Engaging employees is a marathon, not a sprint

26.2 miles. Hours of pushing yourself to reach the finish line. A marathon is a feat anyone should be proud to complete, not least because of the months or years of training that lead up to it. The sheer stamina it takes to make it to the end is a testament to what the human body is capable of. In terms of the time commitment and scope, it’s much like a successful employee engagement strategy. Unlike the sprint, which involves exhausting all one’s internal resources to make it to a close finish line, a marathon requires one to carefully track themselves to keep from breaking down partway.

Employee engagement is much discussed these days, with the famous statistic of 30% of employees give or take a percentage point being shared across industries. We know that something has to be done to improve that number, but we continue practicing the “sprint” method when we should be running a marathon. This is most clear in the outrageous perks famously given at many young startups – ping pong tables, free lunch, and more. Those are great for recruitment, but engagement doesn’t necessarily follow. Engagement is about long lasting trust between employee and employer that communication and other processes will happen in a way that’s empowering, rather than draining. Engaging employees is a cumulative effect, and organizations need to understand that they’re in it for the long haul. In fact, temporary solutions can backfire. If employees feel initially engaged but come to see one time nods to their value and wellbeing as trivial, masking a deeper apathy, they may see anything short of a complete cultural overhaul as the company “crying wolf”.

This isn’t to knock the positive and fun environment companies are creating and what it can potentially do for employees. Rather, they need to keep marathons on the mind. Transparency and trust are key here. When managers listen to their teams and take their feedback seriously, employees feel more valued and excited to contribute. Further encourage and empower them by allowing them to take on responsibility for larger projects, perhaps even developing new skills along the way. These are all long term strategies that need to be part of the company culture, rather than one time initiatives. However, if this environment of communication and trust is built, employee engagement is sure to follow.