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You can’t demand engagement, but you can coax it. A tour of Southwest’s intranet reveals how this is done.

By Matt Wilson

Employee engagement is important. As researchers at Gallup put it, “The world’s top-performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives business outcomes.” If you need help with managing the welfare of your employees, Together mentoring software may be the answer.

Making it happen is easier said than done, says Gordon Ross, owner and vice president of OpenRoad Communications.

“You cannot ask your staff to be engaged,” he told the hosts of the Digital Workplace Group’s IBF Live broadcast. “It’s the same as asking them to be spontaneous. You take away the conditions in which they can be spontaneous.”

Paul Miller, founder and CEO of the Digital Workplace Group, asked why leaders are so reluctant to encourage engagement at all. Ross responded that, often, executives just aren’t thinking about it. Often, their minds are on big-picture fiscal or technological issues, and engagement strikes “at very personal topics.”

However, Ross cited a Harvard Business Review report which stated that a thriving workforce has engaged employees that are “creating the future” of the company.

How can you accomplish that without forcing it? Ross said it’s all about control. Employees often forget why what they do day to day is important. With some degree of agency or voice, and the proper tools to communicate, they can see the value. Ross listed blogs, comments, employee profiles, webcasts, and internal social tools as worthwhile ways to provide employees with some degree of control.

Employee profiles are especially useful, he said. Even in organizations that aren’t that large, staffers often don’t know everyone with whom they work. Directories with rich profiles give everyone an identity, Ross said.

Employers have to strike a balance between training employees to use the tools and giving them freedom to do as they wish with them, he said. “The thing about these tools is that they’re voluntary in many ways.”

Southwest’s example

Southwest offers its employees plenty of avenues for expression, Katie Coldwell, the airline’s communications director said during a live tour of the company’s intranet. For instance, each employee has the opportunity to fill out a lengthy profile for an internal director. About 20 percent of employees—keeping in mind that many of Southwest’s employees travel every day—have filled out their profiles, she said.

Employees also have ample opportunity to support each other. The “LUV Culture” tab on the company’s intranet has areas for support groups, posting messages to honor fellow employees who have died, offer nominations for employee awards, and read flattering emails from customers.

Just as they are on Southwest’s external blog, employees are encouraged to contribute to the company’s news portal, SWALife, as subject experts. Often, posts on SWALife will tie in to posts on the external blog.

“Any employee is welcome to share their story,” Coldwell said. “They key is to have consistent messaging.”

The company’s weekly news video, “WNdow Seat,” features two different employees every month as hosts. A survey along the side of the intranet homepage solicits employee opinion on an array of topics.

Miller said Southwest seems like “an organization with a lot of courage” to give so much of a voice to employees. Ross agreed that Southwest infuses the company’s purpose into every corner of the intranet, but not every company could do the same.

“Every organization has a history,” Ross said. “It’s not just a series of techniques another airline could bring in.”

Miller replied: “You can’t just put on the clothes. You’ve got to feel the part.”

Coldwell said intranets have to stem from the culture of the company, it can’t just be a website employees interact with.

Miller did have one critique of Southwest’s intranet: Compared with its external sites, it isn’t as visually appealing. “If I was 21 and joining the organization, I’d find myself gravitating toward Facebook and the external blog rather than the intranet,” he said.

About the author

Cheryl Lesser - Usability, communications, content strategy researcher for the Digital Workplace Group Cheryl Lesser is a freelance researcher and usability benchmarking evaluator with DWG.

She earned her corporate communications chops at Thomson Reuters, where she provided strategic communications counsel to a variety of internal clients.

Cheryl then shifted focus to the intranet, where she first served as the corporate managing editor and later oversaw the day-to-day operations for an intranet for 67,000 employees.

Cheryl’s current work is focused on intranet usability.

Connect with Cheryl on Twitter: @cllessers

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