Employee Engagement Best Practices (ft. Christie Hoffman, Pingboard)

Want to improve employee engagement? Take these best practices from expert Christie Hoffman, podcast host and strategist.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
July 19, 2023
min read

Employee engagement is one of the most important topics for hybrid and remote managers. What was easy in the office can be much more challenging when people work from home. 

Delivering a standout employee experience is an important way to build employee engagement

This begs the question: what is employee engagement, how is it different from employee experience, and what are some employee engagement best practices and employee engagement strategies that I can apply?

To answer these questions, we turned to the expert: Christie Hoffman, who hosts the highly popular Flip Flops & People Ops podcast, is a Brand Ambassador + Workplace Experience Strategist at Pingboard, and a recently crowned Top 55 Remote Work Influencer.

In the interview and our article below, you’ll find answers to all your questions on employee engagement best practices:

  • What are people-first organizations, and why do they matter?
  • What is employee engagement, really?
  • How do you define employee engagement?
  • What’s the difference between employee engagement and employee experience?
  • How can we improve employee engagement?
  • How can I prepare my first employee engagement survey?
  • What is the role of one-on-ones in employee engagement?
  • What can managers do? And what’s HR’s role? 
  • Why is it important to start with ourselves?

You can find the interview on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

What are people-first organizations, and why do they matter?

Daan: Christie, you take insights from your social media comments and turn them into action for creating better organizations, which you call people-first. 

We saw research from Stanford Professor Nick Bloom, one of the leading authorities on work-from-home, and he said that most companies, even if they're not fully hybrid or fully remote, will at least have some people in hybrid roles. 

As the world of work is changing very quickly, what it means to run an organization is also changing. Can you share what designing an organization to be people-first means? 

Christie: People-first is something companies love to say they are, but very few actually are. It doesn't work anymore to be a revenue-first company. Let me describe what you don't want to be and what most companies are. 

They think they're people-first but are revenue-first companies focused on metrics and hitting your goals and go, go. They don't care if people are burned out. They don't send surveys. HR is understaffed. A People Ops team doesn't exist, and employees get fed up. 

You can hit your goals as a company for a couple of quarters and impress your board members, but if you're not focused on the people, that's not a sustainable long-term growth plan. 

A true people-first company is just that. But it's hard to do when you don’t put your people first. 

Many CEOs and executive teams think they can't be people-first because they must hit sales and growth targets. We must have a differentiated product that's best in class, and our customers must be super happy. 

And it's like, yeah, guess what? They will be if your people are happy. When you focus on your employee experience, what it's like to work at your company, and ensure your employees’ basic needs are met, you’ll get an engaged workforce leading to a better product, better customer relations, and ultimately more revenue. 

This is the foundation properly so that your company can grow and evolve. But you have to think about what are people going through. What is it like to work at our company? 

People-first is harder than it sounds, but it is the solution to getting that long-term growth plan going. Like getting it all to unfold in a way that you always imagined. You have to put the people first so that they do their best work for your organization. 

Daan: It sounds so logical. And to your point, companies and people think about this as two different ways to run a company. You're either revenue-first or you're people-first. But you can be people first and still generate revenue. 

At the end of the day, companies are just a group of people doing something together. So focusing on those people and building an experience that engages them then becomes a strong company and can generate the outcome. 

Christie, you mentioned burnout. Companies that are really focused on the revenue and the business may risk people burnout, that they're doing good work in the short term, but it doesn't work for the long term. What are some other benefits of taking that people-first approach?  

Christie: The benefit of being a people-first organization is that your people are more collaborative and productive. It's a psychologically safe environment, which means you don't feel stupid when you ask questions because there's been management training to have managers who raise healthy teams ask hard questions. 

If you're confused, then everyone else might be confused. It's a better environment that lends itself to more revenue. The benefits are all of them, happier employees, more productivity, and increased collaboration. Studies show this an engaged workforce goes above and beyond to optimize. Teams aren't arguing over ego, and I need to be right. They're like, we want to win as a company. We want to do right by the company. Let's get to the best answer. 

