undefinedAccording to 2017 research from Dale Carnegie, two-thirds of American employees are not fully engaged at work. In addition, after internal meta-analysis of their employee engagement surveys of hundreds of companies (both large and small), Gallup reported recently that "business or work units that score in the top quartile of their organization in employee engagement have nearly double the odds of success... when compared with those in the bottom quartile. Those at the 99th percentile have four times the success rate of those in the first percentile."

Setting an Example: The Best Banks to Work For
The WBA member banks interviewed for this article each were named to the most recent American Bankers Association list of Best Banks to Work for. Congratulations to these institutions for going above and beyond in demonstrating the power of employee engagement. 

What does that research mean for Wisconsin banks? Dedicating energy, time, and resources to improving employee engagement will yield dividends. Banks who make engagement a priority will enjoy a competitive advantage over not only other financial institutions but also other employers with whom they compete for top talent. In order to achieve that advantage, however, bank leadership need to understand what "engagement" truly means. "Engagement isn't about being happy and satisfied at work. You can be happy and satisfied and still coasting," explained Dave Furlan, senior HR business partner at The Payroll Company (TPC) HR. "It's about making sure employees are invested in the company's mission and success." 

Benefits of Engagement

The advantage companies with more engaged employees enjoy over their competitors surfaces in three main areas: customer service, productivity, and talent management. "Community banking is all about taking care of our customers and being responsive, and that starts with being engaged," said Mike Molepske, CEO at Bank First, Manitowoc. "We can't deliver good customer service unless we have an engaged workforce." Ann Knutson, HR director at First Bank Financial Centre, Oconomowoc stressed the importance of considering the employee experience just as much as the customer experience. "A positive employee experience will translate to a positive customer experience and higher levels of customer satisfaction," she explained. This concept also applies to internal customers. "When you have engaged employees, they're always thinking about the betterment of the customer and their peers," said Dennis Vogel, president and CEO at Citizens State Bank of La Crosse. Employees who are invested in the bank's success also tend to be advocates for the bank by serving the community. "We're being successful at engaging employees, customers, and communities," said Bill Sennholz, president/CEO at Forward Bank, Marshfield. "We've had multiple communities ask us to open locations in their area because they see what we're doing."

When it comes to productivity, numerous studies and countless hours of research have proven the positive impact of engaged employees. "The productivity of the organization improves and will be at a high level when you have people who believe in your company," said David Fritz, managing partner at Executive Benefits Network (EBN). "Engaged employees can more easily help push the organization's agenda forward." Understanding what the bank's goals are helps employees understand how their work affects the outcome, which leads to higher productivity. "Invested employees really care about what they do and have higher levels of productivity," said Knutson. "They become ambassadors for your organization, whether it's referring others to bank with you or work for you." 

Which leads to the final key advantage of employee engagement: "It's easier to recruit when you have an engaged and supportive workforce," said Fritz. "When you're trying to recruit younger employees to an organization, they're looking for culture and a sense of fulfillment as much as compensation. An engaged employee culture will be easier to recruit to." When engagement becomes ingrained at the cultural level, it shrinks some of the recruitment hurdles businesses face in tight labor markets. "When I started here 14 years ago, I told the employees I wanted to make this place the envy of all other places in town to work," said Sennholz. "When it comes time to go out into the market and find skilled employees, our reputation precedes us. In the end, it's paid dividends as we compete for employees in the marketplace."

Getting Started

With all the significant benefits of an engaged workforce, why do so few companies make it a priority? Simply, because it is a difficult challenge to create and sustain high levels of employee engagement. "It can be a painful process for management to go through because they'll find out where their warts are in some cases," Fritz explained. For bank leaders who are up for the challenge, the first step is to collect direct input from employees. One of the most popular tools for accomplishing this is employee surveys, which can take a lot of work, but are worth it for the insight they provide. "You need objective data to work with, rather than guessing," Furlan explained. "You can do it through large consulting firms or create your own, but you need a baseline."

