One of the most wide-reaching impacts of COVID-19 in the American workplace has been the Great Resignation, in which a record number of people are leaving their jobs. In fact, the Great Resignation is on the proverbial tip of every major business publication’s tongue—parsing its origins and causes, figuring out how to combat it, and predicting its future—but why? Simply put, the financial and cultural costs of replacing employees are proving to be a huge burden on employers in a job market with low unemployment and fast-rising wages.

So what can employers do to counter the Great Resignation? The key, we—and others—believe, is employee engagement. Let’s look at what employee engagement is, why it’s important, and how your organization can use history and heritage to boost engagement as part of its strategy to stave off the Great Resignation.

Employee Engagement and Its Ramifications

One major driving force of the Great Resignation is a lack of employee engagement or, as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines it, “the level of an employee’s commitment and connection to an organization.” According to SHRM, there are all kinds of variables that may affect how engaged an employee feels, including social cohesion, trust, communication, feeling supported, and feeling connected to a common goal and vision. Essentially, an employee wants to feel that they are valued for their work, supported in their role, and part of something larger than themselves that is aligned with their values.

According to one study conducted by Gallup, only 32 percent of employees are actively engaged—down from 36 percent two years ago. Furthermore, 17 percent of employees are actively disengaged from their work. Also according to Gallup, employee engagement levels can affect many areas of business: most notably turnover rates, but also productivity, quality of work, job safety, absenteeism and profitability.

Because of this, employee engagement needs to be a top priority for businesses if they want to attract new talent and retain their current talent. There are a lot of ways to make your employees feel committed to your business, but now is not the time to deploy generic programs that aren’t attractive to new people and don’t make current employees understand why they want to continue working for your company.

If your organization wants to differentiate itself from its competitors, one often-untapped resource for a successful employee engagement program is your own heritage. What we mean by that is the history that shapes a company’s culture and makes it unique. It’s the secret sauce that can illustrate your successful track record, differentiate you from the competition and inspire confidence in your future.

5 Ways To Use Heritage To Enrich Employee Engagement Programs

1. Root your mission in something real, and align employee engagement programs around that mission.

Patagonia Action Works

Innovation. Integrity. Collaboration. If you could throw a dart at any organization’s mission and values webpage, it’s likely to land on one of these words. If every company claims to be represented by the same five core characteristics, how do you differentiate yourself from your competition? That’s where heritage comes in.

When it comes to getting your employees to believe in your mission and values, you need to prove they’re more than just talk. Past behavior is the strongest predictor of future action, so your company’s history can act as proof of its values. As my colleague Paul Woolf said about demonstrating integrity: “If an organization’s people have behaved with integrity for an extended period of time, using, elevating and continuously reinforcing examples of that behavior can help reinforce the importance of integrity. It can prove both educational and uplifting.”

One example of a company that has used its heritage to root its mission and values is Patagonia. According to its website, it’s “in business to save our home planet.” That’s big talk and an even bigger commitment. But when you trace it back to Patagonia’s origin story, it’s consistent with why the company was founded.

Co-founders Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost were both avid rock climbers who recognized in the mid-’70s that existing climbing technology their company produced was causing serious damage to the environment. They saw a need to innovate a new way for climbers to engage with nature in order to ensure its protection for future generations. Chouinard and Frost subsequently stopped selling pitons, their most popular product, and invented hexes, an alternative type of equipment that didn’t damage the structural integrity of rocks. Coinciding with this shift, they began to include essays in their catalogs promoting environmentalism and conservation—a practice that Patagonia continues to this day.

Today, Patagonia’s mission informs how it engages both employees and the global community, including through Patagonia Action Works, a digital tool that connects employees with grassroot groups working to address the environmental crisis. Because Patagonia’s culture is rooted in authenticity that traces back to its founding, employees are more committed to the company’s success. The results? Patagonia has only a 4 percent turnover rate—far shy of the 13 percent reported in the retail industry as a whole.

2. Supercharge your communications with authentic storytelling

When you’re sending communications to your workforce, you want your message to stick. One way to ensure that is through storytelling—studies have shown that stories are remembered about 20 times more than facts alone. And what better stories to tell than authentic ones?

Authentic stories are real and include real people—those who started the company, innovated it forward, cared for fellow employees in times of hardship and lived and breathed its mission and purpose, to name a few. These stories have the power to humanize otherwise stale corporate communications. Large organizations in particular face the challenge of explaining complex processes and concepts on a macro level. When you share examples of individuals making an impact, it makes these processes and concepts more tangible and helps employees better understand the individual impact they could have at your organization. It provides a point of connection that’s vital for people to feel like a part of something larger than themselves.

These authentic stories can be sourced from your organization’s distant or more recent history. When S&P Global, a company focused on financial information and analytics, wanted to overhaul its career site, it wanted to put employees’ voices front and center to demonstrate its commitment to its employees and what a day in the life might look like.

History Factory worked with S&P Global to engage employees around the globe and capture self-directed videos where we asked them the question, “Why S&P Global?” This simple question put employees in the driver’s seat and allowed them to tell their own stories. Soon, submissions flooded in. More than 60 people captured over 2,000 clips using a simple video-recording app that allows users to record footage and upload it to the cloud directly from their phones for History Factory to instantly access.

In Islamabad, Ayesha works for S&P Global Market Intelligence. As the first woman in her family to receive a university degree, she salutes the company for its support of women in their careers. She is a role model for her two daughters, who join her in her video to tend their family flower garden.