Those are the companies I've had two companies where this has happened to me, where you're enjoying the experience that time flies by, and I've been lucky and fortunate to experience this. This is why I believe in what I've been saying and what I've been preaching. It works. Employees want to do right, and they want to excel. And those are the companies that are differentiated from their competition. 

The importance of employee engagement surveys and how to create them

Daan: It sounds very logical, this idea of if you take care of your people, they will take care of you. We do better work when we're feeling well and not burned out. So, where to start if a company is not quite there yet in terms of saying they're people first or even hearing about this for the first time? 

Christie: Yes. So the best place to start? If you know you have a disengaged workforce, there's general apathy and little excitement; people just show up and do their job. 

So if that's you and you're like, I don't even know where to begin. What do I do? There's an engagement survey template you can use. 

If you're new to this, it's really important not to make up your own questions because if you've never baked a cake before, if I tell you to bake a cake from scratch, it will probably not be very good. It will be missing ingredients, and it might have really mysterious ingredients. 

You do not want to mess around with a survey and guess, especially if an HR person or People Ops is burned out; they might just throw out a survey. You have to ask the right questions, which Gallup has a great framework for

It has twelve questions that very directly map to the different parts of the employee experience, which are the little touch points of an employee working at your company every day, from having the right tools and systems in place all the way through, making sure that they feel like they have opportunities at work to learn and grow. 

Future Work Employee Engagement Survey Questions Gallup
Employee Engagement With the Gallup's Q12

You don't want to jump in and hit your employees with 50 questions that are redundant and worded weirdly. Creating a survey is harder than it sounds. The good news is that there are people you can reach out to, like me, who can walk you through what questions to ask. 

Either way, start with an engagement survey and let your people tell you what is wrong and what's causing them to be disengaged. 

For this to be successful, however, you need to lay a foundation of trust. If you haven't been surveying, don't just send a survey because employees will get scared. There's a lot of survey PTSD in the research I've done. 

I did a webinar addressing employees responding to TikTok videos of mine about reasons why they don't want to take surveys. They're afraid they will get fired or fear nothing will happen with their answers, so what's the point? They're afraid it will create this kind of witch hunt and are afraid of being honest. 

It's important to kick off with your company. If this is new or you didn’t do anything with the results of older surveys, that’s okay. Other companies have done that too. 

Make the employees part of this and say, hey, we really want to focus on the employee experience this year. We want to be a people-first company. And that means we're going to send out this survey.

Tell them you want people to feel safe to take it and that if they don't, you understand, and emphasize that you’re going to do things with these answers that are going to make your workday better and that you want to improve what it's like to be working at your company. 

You have to build trust before you send out that survey. Don't do it blindly, and don't make up the questions. 

Daan: So you have to express clear intention around what this survey should accomplish, right? Tell people: “We want to change, we want to improve, and therefore we want to hear from you because you know more than anyone what the experience is like and where the biggest opportunities are to improve.” 

That will combat some of the challenges I often see, where a couple of very well-intended HR people lock themselves up in a room and start brainstorming solutions to improve engagement, typically leading to things like a happy hour or yoga webinar. 

We can be more intentional, and we can really engage employees in that process. 

How to address employee engagement survey data

Daan: Obviously, one of the key challenges we're going to run into is if people spend the time and effort to answer even just those twelve questions from Gallup that you mentioned, we have a lot of data and a lot of insights. What then if nothing happens with that? 

Christie: It happens a lot, so I don't want people to hear this and think, gosh, I've done this, I'm guilty of this. It's not okay, but you're not alone. 

It is hard to know what to do with the data, so it's important for everyone to Google the Employee Hierarchy of Needs. I will probably be the first blog post that shows up because I can't stop talking about it. 

