How to Build a Foundation for Employee Enablement, and Why You Should
July 27, 2023
Employee shortages persist around the country. An estimated 1.97 million fewer workers are in the workforce today than in February 2020. Current research shows that there are approximately 5.6 million unemployed workers and 9.5 million open jobs in the United States.
In essence, many employers need workers more than workers need the jobs they’re offering.
Even workers who are still in the workplace aren’t necessarily sticking around. 96% of workers plan to change jobs within the next year, on the hunt for better pay and a less toxic workplace.
Organizations that want to stay competitive need to make adjustments quickly in order to keep pace with the rapidly changing employment landscape. While in-office perks and salary are common fixes, they’re just individual pieces of a more impactful whole: cultivating an environment that enables employees to thrive and do the best work of their career.
What Is Employee Enablement?
Employee enablement, also known as performance enablement, is the practice of designing a workplace to ensure that employees have everything they need to succeed. While that effort includes ensuring employees have the right physical and technological tools for the job, it also requires more holistic thinking.
An environment of employee enablement ensures members of an organization have the support they need, both inside and outside the workplace, to focus and succeed in their role.
Why Does Employee Enablement Matter?
Employee enablement strategies can help people truly excel and reach a state of self-actualization that truly great work requires—but before that can happen, it’s necessary to address the core foundational aspects of work that support that level of growth.
According to the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, many workers still aren’t even getting their fundamental needs met. For example, people without stable housing, or those who struggle to find affordable childcare may be in a traditional setting.
Many workers also play the role of caregiver for someone, whether it’s a child or family member in need. By its nature, full-time in-office or on-site employment isn’t conducive to that sort of arrangement. While salary alone could certainly help, the time away would probably necessitate hiring a caregiver.
For many, the costs of that care exceed any potential income increase. While at work, they might worry about what’s happening at home, and how all that time off running to doctor appointments or school events is impacting their manager's unconscious (or conscious) biases. Like it or not, biases like presenteeism are common, and difficult to overcome without deliberate effort.
When an employer changes the narrative by enabling employees with the support they need to be successful regardless of their situation, employees have a chance to perform better than they ever could have in a traditional setting.
3 Major Ways to Build a Foundation for Employee Enablement
Creating a company that focuses on employee enablement may require employers to develop new sets of skills and change their priorities to build the foundation that best supports their team.
Three major ways to build a foundation for employee enablement are to provide employees with the tools they need for success, create a supportive culture within the company, and grant employees the autonomy they need to be their most successful selves.
1. Give employees tools for success
Most employees want to do well. If they're underperforming, they may not have the systems or tools they need to achieve peak performance. Before doing anything else to improve employee enablement, employers should make sure all workers have the tools they need to succeed in their roles.
Invest in supportive technology.
Providing employees with supportive technology goes beyond providing the right computers and IT support. Automation software, for example, can improve employee efficiency, allowing team members to accomplish more work in less time.
An up-to-date knowledge management platform ensures that team members can always find the information they need when they need it without needing to hunt down their manager or other team members who may or may not be in the office.
Many companies today allow employees to work remotely, which requires a special level of tech support. For example, companies may want to consider giving remote employees computers to use for work. This isn't just a perk for the workers — it also allows the company to control the computer's security systems and ensures that all remote employees are using up-to-date systems.
Teams with a mix of remote and in-office workers need to prioritize communication tools that help team members stay in contact, share information, and collaborate on projects.
Empower employees with effective onboarding and continual training.
Information is a powerful tool all on its own. But far too often, employees don’t have the information or skills they need to do their jobs effectively.
Many companies rely on current employees to train new employees, if they receive any formal training at all. Current employees still have regular tasks to complete, so they may struggle to train new employees well.
Not every talented contributor is a talented teacher or manager. Just because a current employee knows how to perform a task doesn’t mean they know how to teach that task appropriately. These issues can make new employees feel overwhelmed and under-trained for their position.
One way to combat this problem is to have a reliable onboarding process in place. With a good information management system, teams can store their training videos, materials, and quizzes in one place and use a checklist when onboarding new employees to ensure they're proficient in all the relevant skills before they're expected to perform independently.
Training isn’t over after the initial onboarding process. A path to personal and professional growth is an essential component of employee enablement.
Continual training helps address skill gaps and can help team members brush up on processes they may not use every day. For example, if an employee only needs to do reconciliation once a year, it may make sense to refresh them on reconciliation close to the start date for that task. This type of continual training empowers employees with the knowledge and confidence they need to perform tasks well.
Learning and development programs can help employees expand their skillset, or adapt to changes in the technological landscape. When members of an organization continue growing and learning, so does the organization as a whole.