John Paolo, based in the Philippines, demonstrates his commitment to flexible work hours and workouts. He captures on video his headstand on the waterfront in between sessions helping S&P Global colleagues remain as productive and fulfilled as possible during the pandemic.

These are just a few of the stories that now live on S&P Global’s revamped careers page, which exclusively features photos of real employees—no stock images. Potential talent can hear why they should want to work for S&P Global straight from the horse’s mouth. In the first few weeks after the site launched, there was a 300 percent monthly increase in traffic, and the videos were viewed 5,000 times across LinkedIn and other social platforms.

3. Build employee pride.

As we said before, there is a direct link between employee engagement and productivity. But we can distill this down even further and say that there is a direct relationship between employee pride and productivity. A study by design and technology agency Beyond found that 83 percent of employees who feel pride in the work they do and the organization they work for say that they regularly go above and beyond in their role. That same study found that 59 percent of employees who don’t feel that pride would be ready to move on to a new role within a year. That’s a staggering statistic.

So how do you build pride? “Understanding company vision, values and strong leadership are the strongest drivers of pride,” says Matt Basford of Beyond. And what are the best ways to connect employees to company vision, values and strong leadership? As we’ve established, through the use of heritage.

Southwest Airlines embarked upon its 50th anniversary right as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. It was, without a doubt, the most challenging period in the company’s history. Executives at the company knew that COVID-19 posed a real threat to the company’s longevity and the viability of a workforce that had never seen layoffs.

Despite facing the biggest crisis in the history of the company, Southwest knew how important celebrating its anniversary would be to inspire and engage employees and customers. The company has a reputation for a strong corporate culture and even stronger employee pride. From the outset, one of our guiding principles was to connect people to what’s important in their lives through stories reinforcing the value of hospitality and the purpose of Southwest.

Ultimately, Southwest executed several campaigns centered around storytelling, uncovering new stories and retelling well-known ones that have become company lore and a source of pride for employees. These were carefully selected, housed on a dedicated anniversary website and linked to ongoing company-wide initiatives that included recognizing employees, celebrating customers and giving back to the community.

Across the board, Southwest saw higher rates of engagement, including exceeding Acts of Kindness community outreach goals, remote employees opting in to receive recognition gifts, and more.

4. Authenticate earned trust and stability.

Southwest Airlines was not the only company facing an unsure future in March 2020. Every organization in every industry across the world faced challenges brought about by uncertainty as COVID-19 grew from an epidemic to a pandemic in a matter of weeks. All of a sudden, offices and borders were closed, workers were quarantined, supply chains were disrupted and worse.

Whether or not they were sure of the future, companies found it imperative to reassure employees that their organizations were on solid ground and would be around to see tomorrow. To calm panic, companies such as leading professional services firm Deloitte worked to uncover moments in their pasts when they responded to, recovered from and thrived after moments of crisis. Deloitte drew on lessons learned from the past and showed how its guiding principles put it on solid footing to face this challenge, as well as any that might arise in the future.

The company deployed this messaging throughout internal and external communications, including a quarterly magazine sent to clients and partners alike. Speaking at The Anniversary Marketing Summit last year, Brian Resnick, Deloitte’s managing director of Global Brand & Marketing, remarked: “We know the value of trust is greatest during times of disruption and crisis. In short, credibility is currency, and what better way to promote your credibility than through incontrovertible stability?”

5. Build communications that reach all of your people.

Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, companies are being faced with the decision of how they will work going forward. There is a rising trend of companies permanently instituting hybrid or fully remote work policies, while others are requiring employees to return to the office full time. Each option has its risks: Companies that do not offer flexible work options are at higher risk of missing out on top talent, but those that do may sacrifice a unified culture.

While flexible options support employees’ mental health and work-life balance, they mean that employees aren’t building the same kind of bonds they might if they saw each other every day in person. Organizations need ways to unite a dispersed workforce outside the office. This is where your heritage can play a key role.

For example, take Verizon, which recently launched The Verizon Story digital exhibit, originally intended—and built—as several physical exhibits housed in the company’s Basking Ridge, NJ, headquarters. The exhibit areas showcase Verizon’s innovations throughout telecommunications history, the company’s current landscape, and its vision for the future while telling the story of the numerous legacy companies that make up the modern-day telecommunications giant. Each of the five modular exhibit areas in The Verizon Story Museum brings a different part of Verizon’s story to the forefront.

Verizon originally intended employees to interact with the physical exhibit every time they came to work and had plans to expand it to other offices around the country. Then the pandemic hit and the company—like many others—closed its offices and sent employees home. Verizon had invested so much in developing content for these exhibits that it did not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We quickly pivoted to create a “digital experience.”

Initially launched to employees and accessible from anywhere, the digital experience was subsequently rolled out to the public. In its first year, it received more than 23,000 visitors, with 21 percent returning to the site more than once. Furthermore, current and past Verizon employees had a click-thru rate more than 2.5x higher than that of other audiences, affirming the content’s resonance with its primary audiences.

The Bottom Line

Your company is facing all kinds of challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. One surefire way to retain current employees and turn them into advocates to attract new talent is to boost engagement through concerted communications programs built on heritage.

Many of us have just lived and worked through one of the most traumatic, challenging and stressful experiences of our lives and careers. This collective moment in history needs to be captured and documented—and will provide new context for and perspective on your organization’s history and heritage. Many of today’s leaders and employees will play key roles in tomorrow’s history. Find a way to capture these stories and share them with your workforce to create a shared sense of pride and improve productivity and retention. If you’re struggling to come up with places to start, we’ve got some ideas for you.

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