Next, diagnose any issues raised by the employee input and then classifying them. "Identify which issues are fixable and which are non-negotiable," Fritz recommended. In a banking context, examples of non-negotiable pain-points could be compliance-driven processes or certain response time requirements. It is imperative to follow this step with clear communication about what can't be changed and why. "For issues that non-negotiable, leadership need to communicate passionately and honestly why that is the case," Fritz advised. 

Finally, implement what changes you can based on employee feedback, and ensure that those changes penetrate the entire organization. "It's not just the relationship managers and CSRs," said Molepske. "It's also the operations folks. We all have customers, whether they're internal or external, and we need to make their experience as positive as it can be." For example, Vogel says that everyone at the bank goes through sales training as part of their development. "It doesn't matter if you're in IT or operations, you're part of the customer experience," he explained.

Incentivizing Engagement
Consider one of the following rewards/incentives recommended or utilized by the experts interview for this article:

  • Enhanced onboarding process: make sure all new employees feel welcomed
  • Paid time for volunteering/flexibility to leave and volunteer during work hours 
  • Different options for on-the-spot awards with the same perceived value
  • Bank-wide award for engagement presented at the annual meeting
  • Bring in real baristas to make specialty coffees and beverages for staff
  • Hand employees physical "thank you" cards for jobs well done.

Best Practices

While employee engagement will look different at each bank—varying by factors including strategic goals, geographic market, and size—there are four common engagement practices that are effective for most organizations: regular feedback and recognition, education and development, diversity, and communication. 

Feedback and Recognition
"Recognition is a huge part of employee engagement," said Knutson. "It's become part of our culture at the bank to say, 'thank you.'" In fact, First Bank Financial Centre recently created and launched a peer-to-peer recognition program to complement their existing executive- or manager-to-employee programs. Regular performance feedback also helps foster employee interaction and confidence. "When people don't get that feedback, they start to get more insular and don't interact as well with others because they don't know if they're doing a good job," Furlan explained.

Education and Development
"If you can help people grow, they will provide excellent customer service," said Molepske. Building a culture that supports employee growth and development requires investment, but yields invested employees. "We have a culture surrounding learning and development," said Knutson. "We find that we've been able to increase engagement because of that." Furlan advises looking beyond training to overall education for employees. "We spend most of our waking hours during the week at work, so employers can teach their employees how to be healthier, for example," he said. Another example, and one that is growing in popularity, is financial wellness. "When workers are stressed about their finances and we can teach them strategies to deal with that, they're able to be less distracted at work," said Furlan.

Diversity
"Diversity plays a big role in engagement," said Molepske. "We pride ourselves on having age diversity, and it's also having people who think differently or have different geographic backgrounds. Whenever you can put differences together, they're more engaged and they perform better." A diverse group of employees will also respond differently to engagement incentives. "We've definitely tried to come up with engagement strategies that will impact employees at various stages in their career," said Gwen Schnitzler, HR director at Forward Bank. "The things that motivate new college graduates are very different from motivations for someone who is approaching retirement." Vogel says Citizens State Bank utilizes a combination of tailored and universal incentives, guided by a software program that helps managers identify what motivates each employee. 

Communication 
Sennholz says Forward Bank focuses on having strong internal communication practices. "Part of our marketing team's job is internal marketing, so employees know how important their position is and their impact on the community," he explained. As with most communication, these internal practices must be ongoing in order to be effective. "Engagement is part of our discussion from day one, and it's part of our monthly coaching sessions," said Vogel. "We define what 'engaged' means." They even print it on the bank's mousepads to keep it top-of-mind for all staff.

Ultimately, building employee engagement is about fostering a sense of ownership among employees. When bank employees understand how their actions and work impact the institution as a whole, it's more likely they will become invested in the bank's success. "Engaged employees go the extra mile for customers without being asked because they see engagement as ownership," explained Jennifer Sobotta, VP marketing director at Forward Bank. "The ownership and responsibility they provide our customers cannot be replicated by others."

Executive Benefits Network (EBN) is a WBA Bronze Associate Member.
The Payroll Company (TPC) is a WBA Bronze Associate Member.