The story goes that Santa employs a large workforce of elves, who spend the majority of the year in production lines building all sorts of toys. As their peak time (aka. 24th December) approaches, these elves are redeployed into roles such as letter reader, gift wrapper, reindeer wrangler, flight coordinator and so on. Northpole.Inc is a pretty happy place to work, despite the hard work and challenging geography. The elves are happy at work, all year round. The workshop within Northpole.Inc vibrates with excitement, positive energy and employee motivation. What does Santa know about employee engagement that the rest of us could copy?
Defining Employee Engagement
Before we tackle the principles that have created an engaged "elf-force" in Santa's workshop, it's important first to understand what employee engagement is, and why it is important.
Definitions of Employee Engagement may vary, but common to all descriptions is the individual's alignment to the organisation and their willingness to invest discretionary effort (or go the extra mile). This extra effort has, in turn, been linked to improved organisational performance and of course, increased revenue and profit. It's hardly surprising then, that employee engagement has gained more and more traction as a measurable construct of organisational health.
Santa's approach to Elf engagement
Gartner found that regardless of the number of questions or themes studied, the most successful employee engagement measurements seek to understand 5 key principals, namely; Alignment, Understanding of the Role (role clarity), Relationship with Leadership, Opportunities for Growth and Working conditions. When considering what it must be like to work at Northpole.Inc for Santa, it is easy to find alignment to these themes.
A purpose bigger than themselves (Alignment)
Every Elf working at Northpole.Inc has an evident understanding of the organisation's purpose – that of fulfilling the Christmas wishes of boys and girls around the world. Being able to connect the dots directly between what an employee does every day, and a greater purpose results in the sense of happiness and individual commitment to a cause. Santa's Elves have a clearly defined (and known) mission and vision. They know that they must first and foremost meet the goal of presents being delivered on Christmas Eve. They know, deep down that it takes all of their personal and collective skill and effort to make this goal achievable. The vision and purpose creates a sense of drive – one that lasts all year round and encourages them through the coldest blizzards as they pursue their higher calling.
The truth is that your employees come to your organisation because they identify with its mission and purpose. There is something in the organisation's view of the world that resonates with them. According to an article in FastCompany, the majority of employees considered to be millennials and younger are motivated to choose meaning over money when it comes to career. Furthermore, there are an increasing number of would-be retirees' option to shun "slowing down" to start exciting (and sometimes, financially unnecessary) second careers for a sense of doing good. Creating a purpose and connecting your employees to the vision are the starting points of fostering an engaged workforce.
A well-oiled machine (Role Clarity)
From the Head of Operations Elf to the Gift wrappers, toymakers, route-planners and reindeer keepers, each Elf has the tools, resources and processes required to help them perform well in their current position. While the Elves work within complex team structures, each role is clearly defined, creating a sense of comfort and expectation clarity. Coaching on effective toy design by Santa himself, to the latest reindeer care products are all made available to the Elves due to the understanding that as employees they are only as effective as the resources given them. Furthermore, Northpole.Inc has customer intelligence like no other organisation on the planet – from thousands of letters mailed every year to feedback from their in-field workers (all the Santa's in Shopping Malls). This customer feedback is not only used to forecast and predict their business’s future requirements but also to identify gaps and ensure that as a collective, their roles and functions on effectively deliver on the organisation's purpose.
An employee without the correct resources or a clearly defined role will seldom feel engaged. The first thing to understand is that role clarity and a job description is not the same thing. The job description is merely the starting point to conversations around expectations, how the role impacts the greater organisation and the value it creates. An Emplify article pointed out that there is often an assumption that only very new employees lack clarity but that research has found the inverse to be true. It is important that at every level of the organisation, time and effort is given to fostering role clarity and understanding not only to increase organisation productivity, but create a sense of engagement.
Ho, Ho, Ho (Role of Leadership)
Northpole.Inc clearly has the advantage of inspirational leadership. Not only is Santa the embodiment of the organisation's objectives, but is the very reason the organisational culture is what it is. He is accessible, easy-to-talk-to, fair and fun, cheerful, lives the organisation’s purpose and expects the same from his leadership team. The leadership team lives into behaviours that ensure each Elf is valued. All ideas are considered because there is an understanding that it is from those on the so-called Front-line, that the best innovation will arise. The Elf teams are smart and effective. They don't need micromanagement, and if the need arises, gentle encouragement or kind correction is all it takes to ensure a harmonious environment exists. Santa expects the best from his team and works hard to not only deliver joy year-in-and-year-out, but also to do so in a way that creates happy Elves all year through.