Employee Engagement Hierarchy of Employee Needs
The Employee Hierarchy of Needs

When you get the dragnet of data, and it's a dumpster fire, everyone's upset, and they have a lot to say about what it's like to review your company. You may not know what to do. Or think that since everyone's upset, I will do nothing. It's like fight or flight or freeze; you're just frozen. 

But it's okay because you start at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs, and you need to have the right tools and systems in place before you work on opportunities for people to at work to learn and grow. 

Without a house, food, water, and shelter, you can't thrive with your friendships and personal growth. So there is a framework by which you can say, okay, there's a lot wrong. We will get to most of this later. Right now, people don't feel they have the right materials and equipment to do their work right. So we're going to start there. 

Then you send a Employee Pulse Survey, which is a different survey that's shorter. You build more trust with employees and say, hey, you said that in the survey. Thank you for giving us your feedback. We want to know more. Tell us what we can do specifically. 

And you say, what materials and equipment? And you ask them to give you more qualitative answers. And you use the power of your managers. Managers should have one-on-ones. 

The manager can say: “In the last engagement survey, can you tell me more so I can tell them they can fix this faster? Tell me, what process is broken? What tool are you missing? What equipment isn't working for you so that I can be an advocate for you?” 

A lot of healing must be done in the workplace with relationships and hierarchy and feeling comfortable with your boss and telling HR that's why people don't take surveys. 

But when they do, if they do, you're lucky, even though the feedback is negative. Congratulations because you have a workforce that's at least telling you what's wrong. And then, just pick one thing from that survey at the bottom of the hierarchy and take care of one thing at a time. 

Daan: It's always hard to hear bad news and tough feedback. But at the end of the day, without data, insights, or feedback, there's no way for you to improve your employee experience. And that's really the place to start. 

Building psychological safety

Daan: One of the things that you mentioned, besides having the right tools and resources you mentioned a few times, is around safety, and this is definitely a topic that I'm very glad to see being spoken about. 

More now safety, psychological safety, trust, feeling that you can reach out to people. It is coming up more now. What is that, and how do you actually build it? 

Christie: Psychological safety is an environment by which the group leader has made it clear that this is a safe space to ask hard questions, challenge, and have a healthy debate because everybody's just trying to get the right answer. Nobody's trying to win.

Creating psychological safety takes a lot of work from the manager to have a very hefty, well-developed set of soft skills. Scott Asai is someone who's a very great follow on LinkedIn. 

Scott is a management leadership coach who leads workshops for managers to learn soft skills like emotional availability, communication, and active listening. A good manager is a coach. The coach doesn't get in the game. The coach is leading a group of really talented individuals to win together. 

Psychological safety is not a new concept, but in the workplace, as a millennial, I've just seen a huge swing in general about what it's like to work. There was no talking about psychological safety. You listened to your boss, and you didn't question. Otherwise, you get in trouble. 

I even find myself hesitant sometimes. I'm like, there's a lot of PTSD with getting people to really trust that, no, I just want us to do our best work. This is okay. It's good for a manager to read the book Radical Candor and maybe even have the team read it. It provides a framework by which to have healthy debate and not to be obnoxiously aggressive, but not be ruinously empathetic and say, whatever you guys say, I don't like conflict. 

There's a lot of soft skill development for the team that they can learn from their manager, who has really well-developed soft skills to create a psychologically safe environment. 

How can managers make time to be great coaches?

Daan: And that is a big challenge because managers typically have their own work to do. They are busy, they are already stretched themselves. How do they then create the time and the space to get into a coaching mindset or even to learn that and develop their soft skills? 

As organizations, we're asking more and more of line managers, of middle managers, in terms of their own output, in terms of the team's output, now they have to become a coach. It's a lot of pressure. 

Christie: What you just described, where the manager is still doing a lot of the work, that's a revenue-first company; a people-first company understands that the manager will be spent. It's a completely different skill set. 

