Innovate or…lose employees

Melinda Phillips is a Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in both Australian Indigenous Studies and Media and Communications at Melbourne University.  She joined Accumulate in November 2015 as an intern, as part of the Qantas partnership with the CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship Program. Since that time Melinda gained valuable experience across various parts of the business, including refining her content and communication skills during her placement within Accumulate’s marketing team.


‘Innovate or die’. This jolting message is one of many being directed at companies, as the pace of change in the business world seems to be constantly on the rise. But it would be easy (and naive) to fall into the trap of seeing such a warning as purely technology focussed.

Innovation is about much more than technology. It’s about creating new ways of doing things. Moving forward. Staying ahead of the game. Importantly, innovation can be related to all elements of a business. And those who neglect to be innovative with their employee engagement strategies may well find themselves falling behind their competitors.

Another way to look at it? Innovate…or lose valuable employees.

But what does innovation in employee engagement look like? Here are some inspiring examples of how three very different, forward thinking companies have gained success from innovative employee engagement practices.

1. Allow Creativity

When exploring examples of innovation in employee engagement, it’s almost mandatory to start with Google and their well publicised, headline-grabbing initiatives. After all, these initiatives have not only served to drive success for Google, but have shone a spotlight on the exciting possibilities relating to employee engagement for the broader business world to see.

So let’s start with one such example.

Imagine you have an amazing idea, but upon presenting it to your supervisor you’re told that the company is too busy to focus on your ‘passion projects’. You’re left feeling deflated and uninspired.

Well, fortunately for both the business and their employees, this was not the mentality at Google. Once again, the multi-billion dollar company led the way in innovation when they implemented the 80/20 policy, which allowed employees to explore their creativity and work on their ‘passion projects’ 20% of the time.

Sound like a productivity risk? Maybe. But it proved to be one worth taking. Major successes, such as Google News and Gmail are a result of the 80/20 policy, with Gmail now being one of the world’s largest email services.

With this policy, Google illustrated the potential benefits of providing employees with the freedom to be creative and to explore ideas outside of their usual boundaries. And although it’s been reported that the policy no longer exists in its original form, there is little doubt that, when it comes to employee engagement, Google will continue to push limits and make headlines for their unique and groundbreaking strategies.  

2. Personal Development

Juggling life’s many responsibilities can be a real challenge. From work and personal commitments to financial burdens and family responsibilities, it can seem never-ending. So for those keen to return to study while working, the barriers may simply be too steep to overcome. In fact, cost alone could well be a deciding factor. According to Forbes online, the cost to attend a public college in America is, on average, US$28,000 a year.

We know that study and coffee often go hand in hand, but if you thought that Starbucks employees, who also choose to study, would only get free coffee to help them through their tough cramming sessions, you’d be wrong. With their College Achievement Plan, in partnership with Arizona State University Online, Starbucks is a leader in supporting the personal development of their employees. And they do so by eliminating the significant financial barrier that stifles the ambitions of so many people.

The College Achievement Plan is an important part of Starbucks’ employee engagement strategy, changing the lives of many employees who have taken advantage of the program. In December 2015, 43 employees using the program graduated with degrees. A further 4,000 employees were enrolled in the program as at October 2015.

Somewhat surprisingly, this benefit doesn’t keep employees chained to the company. In fact, those who participate in the program aren’t obliged to continue working at Starbucks, even whilst completing their studies.  

What isn’t surprising, is that many employees are deeply grateful for the opportunity provided by Starbucks and choose to pursue longer-term careers within the company. So in the end, it’s a win-win, with employees further developing themselves, and the company being rewarded with a more loyal and knowledgeable workforce who are passionate about the company’s success.

3. Leave Entitlements

Do you ever find yourself looking at your calendar, counting down the days until your next holiday? Then you take that holiday, only to return feeling like it wasn’t long enough, while also realising you have just used up all of your leave?

Generous leave entitlements can be an attractive recruitment tool for potential employees. Both Netflix and Virgin have made headlines in recent years, with unique policies that have included unlimited annual leave and 12 months paid parental leave.

So how can it possibly get any better? After all, it’s not like employees would ever be paid a bonus take a holiday…would they?

At FullContact, a mid-sized contact management company in America, they are.

Yes, FullContact actually pay their employees a $7,500 bonus to take annual leave. And to ensure that they get the true benefit from their break, employees are required to follow three rules to be eligible for the money; 1. they must take a vacation for a specified period of time; 2. they must be completely uncontactable and disconnected from work; 3. they must not do any work whilst on holidays.

And of course, this policy pays dividends for not only the employee, but the employer. FullContact implemented the policy to eliminate a potentially toxic ‘hero’ culture, whereby some employees were avoiding important knowledge sharing in an attempt to be considered indispensable. However, the requirement to completely ‘disconnect’ during annual leave forces FullContact employees to take a transparent and collaborative approach to their work, which goes a long way to removing the self-serving ‘hero’ mentality.

On top of this, being prepared to disconnect completely had the unexpected outcome of an increased focus on planning, which again has had very positive impacts on the business.

Whether it be recognised business leaders such as Google, Netflix and Virgin, or smaller businesses like FullContact, the common thread is that they are innovative; constantly challenging the status quo to achieve positive outcomes for both the employee and the company.

How is your organisation thinking differently about employee engagement?