Leadership is perhaps the most important driver of engagement. The adage goes "People leave people, not companies" and every leader has an impact on employee engagement – good or bad. Leadership communication can be considered the most important leadership skill that drives engagement. This includes sharing the vision, goals and rationale behind decisions. The relationship with direct supervisors and the perception of senior leadership both contribute to a sense of engagement. From a direct reporting line point of view, engagement is created through the working relationship and through a sense that the manager understands the employee and is actively involved in removing obstacles and looking after the future growth of the individual. From a Senior leadership point of view, the perception that the team is capable of moving the organisation to a better future is key in creating a sense of engagement. Much like Santa, as the head of the organisation, is inspirational; the chances are the workforce will tend towards engagement.
Moving up the Candy Cane (Growth and Development)
Elves have the opportunity to develop their skills and abilities continuously. Not only do they learn about all of the new technology that impacts new toy creation in the off-season, but they also cross-train on the job every day. They can make a whole product or cooperate with other Elves to produce a gift for a child. The reindeer keeper often takes a shift indoors to learn more about the workshop production line, and the Head of Operations Elf takes time out to sit in on design briefings to not only guide younger Elves in the pitfalls of toy design but also to stay up-to-date on the latest in toy trends. Promotions are not often available in Santa's Workshop where a flat hierarchy rules the day. But, training, changed work responsibilities, and lateral moves are common so that Elves can increase their skills and value. Combating the boredom so often found in repetitive work is easy when elves have the opportunity to do different tasks each day. Staying up-to-date on innovations in reindeer food, the technology that powers the North Pole village, and the innerworkings of Santa's sleigh, rule the day. When engaged elves are learning, and keeping their skills up-to-the-minute, the future for Santa, the elves, and the holiday traditions for little children and big children worldwide, is secure for generations to come.
It is human nature to seek growth – whether in skill, personal development or official qualification. Workplaces that create a belief in employees that their tenure with an organisation is more than just a short-term job, but rather a chance to build a career are likely to have more engaged employees. Eagles Flight shares that a study reported that as many as 80% of employees say that learning and development help them feel more engaged at work. Providing employees with key learnings and development opportunities not only builds capable, confident employees, but contributes to overall organisational success.
Santa's Village (Working environment)
Northpole.Inc and Santa's workshop are magical places to be, but they are also spaces for hard work, collaboration, impact and innovation. To ensure that this happens, an environment has been created where Elves feel cherished and valued. Mrs Claus is famous for her cookies that she shares with joy. Hanging out with reindeers, particularly a special reindeer with a bright red, glowing nose, is another opportunity shared by many employees. And, the outfits provided as part of the job never fail to bring a smile (and keep the Elves warm). Trust and respect permeate the work environment where the elves spend their day. Elves feel intrinsically valued. In Santa's Workshop, the behaviour of the leadership team and that of all the co-worker elves broadcasts a message of trust, respect, belief in, and value. Not spoken about very often, actions form the message elves believe in. Santa's actions speak so loudly that he rarely needs to say anything about what he believes. The elves just know.
Working conditions are often referred to as intrinsic motivational factors, meaning that their presences don't necessarily create engagement, but their absence will swiftly create disengagement. There is a strong correlation between high workplace satisfaction and high employee engagement, with employees who have greater control over their physical workplace – including access to private spaces – also reporting the highest engagement levels. Engaged employees are those who have more control over their work experience, including the ability to concentrate easily and work in teams without being interrupted. That being said, employees need social interaction and thus need spaces where they can connect informally with our colleagues and have the opportunity to discuss work in a more relaxed, informal and pleasant setting. To foster employee engagement, the workplace needs to, at minimum, be safe and conducive to productivity but also needs to create a sense of control, trust and social interaction.
And a Merry Christmas, Everyone
Some universal principles about how to create happy employees at work are operating on full throttle at NorthPole.Inc. Workplaces that emulate Santa's workshop are likely to see the positive results of having engaged employees. A key starting point (an important ongoing cadence to assess improvement) is employee engagement measurement. This can be done annually, bi-annually or quarterly via an in-depth survey, or more frequently via pulse surveys. The data collected from these surveys should be used to inform leadership action and organisational change and will go a long way to understanding if your employees are feeling engaged or not.
To get started, here is a handy guide on our top 10 employee survey questions to ask as well and a fun infographic on Elf Engagement to spark your imagination.