They may have been the highest performer and have a ton of experience in the role of the team they're managing. Sales, product, the dev, team, marketing, whatever it is, that manager actually has to be comfortable, and there has to be a conversation. Hey, you're actually going to be like a therapist and a coach 80% of the time, ten to 20% of the time you're looking at analytics, and yeah, you jump in, and you do stuff, and you get in spreadsheets, and you look at the numbers. 

But really, a people-first company is comfortable with the headcount of this person who is just in charge of caring for the people in their care. And maybe that 80% was aggressive. That's like the ideal situation where they are dialed into removing roadblocks, having one-on-ones, and ensuring their people's needs are met. 

If you have ten people on your team, which is the threshold to which a manager can really take care of that many people emotionally, their needs are all different, each person. But a team, that's four people. 

Managers should not spend more than 50% of their time on projects because you can't do both. Well, something's going to suffer. Would you rather have the manager suffer burnout or the entire team suffers? 

Not having a manager dialed into them and paying attention to them or both? It's just all of it's a big recipe of bad down the road. It's not sustainable. Everyone's going to be having a bad time. So companies need to be giving permission to managers and train them. 

You're not if you feel yourself getting pulled into the projects and trying to be the rock star. The coach doesn't get in the game. The coach will shoot some free throws and show the team they still have it. At practice. They'll sink a three, and you're like, I forgot you played at a big school. 

And they're like, I'm here to run the team. Let's go. So you don't see the coach get in the game. The manager should not be doing a lot of work on behalf of the team. They need to be taking care of them. 

Daan: That's the function of organizational design and philosophy to say if we're really about the people and want to get the most out of every person, making it a very enticing experience for individuals. 

We need to make sure that they then have resources in the form of a manager to coach them and to support them and to take the time to answer even their smallest questions because otherwise, the manager is going to spend their time working and is going to do this sort of like as a side gig. 

They will be managing a couple of people and never be able to achieve that result. That makes a lot of sense. 

The keyword of permission is really interesting. Do companies really permit managers just to take time to be a manager? And do they give them the bandwidth? Do they clear up the time? Do they lower the manager's outputs or expected outcomes to make time for being a good manager? 

What is the difference between Employee Engagement and Employee Experience?

Daan: A really interesting theme that also came up in something you were just saying is engagement and experience, which sometimes get used interchangeably for many people. Employee engagement, employee experience. Is there actually a difference between the two, and which one fuels which? 

Christie: I love this question because it's an important distinction if you are going to drive engagement because they're not the same, but one leads to the other.

Employee experience is an input. Employee engagement is an output. Yes, you drive engagement, but how you do it is by optimizing and finding the broken and missing moments of your employee experience so that your employees will be more engaged. Engagement is a spectrum that's ever constantly in flux. 

That's why surveys are important; always get a feedback loop from your employees so you know what to work on next and optimize against the employee hierarchy of needs. You'll see people on LinkedIn, we want to deliver a better ex. We want to drive engagement. 

Most people don't know that it's very nuanced work, and that's why you get Grubhub gift cards, silly hat day, cat day, and all these things. Then you're like, why are people disengaged? 

Well, because you're throwing so many bandaids on the solution. You need to do open heart surgery on something very broken. Your onboarding is terrible, and employees are starting out in a disengagement hole because they bonded over your bad onboarding. And now you're trying to pull them out of that and be like, perform. 

And they're like, I made a terrible decision by joining this company. So employee experience is every moment from when they apply to when they depart your company. Employee engagement is a spectrum and measurement of sentiment across the group that is always in flux. 

Who is responsible for Employee Experience and Employee Engagement? HR, People Ops, or Managers?

Daan: Do managers design that employee experience for each team member? 

What will it be like to show up here at work every day? How do I make sure that they develop? How do I make sure that they feel that they're progressing? How do I avoid them running into the trap of burnout or overwork? 

Is that really something that the manager has to design? Or is there also something centrally the organization can support those managers with? 

That's a great question. That's the first time I've been asked that. 

