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Rules of Engagement

HR teams are finding creative ideas to re-ignite employees' passion for work.

​The past few years have been tough on employees. 

Just 31 percent of workers in the U.S. and Canada feel engaged at work, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report. And 52 percent report experiencing significant stress on the job.

Those figures are especially troublesome because numerous studies have shown that organizations with high employee engagement have lower turnover, greater productivity and higher revenue than those with low worker engagement.

What are HR professionals doing to boost employee engagement and improve morale?

We asked them via LinkedIn and found that they’ve been busy spreading cheer in a ­variety of creative ways, including celebrations, comedy, wellness programs and volunteer activities. What follows are the stories, in their own words, of how HR teams from around the nation are working to increase engagement at their organizations. 

Spread Joy

At Hocking Valley Community Hospital in Logan, Ohio, we started to operationalize fun last year. We named our program Project Joy. 

In the health care industry, burnout has been high, and many workers have left the field because of the mental stress, the daunting workload and the energy it takes to deal with continual illness, ­injury and sometimes death in the community. We needed to ignite passion, energy, connection and joy again. 

In 2022, our business ­leaders were divided into groups and ­assigned a month to bring the fun. They planned activities such as bubble soccer ball; a Bunny Hop Egg Hunt for employees’ children and grandchildren; dog visits from the local Humane Society; caroling around the hospital wearing our ugliest holiday sweaters; trick-or- treating for employees’ children and grandchildren; ice cream sundaes; and more food, games and prizes! Our goal was to bring employees together, celebrate families, generate laughter and smiles—and of course, spread joy to all. 

This year, we will celebrate “wacky” holidays and have already enjoyed a Secret Pal program, a chili cook-off, National Hedgehog Day with our CFO bringing in her family’s pet hedgehog, and a visit from the Oscar Mayer “Frank­mobile.” Next, we will be celebrating National Pancake Day with senior leaders making and serving pancakes to our staff.

We’ve had many positive comments and requests from employees to continue our Project Joy to bring happiness back into the hospital. It has had a huge impact on our ­employee engagement.

—Megan Wright, SHRM-CP, director of human resources, Hocking Valley Community ­Hospital, Logan, Ohio

Value Employees

I worked much of my career for small companies and nonprofits that weren’t in a position to pay top dollar for talent. However, astute managers found ways to attract and retain staff. Here are 10 ways that I observed: 

  1. They found a way to have fun every day.

  2. They took the time to find out why a staff member wasn’t performing up to expectations and guided them.

  3. They made staff members feel that they cared about their well-being.

  4. They made sure employees were comfortable coming to them with issues or errors.

  5. They offered a degree of ­flexibility to facilitate work/life balance.

  6. They had their employees’ backs and weren’t afraid to go up the ladder to fix a problem.

  7. They made sure that each staff member had a clear career path.

  8. They showed employees that they were valued by ­providing training ­opportunities for them.

  9. They fought to get their staff the tools they needed to do their jobs.

  10. They kept employees “in the loop” on company moves, plans and direction.

Treating employees well can be your strongest recruiting tool.

—L.D. Anderson, SHRM-SCP, retired HR director, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Try a Little Kindness

First Bank recently celebrated its third annual Good Deeds Week. 

More than 1,400 employees of the bank and its subsidiary organizations are each given $20 to perform a good deed during this week. 

Whether it’s paying for coffee for the person in line behind you or bringing doughnuts to the local fire station, we hope our employees’ actions will spread positivity and help them feel like they can make a difference in their communities.

Our neighbors will hopefully have a moment of joy in their lives, spread by our employees in almost every county throughout the Carolinas. 

This year, employees bought restaurant gift cards for sheriff’s department employees, provided baby food and snacks for children living at a local shelter, delivered freshly baked biscuits to local firefighters, and donated to local charities such as the St. Jude ­Affiliate Clinic, animal shelters and rehabilitation centers. 

With each good deed, First Bank employees leave behind a card with information about the movement and how good deeds can be paid forward by recipients.

—Anne Stoneham, senior director of human resources, First Bank, Southern Pines, N.C.

Show Gratitude

The Mecklenburg County Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board celebrated 75 years of business last year. 

To thank our staff, each of our 325 employees was allowed to choose one of five gift options valued at up to $150. The options included vouchers for clothing, work shoes, child care, pet care or wellness activities, such as haircuts, massages or gym memberships. The gifts made our ­employees feel valued, providing an instant morale boost. 

The wellness option was the most popular, so for the new fiscal year, we offered our employees a 20 percent discount on a YMCA membership.

Also, for the first time in more than three years, we gathered as an organization to reflect on what the pandemic had taught us and how we were setting the stage for the future.

We received positive feedback that employees feel engaged in the future of our company, and we learned that more than anything, employees want to be valued.

—Vernetta Purcell-Morrow, SHRM-CP, director of human ­resources, Mecklenburg County ABC Board, Charlotte, N.C.

