The last few years have seen several disruptions in the employment market: remote/hybrid work, “quiet quitting,” people simply leaving the workforce for a variety of reasons, and increased wages. With turnover on the rise and seemingly fewer qualified candidates available for the open positions posted, there is a broader focus on retaining employees through engagement. The million-dollar question is, “How do you engage employees?”

When I speak to leaders in my organization and others with which we have close ties, I receive many suggestions for how we should engage employees. These range from ping pong tables and dart boards in the break room to free drinks, cereal, snacks, and even beer and wine for weekly happy hours. We’ve implemented employee of the month programs and message board recognition tools. Do these provide opportunities for fun and team building? Sure they do but, in the long run, they do not substantially improve employee engagement.

Engaged employees are missionaries for the vision and values of the organization. They are deeply connected to their work, their teammates, and their leader. They consciously and purposefully deliver high quality work. They also stay with an organization for much longer, even in tough times. When I review exit survey data and comments from recently departed employees, not a single one comments on the free stuff or games to play in the office (or lack thereof), for as fun as they may be, they are ultimately just gimmicks. Free beer and ping pong will never build the deep connections that make for an engaged employee.

In reality, it is the direct manager or leader of the employee that will create this connection. Much to our dismay though, this is neither an overnight solution nor does it provide a tangible moment like a dart board appearing on the wall in the break room or free sodas in the lunchroom refrigerator. Engagement is cultivated over time and with great effort, especially at the beginning. Much like a rocket ship burning most of its fuel just to free itself from the gravity of Earth, engagement requires a lot of heavy lifting to get going but eventually reaches its apogee and coasts along in a serene orbit with much less effort and energy.

Engagement starts in the interview and selection process. The hiring manager must be the direct supervisor of the future employee and must build the foundations of the relationship from the first interview. While HR should always be available to support and advise, the hiring manager must own and drive the hiring process with each candidate. An engaged hiring manager will ensure that the hiring process is transparent, time and appointment commitments are always met, and follow up happens at every step. Being on time and attentive (mobile phones and watch alerts are silenced) shows the candidate that you are interested in them. Following up when promised is also critical. This includes the selection phase where we possibly did not select a particular candidate for this position. Reaching out to let them know is a powerful relationship-building step in the process – the manager will know when a connection is made when the rejected candidate expresses gratitude and a strong desire to apply at a later date.

Once hired, the first day is the next important step. Spending time in the onboarding process to explain company culture, vision, mission, values, and fundamental knowledge (like where the restrooms are located) will make a nervous rookie feel welcomed. If an organization has swag like cups, mugs, shirts, etc., provide these on day one. Introduce the new employee to any team members or clients with whom they will interact. Partner them with an experienced (and personable) peer to provide another resource for information. The new employee does not know what they do not know – having a buddy to ask routine questions will make them comfortable and more quickly immersed in the organization.

Proper training and development also begins in that first week. Building (and following) a detailed training plan allows the manager and the employee to track progress and make adjustments as needed. I have found that weekly one-on-one (1:1) meetings starting in that first week create solid communication avenues for both the manager and employee. I set up 1:1s for my team in our calendar app as a repeating appointment and set the tone for the 1:1 at the beginning. It is not the manager’s meeting – it is the employee’s meeting. The 1:1 is not time to catch up on outstanding tasks or get project updates. Those conversations should happen spontaneously in real time or at other scheduled status meetings. The 1:1 consists of three basic questions for the employee:

1. How are you?

2. What can I (as the manager) do to remove any obstacles that are currently making your job difficult?

3. What is important to you right now and how can I support that?

Any individual 1:1 can last ten minutes or up to an hour, depending on the employee’s responses. We know that vacations, business travel, projects, and other demands can infringe on our time, so the hard rule of 1:1s is that they do not get moved or canceled without both the manager and the employee agreeing to it.

Lastly, it is important for managers to always respect the time of their employees. I am very much a proponent of work-life integration (as opposed to “balance”), explaining to my team that work is part of life and together we can find ways to integrate it into an employee’s personal situation wherever possible (see 1:1 questions 2 and 3 above). After all, if an employee needs to attend their kid’s soccer game or take Friday off for a long weekend, irreparable harm is done when a manager denies such a request. My experience is that people will step up to meet a deadline or finish a task when needed if they know that their manager would give them time off upon request.

No amount of gimmickry or free stuff will build the kind of relationships and connections that real and connected leadership will. Focus on building a team of great leaders and candidates will beg to be on your team or in your organization. It will be evident that the organization is filled with truly engaged employees.