Creativity, imagination and genuine inspiration are vital to any employee engagement program. Being "cute" will only get you so far!
- Be clear about what you are doing and why you are doing it: reducing energy consumption, restricting travel, improving employee health, increasing staff loyalty and raising corporate profile could all be drivers, but they need to be clearly communicated.
- One size doesn't fit all – not every sustainability practice will engage employees. If you implement a travel policy that limits face-to-face time in favor of video conferences, employees who love to travel will not be best pleased.
- Pride is not guaranteed just because you have a recycling programme.
- Imagination – your initiatives must be interesting, fun and inspiring.
- Measure success – recycling rates and carbon footprints are relatively easy to measure, but gauging staff commitment or the effectiveness of green ambassadors requires some creative thinking.
All of these points certainly ring true, but the importance of imagination is often overlooked when developing an employee engagement program (and any sustainability initiative, for that matter).
So what do we mean by "imagination"? I think for many people, imagination in employee engagement may conjure up images of garish posters, comic-sans fonts, clip art, and, for lack of a better term, whimsy.
Certainly the hours I have spent slaving over just the right catchy tag line for an employee engagement campaign can attest to the challenge of doing this well - often ending up with a campaign or initiative that panders rather than engages and provokes meaninful dialogue.
Imagination doesn't start or end at "fun and catchy". It's more complex than that. Imagination involves using all your mental faculties to develop an alternative scenario for your present. It invokes a degree of freedom and allows you to think beyond traditional boundaries. Imagination is not drawing a spaceship on a cardboard box: it's going to space in a cardboard box.
There's been some great research done on integrating play and imagination into the workplace recently, but it takes time to do it right. While it's most definitely worthwhile, it can seem like a luxury when designing an employee engagement program. But there are other ways you can use your imagination when developing an amployee engagement plan. Here are a few tips:
1) Avoid whimsy. There's a reason business strategies are rarely presented as collages. It may be fun and cute at 5pm on a Thursday, but that doesn't mean it's going to translate to the rest of the company. Cutesy is definitely an engagement technique, but it only goes so far. It makes you think "how cute," not "what are the implications of my actions?"
Clever, thoughtful programming that makes the participant consider their role in the program is more effective than a puppy holding a piece of recycled paper. Cute (and scary) are short-term emotions, not the foundation of a long lasting program. It's why Pixar movies are so affecting. They're clever and thought-provoking rather than just cute or scary. Whimsy can be a great starting point, but it shouldn't be your ending point. Unless, of course, your business happens to be a preschool. In which case, go ahead.
2) Look at what people have responded to in the past. Each company has a unique culture. In some, creativity simply isn't respected. In others, it's a requirement. Think about past campaigns and programs that have been successful and were respected. Think about why you liked them and what you can learn from them. If you're in the sustainability department, try to find examples outside of your department and go and talk to the creators.
3) For imagination to succeed, you have to let people imagine. Scenario building can be incredibly important. Playing "grownup" when you're a kid is great because you take a familiar scenario and build on it. Many programs either give you the answer ("throw it in the bin, Betty") or give you no framework ("you should care about the environment, Evelyn").
Somewhere in the middle is a successful campaign that provides a framework within which your employees can imagine solutions. This gives your employees with ownership as well as a bit of creative space. Why not present your program as a series of open-ended questions? Do a scenario exercise with a hypothetical client or company and see what people come up with when they can imagine it's someone else.
4) Be sure you see the gears turning. Here's a test. Put the materials for your program in front of a colleage, with no explanation at all. Are they intrigued? Dumbfounded? Excited? Offended? Remember that when people encounter your program at various points in their workday, there may not be any context to help them understand it. If you can see the gears turning in someone's mind when you put your program in front of them, you likely have a good program. Your goal should be to elicit a "this is so cool, you know what we could do is..." from the participant. If you achieve that, you've engaged their imagination, and the rest should be a lot easier to figure out.
If you're still stuck, go watch a few of the better TED talks. The good ones make you think "That's fascinating, I bet I could do that..." or "Wow, I wonder if that also applies to..." Try to capture that feeling in your employee engagement program and find out how cool can win out over crayons any day of the week.