employee engagement in the digital ageEmployee engagement is an essential factor for companies to consider when striving to increase productivity, execute business strategies, improve company performance, and develop roles within the company.

In order to increase company value and performance, business managers must develop a strategic plan that encompasses both stakeholder engagement and the integration of 21st century technology. As clear roles and responsibilities are established for employees, company goals can be achieved in a smooth and efficient manner. This includes an encouraging work environment and the use of technology, allowing employees to succeed and maintain goals effectively.

However, according to Sandy M. Nessing, Managing Director, Corporate Sustainability at American Electric Power (AEP), growing a company while engaging employees is much easier said than done. The momentum to engage employees began three years ago when Lana Hillebrand, Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, joined AEP. She became the corporate champion for employees and put a plan in place.

In her role at AEP, Nessing works closely with Hillebrand as a champion of the company’s culture, focusing on employee engagement along with strategic alignment; she thinks that varying perspectives are vital to the growth of an organization.

“Companies need different inputs and different viewpoints to make informed business decisions whether that’s coming from an analyst, a non-governmental organization (NGO), an environmental group, regulator, legislator, or their employees.” Nessing stated. “One of the things that happens when you engage employees is that people get excited and passionate and become invested in success.”

Nessing’s culture work focuses on strategic alignment, employee engagement, leadership, performance recognition, and accountability to achieve business objectives and enhance stakeholder engagement.

“From an employee engagement perspective, we consider it to be a business imperative.  Without employee engagement, you cannot execute on your business strategy or achieve your business goals if everyone is swimming in opposite directions,” she added. “Employee engagement from that perspective is critical from a business aspect.”

One way that AEP engages its employees is through a learning map: a 90-minute session that helps employees to understand where his or her position sits in the larger scheme of the organization and how they contribute to the broader strategy. The ultimate goal of the exercise is for employees to see the direction and vision of their department as well as the company, and understand how they contribute to achieving business goals. Learning maps are common across corporations to help engage employees, serving as a great interactive tool for small group settings.

“The objective isn’t to get employees from 0-50, because it’s a continuum of learning. You want to move them to the right side of scale so they begin to understand more and see the connectivity between  the culture focus areas, values, vision, strategic goals, and challenges and opportunities,” Nessing explains.

Nessing said that more than 13,000 of AEP’s 17,000 employees have completed the learning map session in the past year, and as a result, they are more aligned with the direction AEP is heading in. The company measures success through an employee culture survey and the 2015 survey showed the trend moving in a positive direction.

“From an employee engagement and strategic alignment perspective, we are much more aligned. We have seen it directly tie to safety performance. We can also see employee engagement directly impacting reliability of service because people are more focused on their jobs and serving our customers,” Nessing said.

How have employee expectations at AEP exceeded previously accepted levels of engagement in the digital age?

“Communication is essential to employee engagement. We are all plugged in and on our phones; we are always looking for ways to connect with employees electronically.  In the workplace, it is the face-to-face that matters the most.  The communication between a leader, a manager, or a supervisor and their employees is the most effective.”

Nessing explains that it can be difficult for people who are unaccustomed to engagement.

“If you are speaking to a line crew in the field about something they are not familiar with, you have to find a way to communicate in language that they can relate to.”

Nessing said culture is as important to external stakeholders as it is internally.  During a recent meeting with stakeholders, AEP’s CEO related the discussion on environmental regulations to the culture work inside the company. He talked about the transformation under way within AEP and the electric utility industry and how employee engagement was instrumental in meeting the challenge. It was at that point that an investor in the meeting said “that a company that understands the challenges, engages employees, and finds a solution to address those challenges is a hallmark of a well-managed company.”  It became clear that there is a strong connection between internal culture and external perceptions.

“You can’t separate these things–they are all intertwined. Employee engagement can also be a catalyst for innovation,” Nessing continued. “We have engineers who developed a new line design for transmission that’s now patented and being marketed all over the world. By engaging as a team, they created a new business opportunity for AEP. Employee engagement is at the heart of it, and that is why it is so important to business success.”

Communication and talent expectations have rapidly changed. Now, companies have to reinvest themselves to align to an entirely new set of expectations to fit the ever-changing dynamics of modern technology.