Another distinction is that HR and People Ops teams oversee the employee experience. And that's why it's important for People Operations to be dialed in and properly staffed to look at engagement survey results. 

HR is actually the other side of the business. Their policies are in black and white, like hiring and recruiting. And then you hand over the onboarding, qualitative stuff, career mapping, and all the touchy-feely emotional side to the People Ops team. They're two halves of a whole; defining those two roles is also important. 

The manager is not in charge of the employee experience itself, but they play a huge role because Gallup says that 70% of the employee experience is the relationship between the employee and their manager

That's that qualitative, psychologically safe. This person cares about me as a person and wants to see me succeed, and I feel safe with them to tell them my ideas and my problems and my roadblocks, and they're not going to bite my head off and make me feel bad or ignore me or delete them or cancel the meeting. 

So it is good for managers to understand their impact on the employee experience, but they're not necessarily on the hook to make sure it's dialed in. That's on the people operations side. 

Oftentimes at companies, HR and People Ops are the last to get headcount and budget, and they're just struggling because they own so many other parts of the business like payroll, compliance, benefits policies, planning, the company holiday party, recruiting, onboarding, employee growth, like things that side of the business works on. It's insane. And they're also on the hook to drive engagement. It's impossible.

Daan: They are tough teams to be in. If the work was done more structurally and if more tools and automation, AI, and data were used to deliver that, then maybe it wasn't that much manual work, and that team wouldn't be so overwhelmed. 

I like your point here that there are things that can be done centrally that make all those managers better managers. 

The power of One-on-Ones for Employee Engagement

Daan: You mentioned specifically one-on-one; this is another thing that often comes up. Many challenges that employees face and that organizations face in the bigger picture can be solved just by having frequent conversations. 

But two things that I see happening with one-on-ones are managers don't know how to run good ones. They just lack the training, a good framework, and a good one-on-one agenda. Even. 

And two, employees are not returning to the topic of psychological safety. They feel unsafe bringing up their biggest problems to the manager, their biggest challenges, or even small things because they feel silly to ask and want to make a good impression. 

People don't want to let their manager know they don't know what they're doing or are unsure about what they should focus on, et cetera. Can managers do some things to deliver better one-on-ones and make those conversations much more productive and impactful? 

Christie: Yes. And here's actually what a bad one-on-one usually is. There's no agenda. Nobody knows what to say. Managers don't have time because, as we already said, they do too much work instead of focusing on the people. And employees get anxious when they don't know what to expect. 

You go into a one-on-one, and there's no agenda or any pre-work. You feel like you're walking into a dark room and about to get punched in the face because that's what people's experience has been. But the good news is there's a great formula to follow. 

This is my one-on-one recipe, and tools like Pingboard can help you do this where managers and employees are nudged to be reminded to do pre-work. 

If you have a scheduled one-on-one with your manager, a tool can nudge you about what's been on your mind that you want to discuss in this meeting. Whether it's a roadblock or a win, or something you want to share, it's good to do so going into it. 

I want to talk about these things so the employee doesn’t feel in trouble. There's a lot of workplace trauma that people are still recovering from. We've all worked for bad companies. 

So pre-work, then you start with an icebreaker. Yes. It's silly asking a question like what would you be famous for, but the point is not to be intentionally silly. The point is to learn more about the person. 

That's a great way to crack who you are that's different from the other team members. Because the answers are wildly different. And if a manager is intentional about this and has fun with it, they can ask the same Icebreaker to each person the week or the month or however often you have one-on-ones. 

It should be biweekly. You learn you get wildly different answers, and that person has fun letting their guard down, showing you who they are outside of work. After the Icebreaker, you do a goal check-in. 

Hey, you're on track for this goal. But this one looks like it's behind; how can I help? Oh my gosh! How supportive does that feel? You talk about that for a while, then the manager goes into open-ended questions. 

And this is a really important part of the pre-work that the manager is like, I've seen this performance issue or heard them mention that this person is difficult to work with. I want to check in on this. So your questions are things like instead, do you feel like your workload is okay, or do you feel like your workload is fair?

