OK. I’m sitting here in a quaint coffee-shop a few minutes from Harvard Square in Cambridge this morning minding my own business – and with no intention of thinking of anything as complex or profound as employee engagement – but I can’t help myself. The trigger was this short but cogent post by David Ferrabee of Hill & Knowlton’s Change & Employee Engagement team. I agree with David’s points and think he hits the nail on the head with the obvious answer – do whatever you can to get and keep people who love their work…who believe they have a real purpose and impact. All the other criteria – distinctive culture, core values, two-way communication, progressive HR policies -they all matter, but not as much.

One of the most striking illustrations of this argument I’ve seen in my career occured at Amazon.com. My agency did a consulting gig with them a few years back during some pro-union rumblings and I remember thinking that though they worked in a typically cool, caffeinated Seattle environment (a renovated old hospital) their workplace was anything but easy or comfortable. In fact, they worked like dogs in what seemed like constant chaos, cell phones going off every minute and employees literally jogging from one meeting to the next. But they seemed to love it. Why? Not the funky cafeteria, or the brick walls or even their dynamic leader Jeff Bezos and his incredible laugh – though those all mattered – but because they believe they were creating something special…making retail history. And years later they were proven right.
Companies trying to find the magic potion for engagement should certainly try to do all the obvious things to make their workplace a positive, nurturing and productive place to work… but the real pay-off will come when they are able to generate real passion among their employees. Easier said than done.