Improving Employee Engagement

John Vena - Wholesale Market

Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Produce Business.

The temptation for business leaders to think about new beginnings, fresh starts and turning over new leaves is strong at this time of year. I have done this annual ritual so often in my own professional life that in recent years I’ve noticed the same one or two unachieved company goals at the top of my list each year. These goals are usually revenue-based.

By their very nature, they are targets that when reached are simply moved a bit farther on. But this year, I have begun to think that simply reaching sales milestones isn’t the full extent of what I want for my company. What I want is to build a workplace where people feel like they are contributing to something. I want an organization where employees feel rewarded on multiple levels, not just with salary and benefits. Measuring and improving “employee engagement” seems to be a way to achieve that.

A few years ago our leadership team began to study employee engagement and how we might improve it in our company. I read and passed along to my leadership team some articles on employee engagement and I thought I understood the subject. I needed to find a tool that would help us motivate our employees to better engage with their work.

Two years ago, we did our first online, companywide survey in order to measure the engagement level of our teams. The tool we chose allowed everyone to respond anonymously, and the responses were neatly bundled for us to analyze. At first look, the results from each year seemed disappointing.

Despite our attention to job and food safety training, the staff felt that we should do more. It was pointed out there were no programs for employee recognition, and we were weak on communicating job openings. We also had low marks on sharing information about new customers, new equipment and new staff members. This was valuable information. Our teams had given us a list of tangible points on which to work. Upon reflection, it became apparent that I hadn’t really understood the concept of “employee engagement.” I was looking for ways to get employees to engage with their work but the real goal is to get employees to engage with each other. We have to eliminate the barriers between teams and management, encourage conversations to answer questions and unite workers in the common effort of making a living, creating products or serving customers.

This year, I have begun to think that simply reaching sales milestones isn’t the full extent of what I want for my company. What I want is to build a workplace where people feel like they are contributing to something.

When I first joined the family business, it was a small, close-knit, family workforce. We knew an awful lot about each other, having spent birthdays, holidays and many vacations together. We knew what motivated and frustrated each other. We knew when one of us needed help and support and made adjustments to accommodate.

As the company grew, we fell into that same kind of relationship with new employees. Our turnover was low, and as in many small companies, management and staff often worked long hours shoulder to shoulder. This atmosphere fostered frequent feedback. We were engaged daily in our work and the work of our coworkers and subordinates. We communicated problems and solutions, easily and often. This was our culture. In the much larger company we have become, this culture has been stretched a little thin.

A range of new initiatives and programs has grown from our analysis of the feedback from each engagement survey. We ensure that every new job opening is communicated internally, and we have created a cross-departmental team charged with facilitating communication between departments and between staff and management. In June 2018, we held the first companywide meeting since Thanksgiving 1980. Our first company newsletter will come out next month, containing topics of interest to all staff. In smaller, less-departmentalized firms, these kinds of activities occur organically. This process has reminded me that engagement comes from conversation, not just from programs. My own place in that conversation is clear; it is my job to engage, as well.

I believe that the people working for our company, at any level, share many of the same goals related to their employment and the business. We all want a strong, well-run company to which we can contribute our time and skills. We all want a company that takes everyone’s welfare, concerns and suggestions seriously. Looking ahead into 2019, I can see the new leaf I must turn over. My role is to rekindle the frequency and type of communication we had when I worked with my father, my aunt and uncle — but maybe without the shared vacations.

John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.