describe everything from bathroom directions to the latest training notices to sign-ups for the next outing. Now that one safety sign is visually competing with all of the other signs, as well as the limited bandwidth of the person walking by. It is safe to say (pun intended) there would be a rather huge decrease in its effectiveness.

The same phenomenon happens when organizations are grappling with work-life balance challenges that are impacting employee engagement and overall morale issues. If employers really want to start to fully engage their workforce, they first need to create space in which they can be heard. Start with the following three areas.

1. Environmental Noise. The open-air design that is sweeping the corporate world is a recipe for stimulus burnout. It is a cacophony of phone calls, keyboard clicks, online videos playing, and office chats. Earlier this year, while visiting a client, I inquired about an employee who had dragged a chair into a supply closet. He said it was the only place he could get some quiet in order to think.

Coupled with the audio noise is the simply overwhelming visual input from signage, people traffic, and general office movement. Environmental stimuli can feel overwhelming and create increased stressed levels. To mitigate that stressful stimuli, reduce the noise. Assign a quiet room much like Amtrak's Acela assigns one train car to be a silent car. This will allow those who need a respite to take a break. Try to have it removed from traffic and restrict any signage in the room.

You might go as far as contracting an audio expert (common in big cities today) to find simple ways to buffer the noise in the office. Also, give someone the responsibility of removing any outdated or unneeded signage in the office space, much as you would clear out the office refrigerator every week.

2. Administrative Noise As organizations grow, executives become more removed from the front lines. To provide these senior leaders some awareness and control, reports and email communication are vastly overused. A 2015 AtTask survey by Harris Poll found employees spend less than half of their time at work on primary job responsibilities. Much of this wasted time is spent reading and responding to emails, as well as filling out what often feels like a never-ending stream of reports.

The problem with reports is they are often given birth with the best of intentions but live way beyond their need or original intent. Challenging economic times typically require more reports, which saps more employee energy and leaves less time to do the actual work the report is measuring. Annual reports become quarterly progress checks, which become monthly updates and then daily forward indicators. All of these reports require reminder emails, attachments, and more summary reports. Sure, a few are okay, but the barrage can cause a debilitating drain on our sense of balance and engagement at work.

First, look for easy steps. Take an inventory of all the required reports and commit to reducing it by 25 percent. Remove the "Reply All" feature from email systems, forcing the sender to think about whether everyone needs to see her or his response. Create a cultural norm that requires a phone call if the email has more than three replies.

3. Calendar Noise We know the saying, "Nature abhors a vacuum." Well, as much as we try to fight it, organizations abhor white space on someone's calendar. Let's face it, between the never-ending stream of meetings and events, there is precious little time to do your actual job. Did you know that research show meetings absorb 35 percent of the time for middle management and up to 50 percent of the time for upper management? How often have you heard someone arriving late with the excuse that they were in back-to-back meetings?

To fight the overcrowded agenda phenomenon, employ an organizational practice of shaving down one-hour meetings to 45 minutes and 30 minutes to 25 minutes. This practice will eliminate the back-to-back meetings. Institute one day a week, such as Wednesdays, on which internal meetings are prohibited.

Engage employees more by doing less. By giving them this mental breathing space, you will not only increase overall engagement, but also their sense of balance and morale. Reduce the competing noise so they can hear you.

Mason Donovan is a Managing Partner for The Dagoba Group, a global diversity, inclusion and engagement consultancy that is located in Salisbury, N.H. He is the author of The Golden Apple: Redefining Work-Life Balance for a Diverse Workforce, co-author of The Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity and Inclusion Pays Off and SET for Inclusion: An Underlying Methodology for Achieving Your Inclusion Dividend, and the author of DRIVEN: A Manager's Field Guide to Sales Team Optimization. Visit http://thedagobagroup.com/offerings/speakers/mason-donovan/ for information.

Posted on Oct 26, 2016