Two out of every ten employees are disengaged, five out of ten employees are disengaged with no direction and only three out of every ten are engaged. Employee engagement is important to the vitality of any organization as engaged employees are often high performers. So, how can organizations increase employee engagement?

On May 18, I attended the Purpose at Work Summit held by BVU at Case Western Reserve University for a jam-packed morning full of ideas on this. Two of the biggest ideas I came away from the event with were the importance of dialogue and defining purpose. Much of employee engagement hinges on two-way dialogue that gets to the crux of what a company and an employee’s purpose is.

Identifying Purpose

Jonathan Atwood, VP of Sustainable Living & Corporate Communications, Unilever North America, was the day’s keynote speaker and he suggested that the first step in starting that dialogue and finding the business’s purpose is to look at company archives. What did the company care about when it was started? What did company leaders care about when the company was founded? Sometimes we forget these things or they’re simply not passed down as the company grows over the years.

At the employee level, leaders need to ask their employees, “What’s your purpose?” and “What do you care about?” It’s a new kind of conversation that many employers and employees aren’t having today. However, to engage employees in this kind of conversation, it needs to be authentic. Atwood said that Unilever used to be very prescriptive in how they communicated with employees and how they found purpose, but that’s changed. Now, they give employees permission to act on their purpose. For example, a group of employees expressed interest in having a community garden and said they’d wanted one for a long time, but leadership never made it happen. Atwood said that when the idea was presented to him, he told them to start digging.

Unilever makes good on these conversations by doing things like closing the company once a year to encourage people to go out and pursue their purpose and the things they’re passionate about. The company’s purpose itself is engrained in their brands, too. For example, Dove, a Unilever brand, knew that body image was a big issue among young girls. This insight became a part of their business model and now Dove is a brand whose purpose is recognizable.

Taking the Next Step

The summit concluded with a panel discussion of local business representatives who shared how they engage their employees around purpose. Here are some ideas you might bring to your business:

  • Define and reinforce company values
  • Recognize teams and individuals making a difference
  • Provide mentorship opportunities
  • Hold regular town halls
  • Support and encourage grassroots volunteerism
  • Encourage and accept employee ideas and feedback
  • Rely on champions for each cause who will lead the charge

Engaged employees are high performers who view their work as a calling, not just a job. Armed with these ideas, go out and find your purpose!