Stay Connected

Traliant is a fully remote company with 130 employees in 32 states, and among the things we’re doing to keep our virtual employees ­engaged and happy is leveraging our Teams platform. 

 The Traliant Breakroom is one of the most popular Teams channels that HR created. This is a space for employees to share pictures, stories, GIFs and a lot of emojis! 

It’s also where the HR team poses a question of the day, such as, “What’s your favorite mug for coffee or tea?” 

Recently, we added a channel called Tralia-umphs! where employees can give kudos to co-­workers and celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, babies and random acts of kindness. 

Promoting health and wellness is a priority for us. In April, we kicked off a wellness challenge called Traliant Move More! to motivate employees to get more physical activity and compete for prizes. We recently concluded a nutrition program, too.

 Employee feedback and participation have been fantastic. The activities allow employees to get to know people from different depart­ments and find common interests and connections that wouldn’t necessarily happen, especially when working remotely.

But it’s more than sharing puppy pictures and recipes or doing a virtual step challenge. It’s about creating a sense of belonging and space for people to express themselves beyond the day-to-day work.

—Maggie Smith, SHRM-CP, senior vice ­president of HR, Traliant, ­Richmond, Va.

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Laugh a Lot

Peppercomm employees, who work remotely four out of five days a week, receive stand-up comedy training as part of our onboarding process. 

A unique way to collaborate and a catalyst for great client relationships, humor has long been a part of the company’s DNA and the way that we collaborate, and it’s easily translated to the remote world we operate in now. 

New employees receive a half day of training on comedy and its benefits to business. It culminates in a one- to three-minute stand-up routine. Additional improvisational training programs are held throughout the year.

Science shows that laughter creates a chemical reaction in the brain that can elevate one’s mood, leading to increased productivity, reduced stress and anxiety, and so much more. In fact, Stanford Business School now offers a course called “Humor: Serious Business,” which teaches executive leaders and entrepreneurs how to leverage laughter for better relationships and business results. 

Peppercomm has also experienced far lower turnover than our competitors. Our comedy DNA helps drive creativity, builds deeper relationships among colleagues and reinforces a unique approach: We take our business very seriously, but not ourselves.

By integrating humor into our employee engagement strategy, we have been able to fully maintain our culture while working remotely.

—Tara Lilien, chief talent officer, ­Peppercomm, New York City

A New Approach

Banc of California’s HR team is leading an HR revolution by rethinking how to simplify human resources and drive business strategy. 

In 2022, the HR team launched more than 20 new programs focused on bringing out the best of our 700 team members. For example, in 2021, the bank’s employee referral program garnered only nine referrals. In 2022, the refreshed Talent Award Program attracted more than 300 employee referrals and almost 50 new hires. By increasing the referral incentive and splitting payment into two installments, at 90 days and one year, we decreased turnover of first-year employees. 

Other new initiatives focus on leadership development, mentorship, wellness, tuition reimbursement and summer interns. 

The HR team also completed job architecture, introducing new corporate titles to showcase career pathing and how individuals can progress in the organization. In addition, to highlight strong performance, we added a new companywide goal called Principles of Success to every team member’s performance review.

The results are incredible! In 2022, turnover among high-­performing employees was below 4 percent, and today, it’s less than 1 percent. Promotions increased 22 percent, diverse hiring increased by 12 percent and internal mobility is up 28 percent this year.

—Alex Kweskin, executive vice ­president and CHRO, Banc of ­California, Santa Ana, Calif.

Encourage Self-Care

Veyl prioritizes a healthy work/life balance for its 145 employees. They are encouraged to strengthen their mental well-being through our company­wide mental health days and wellness hours. 

They also enjoy a wellness reimburse­ment program, which empowers them to make informed choices about their physical and mental well-being and have the resources they need to prioritize self-care. Most recently, we reimbursed an employee for a walking pad she purchased for her home office to keep herself ­moving throughout her workday.

The company also encourages employees to volunteer in their communities and give back to programs close to their hearts. 

One employee volunteered at The Libre Initiative, where she helped sign up people for English and financial aid classes. Another worker helped at a school that trains barbers and cosmetologists.

—Tiffany Keenan, director of people operations, Veyl Ventures, Duncan, S.C. 

Gather Feedback

Our organization didn’t have an in-house HR team before and wanted to do more for its employees. So we ­created an employee group to ­improve workplace culture and boost engagement and morale. 

The group comprises employees from all departments. The monthly meetings are a place where employees feel their voices are heard.

We also offered team-building events, such as an end-of-year holiday gathering at which we wrapped presents for needy families, ate cookies and drank hot chocolate.

In addition, we added a talk ­therapy benefit (which is 100 ­percent employer-paid) to address ­employee mental health concerns and ­provide access to a benefit that our ­employees wanted. 

We also got nitro cold brew coffee on tap for the office because employees asked for it.