2. Create a supportive culture for employees
Research shows that strong company culture can be directly tied to improved financial performance. This means that prioritizing a strong and supportive corporate culture does more than just improve employee retention: it can also directly impact the company’s bottom line.
Improving company culture can start at the job interview by assessing prospective employees' emotional intelligence in addition to standard technical skills. Emotional intelligence demonstrates how well they'll deal with interpersonal relationships with team members and clients. Managers can demonstrate their value for emotional intelligence by trusting a team member's read on situations and asking them for their input when conflict arises.
Provide mental health support in the workplace
According to the World Health Organization, 15% of working-age adults live with some form of mental disorder. Conditions like depression or anxiety can make work extra challenging, and cost the global economy as much as $USD 1 trillion per year. Moreover, chronic workplace stress can lead to burnout, further exacerbating mental health conditions.
One way to help employees who struggle with mental health challenges is to normalize taking care of mental health in the workplace. While this is a complex, multifaceted issue, some easy ways to start providing meaningful support might be:
- Encouraging employees to eat their lunch away from their desks
- Integrating walking meetings and other outdoor activities into regular workdays
- Investing in light therapy lamps for employees
- Recognizing “mental health days” as an acceptable use of sick time
- Checking in with employees about how they’re feeling rather than just how they’re progressing with work
Another major way to help employees with mental health conditions is to destigmatize mental health challenges in the workplace. Leaders can do this by:
- Openly talking about their own feelings in the workplace, including when they're feeling stressed or depressed
- Addressing judgments when they occur and reminding team members to support one another through leading by example.
- Ensuring that employees with mental health challenges are given the same leave and support as employees with physical health challenges
Offer mentorship programs
Mentorship programs help employees set goals for themselves and address skills gaps by leveraging support within the company. Most successful companies understand the value of mentorship: 92% of Fortune 500 companies employ mentorship programs.
Mentorship programs can lend particular strength to employee retention strategies. For example, companies may offer tenure to mentors to encourage them to continue passing on their knowledge.
Mentees may also feel more invested in a company if they have a strong connection with their mentor. Knowing that someone in the company is invested in their success can provide internal motivation for employees to work harder and stay on the team longer than if they felt adrift in a sea of nameless faces.
Mentorship programs can also help managers upskill employees. Approximately two-thirds of employees are willing to train on new skills to bolster their careers. One-on-one mentorship programs can give these employees the opportunity to learn new skills, contributing to their professional development and improving their productivity in the workplace.
And for employees who weren't able to pursue higher education, mentorship can level the playing field, equipping them with special skills they may need to progress up the corporate ladder to their desired positions.
Understand what drives your employees
Different workers have different goals in the workplace.
Consider, for example, two employees. Employee A has been working at the company for several years. They're willing to work from 9 to 5 every day, but they never work overtime. At their yearly review, they show no interest in promotions or raises but express contentment in their current position. Employee B is new to the company. They often volunteer for extra shifts and show interest in moving up in the company.
Based on this information alone, it’s easy to make snap judgments about these employees. Some people might assume that Employee A is lazy and Employee B is a “go-getter.” But these types of snap judgments don’t help companies build a culture of empathy and support needed to cultivate exceptional outcomes. Managers looking to build a foundation for employee enablement would be better served by getting to know each of these employees a little better.
In further conversations with Employee A, a manager might learn that this employee is focused on their family. They come to work each day to make enough money to support their family's lives. They’re not interested in promotions because they know that taking on more responsibility would mean spending less time at home — an area where they’re not willing to compromise. However, they're competent, driven, and willing to stay with the company long term in exchange for job security.
On the other hand, further conversations with Employee B may reveal that they're young and restless. They consider this job to be a stepping stone on their path to success. They’re looking for quick promotions and continual training to hone their skills.
By getting to know employees on this deeper level, managers can learn how to support their unique needs and provide incentives that work for them. For example, Employee A may find benefits like flexible scheduling or the ability to work from home to be especially incentivizing, whereas Employee B may be willing to work a less flexible schedule if they're sent to more conferences or enrolled in a mentorship program.
Prioritize teamwork and psychological safety over individual progress
A lack of communication between team members can lead to significant challenges in the workplace. This problem can be especially prevalent when employees feel that hoarding information improves their job security by making them indispensable to the company.
Team leaders should praise team efforts to combat this mentality rather than lauding any individual who worked on a project. By focusing on how the team is working as a whole, employers can reduce resentment between workers and encourage open lines of communication.
Having a system in place for sharing information is also crucial. This may include providing templates in the company's information management system to help employees upload new information for their peers as well as encouraging team members to train their teammates on skills during team meetings.