That's a yes or no question instead of “What would you change about your workload?” That feels like an easy end for the employee to share that they have a lot of feelings, but if a manager says, “Do you feel like your workload is fair?” the employee is going to be like, yes, I don't know, I don't want to upset you. 

So open-ended questions are intentionally written so the employee has to answer qualitatively. They can't hide in a yes or no to protect themselves, and a good, emotionally available, soft, skilled manager will show up for those answers and be like, oh, interesting, tell me more. 

A manager needs to listen to those answers and be quiet actively. Let them keep going. There's always more. It's only the tip of the iceberg. 

You have a lot of time spent on the open-ended questions. That is the meat of the one-on-one. But you close it out with two more things.

One is appreciation. Even if you had to give them tough feedback, I really appreciate you being open to my feedback. We'll get you to a place where X is better, or I often hear about how much people love working with you. I really want to help you get a more realistic workload. 

Two is action items. You said this was a roadblock. I'm going to remove this for you. I will talk to this leader and figure out if this blah, blah, right?

And the manager has to follow through on those action items. Otherwise, there won't be psychological safety because the employee is like, that's another one-on-one where they're going to pepper me with questions, and then they're not going to follow through. So those are the steps to a healthy one-on-one. 

Daan: I love the idea of asking the right questions, even including something as simple as “How can I help?” Because it just gives you such a different vibe about this relationship, you truly feel that there's someone there to support you and then to ask really good questions that get the right response out of people. 

We all know how awkward it is when someone says, what are the biggest challenges right now? And then, on the spot, you have to think about your biggest challenges can we turn this into a two-hour session?

Then, to your point, just shut up. You've asked those questions; give people the time to answer. This goes back to good coaching behaviors. You're not there to jump in and give advice immediately; tell them how they should be doing and give them the time to respond. 

That's really beautiful. And speaks to, again, both permission and space that companies need to start giving to managers to be good managers because this takes a bit of time to prepare a good one-on-one. 

To ensure you have it fresh on your mind regarding what this person is going through, what are the last things we discussed, and how can we continue that trajectory? You need time for that. You need space for that. And that's something that organizations can do. 

Focusing on yourself is important as a manager

Christie, thank you for sharing a lot of practical tips for how companies can become more people-first, the role of employee engagement, the role of employee experience, the difference between them, and a lot of practical things managers can do. 

To close out, if there was one thing that you could share with the world, what would it be? 

For whatever reason, the universe and TikTok keep serving this to me, so I'll share it with everyone else because, apparently, I'm just the messenger, but I keep seeing and hearing it. If you want to change the world, in this example, if you want to change the workplace, focus on yourself. 

We all want to save everyone and give our money and time. How are you doing? The best thing you can do is lead by example and take care of yourself; everything emanating outward will follow suit. 

How are you doing? What are you doing to make sure that you’re balanced? Are you burned out? Are you exhausted? Are you doing too much? You're not going to fix disengagement. You're not going to be a good manager. 

You won't be a good leader if you're not okay. So if you want to change the world, if you want to change the workplace, focus on yourself. Start with yourself. 

Daan: I love it. I have something that I always show in onboarding to start to get people to understand that we operate differently than most other companies, like you said, where maybe people have already experienced some trauma, which is around when you take a flight. 

The one thing that they will always say is that in case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first. Because if you're incapacitated or don't have oxygen, how can you help the people around you? But the reason why they have to repeat it is that it's in our DNA. It's our instinct always to help others, especially if we are more people-oriented. HR person or that manager, your instinct is always to help others. 

And then you come home late at night, and you're totally exhausted and don't have the energy anymore. That's never going to be a sustainable situation. So that's a great tip to start with yourself, to have some self-compassion, to work on your own wellness and well-being, and then to change the world. 

So beautiful. Note to end on again, we'll link all your profiles in the show notes so people can follow you. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.