We’ve made significant progress. Our employee engagement score was 94 percent this year, compared to 85 percent in 2021.

—Ann Wang, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources, Solar Energy Industries Association, Washington, D.C., and president, DC SHRM


Stronger Together

We started a PEACE team to help employees connect with their purpose. PEACE stands for People, ­Environment, Activities, Charities and Engagement. 

Employees work together to raise money to support the community in ways that interest them.

We gave financial support to charities such as Happy Feet, which provides new shoes to children in need, and the local food bank. 

Our fundraising activities have included a raffle of themed baskets, a Pampered Chef party and the ever-popular hot lunches. Team members bring in food, and employees give a suggested donation to eat. We have a lot of great cooks here, and we’re in a rural area, so employees enjoy getting something different for lunch.

We also organized people to help with cleanup after a tornado hit western Kentucky in December 2021, and we handed out food at the food bank. 

Employees working together to connect to a greater purpose has helped to improve our employee engagement and morale.

—Charity Franklin, HR business ­partner, Dyno Nobel Inc., Graham, Ky.

Create a Culture of Caring

Our organization is a nonprofit provider of services to the homeless in Los Angeles County. Our team members put themselves on the front line every day. 

So, in April, we provide employees with two self-care days, which we call Spring Wellness Days. These days are for employees to use however they choose. We want our employees to detach from work and take care of themselves as spring begins. 

We also have “Let’s Talk” days, when we bring in onsite counseling through our employee assistance provider. The counselor listens and talks with employees in a confidential setting. This reflects the agency’s commitment to self-care.

Finally, we’re starting a wellness program with monthly activities to increase employee connection and engagement, including nutrition classes and fitness challenges. We know that our employees have the heart to help, and we focus on wellness to keep their hearts full. Wellness and employee morale are interconnected, and a culture of care is important for all organizations to practice.

—John Horn, SHRM-SCP, vice ­president of human resources, LA Family Housing, North Hollywood, Calif.

Relax and Recoup

In the last year, we have offered a series of cultural and health awareness events designed to focus on the health and well-being of our team members. 

In honor of Stress Awareness Month in April, we partnered with a local mental health practitioner to host mindfulness training. The pair of one-hour seminars taught techniques to reduce stress, including guided meditation, sound therapy with crystal singing bowls to promote relaxation, and light yoga movement. 

This was a great opportunity for participants to learn more about different ways to cope with stress. ­Despite our limited floor space for yoga mats, we were pleased to receive positive feedback from our team on this program. 

—Stacey Barnier, SHRM-SCP, ­director of HR and risk management, San Bernardino County ­Employees’ Retirement Association, San Bernardino, Calif., and president, Inland Empire SHRM

Give Thanks

Since we are part of the health care field, the past three years have taken a toll on our employee morale. We formed a well-being committee dedicated to providing ideas for fun and engaging activities for our 2,200 employees in more than 90 offices. We allow employees to choose the activities that appeal to their teams. We encourage staff at each office to participate together to build teamwork. 

Some ideas include making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies for local shelters, decorating and writing holiday cards for seniors in nursing homes, joining book clubs and podcast clubs, participating in walking challenges, and making blankets for children in foster care.

At Thanksgiving, we participated in a “Thankful Turkey” event. Each office received a paper turkey cutout to post on a wall, and employees wrote what they were thankful for on “feathers” that they added to their turkey.

 Some of our locations offered ­paper turkeys in their waiting rooms so patients could participate as well.

—Rebecca Mohiuddin, SHRM-SCP, CHRO, Central Ohio Primary Care, Columbus, Ohio

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Time to Innovate

We are a fully remote team, and every other year, we make it a point to meet in person. 

Last year, Playvox flew all 200 employees to Colombia, where the company was founded, for our kickoff meeting. We had a week filled with great business sessions and a lot of fun, which enhanced our team’s collaboration.

Also, our engineers each year put together a two- or three-day hackathon, during which they collaborate to find solutions to business issues or simply innovate and bring new ideas to life. 

All employees can watch the hackathon, while senior leaders vote on the best ideas.

In addition, we have a Slack channel that allows each team member to provide recognition to others in the form of a “high-five.” The great thing about this public recognition channel, which is integrated with our performance-­management platform, is that employees read the congratulatory messages and interact with their colleagues to celebrate small and large achievements alike.

We also have a fitness channel in Slack where we pose monthly healthy-living challenges. Employees post pictures and videos of their fitness routines and share healthy eating habits. Each month, we select up to three winners.

These are only a few of the things we do consistently to engage our team; it’s necessary in a remote work environment. We foster a culture of transparency and open dialogue and embrace having fun, so our team tends to respond in the same manner, which strengthens trust and ­collaboration among our team.

—Ismaily Piedra, senior vice president of people and culture, Playvox, Sunnyvale, Calif.

Compiled by Dori Meinert. Illustrations by Gravina/iStock.