Finally, the company environment should encourage psychological safety. Team members should feel comfortable enough to ask questions, offer ideas, make mistakes, and even take risks without worrying that it will negatively impact them in the workplace.
Employees are more likely to continue working for an employer if they feel like their thoughts and ideas are heard and respected. But a culture that values psychological safety has the added benefit of inspiring more innovation and engagement, which can take companies further in the long run than simply expecting employees to obey the traditional rules of hierarchy strictlyin.
3. Give employees autonomy
There are few scenarios guaranteed to de-motivate employees more than holding them responsible for an outcome they don’t have the autonomy to influence.
Research shows that more than half (52%) of employees lack autonomy in the workplace. Feeling micromanaged or powerless at work can lead to frustration and burnout. Offering more workplace autonomy can improve employees' confidence in their skills, empower them to handle problems at the moment instead of waiting for a manager, and improve the company's day-to-day workflow.
Consider alternative or improved benefits and pay
Benefits are a major consideration when employees are choosing where to work. Providing competitive benefits and those that employees actually want is a great way for employers to improve both the workers' quality of life and employee retention at the company.
One way to do this is by offering unlimited paid time off for employees. Unlimited PTO is exactly what it sounds like — it allows employees to take as much sick time or vacation time as they need in a given year.
Many employers balk at this idea, assuming that employees will take advantage of the policy. But many businesses find that it provides unique benefits over traditional PTO policies. One CEO explained that after implementing unlimited PTO, their employees became more engaged than ever before and voluntary turnover hit an all-time low.
Unlimited PTO is one of the top emerging trends in workplaces and is highly sought after by employees. It also supports other employee enablement goals by allowing workers to take care of their mental and physical health without asking for permission or worrying about not being able to pay their bills. This level of flexibility can be a game-changer for families and drive employee retention.
By loosening the reins with unlimited PTO, companies can reduce presenteeism, where employees physically show up to work but are mentally checked out. Employees who force themselves to show up to work when they’re unable to be their best selves are less productive and may even make the people around them less productive.
When employees feel free to take PTO to deal with things like chronic illness, mental health, or family matters, they’re less distracted at work and more capable of buckling down and getting things done.
Unlimited PTO is a compelling way to enable employees to show up at their best, but it’s also important to make sure people are using it. When “unlimited PTO” really means, “as much time as you need, as long as your projects don’t suffer,” for some employees who are prone to overwork, that can look like “no PTO.”
If you do explore implementing an unlimited PTO strategy, be sure to check in and make sure people are taking that time off. It’s not just good for their wellbeing, according to the Society for Human Resources Management, it’s good for business.
Move to an outcome-oriented mentality
A time-oriented mentality toward work says that an employee should arrive at work at a certain time, leave at a certain time, and take breaks for a certain amount of time each day. The problem with this mentality is that workloads are rarely steady. Some days, there may be a lot of work to complete. On other days, work may be minimal. Employers may inadvertently encourage employees to pretend to be busy just to get their paycheck by locking them into a time-oriented schedule. When employees languish in the office knowing they’re not needed there, work–life balance suffers.
An alternative option is to transition to outcome-oriented expectations. For example, a manager may ask employees to clear certain queues by the end of a workday. As long as those tasks are completed appropriately, the manager shouldn't need to worry about how long that employee is sitting at their desk.
This mentality may mean being okay with a team member watching a movie at their desk or taking an extra-long lunch as long as they complete all their work. It may also mean asking employees to work late during certain times of the year in exchange for being able to leave early during slower seasons. The key to making task-oriented expectations work is ensuring each employee’s workload is fair.
Empower decision making and freedom to explore
The Ritz-Carlton is famous for allowing its employees to spend up to $2,000 per incident to resolve customer complaints without asking for a supervisor's permission. By doing this, Ritz-Carlton enables customer service employees to handle more phone calls autonomously and provide better service to their customers.
Not every business can afford to let workers spend $2,000 without approval. But, when possible, business owners should find ways to give employees more decision-making power or freedom to explore.
One way to do this is to ask employees to spend 80% of their time on assigned tasks and 20% of their time on innovative ideas or passion projects. In a five-day work week, this would mean that an employee would do traditionally assigned tasks four days a week and innovation projects one day a week. Google famously implemented this strategy, and it's paid off with some pretty big projects, including Gmail, Google AdSense, and Google News.
Improve Hiring, Retention, and Morale through Employee Enablement
Creating a company-wide foundation for employee enablement can be challenging. But by taking just a few steps toward empowering employees, companies can improve workplace morale, retention, and engagement all at once.
As employers begin to see how these subtle shifts improve the workplace, it becomes easier to make the broader changes that can transform a company into the type of place where employees want to work.