Applauz Blog

6 Research-Based Ideas to Engage Employees When Your Industry Isn’t Sexy

Published: November 18, 2022

Last Updated: March 31, 2023

  7 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

engaged customer service employees

You can engage employees in difficult industries that are viewed as 'less glamorous', such as customer service, manufacturing, and retail.

It's well known that organizations with high employee engagement rates benefit from better business performance

Despite all the proven benefits, one widely held myth persists. 

Many business leaders assume employee engagement is something that is only beneficial for young companies or employees working in technical or creative fields.

In other words, employees working in less glamorous or "unsexy" industries cannot benefit from employee engagement.

This myth couldn't be further from the truth.

Everyone can benefit from engagement

It goes without saying that every employee -- regardless of their field -- deserves to be treated well, respected, valued, and appreciated. 

This article will outline organizational research across non-glamorous work contexts, such as customer service and manufacturing.

HR and company leaders can apply these methods at the organizational level. But managers can also use these practices in smaller ways at the team level.

Ultimately, I hope this research will dispel the myth that engagement is only for creative workers. And you will see just how simple it can be to apply proven employee engagement principles across different work environments. 

7 Research Based Strategies to Improve Employee Engagement Download PDF Now


6 Research-Based Ideas to Engage Employees When Your Industry Isn’t Sexy

Re-imagine how you incentivize people to perform

Imagine the task of selling bank loans over the phone: Not very sexy. In this type of job, it can be difficult to get employees driven and motivated to sell.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi experts in workplace motivation and authors of the book
Primed to Perform, were called into a bank call center to help motivate a team of agents.

When McGregor and Doshi arrived at the call center, they took stock of all the strategies management already had to motivate employees. 

For example: 

  • Management tracked performance metrics related to speed and efficiency.
  • A stuffed monkey was placed on top of the cube of the worker who had collected the most revenue, to "keep morale up." 
  • Bonuses were given to employees who met several performance targets, including revenue earned, shorter duration of phone calls and attaining the customer’s email address.

But unfortunately, all these “sticks and carrots” weren’t working. Performance was lagging and customer satisfaction had "dropped off a cliff." So McGregor and Doshi worked with a test group and made several changes to the work environment.

Here are some of the key changes they made: 

  • Instead of agents simply taking the next call-in line, they “gave them ownership over a set of customers." This increased their sense of purpose and meant they’d be able to go above and beyond for “their people.”
  • They rebuilt performance metrics to reflect the impact of their work, not just forcing employees to hit a metric like “short call duration,” which says little about the quality of their work. 
  • They implemented weekly “problem-solving” meetings. The goal was to bring up any tricky situations from the week and exchange ideas on addressing them. “The focus was on learning and adaptation — not on hitting performance goals.”

Did these modifications have any impact? Of course, they did!

Simply tweaking the incentives and creating a more purpose and learning-driven environment greatly impacted employee motivation.

“Within four months, our pilot teams had more than doubled the close rates of the other teams.”

Not only that, the pilot team “made more adjustments to their approach, and members shared what worked more proactively with colleagues.” In other words, employees were more motivated to go above and beyond. And they were more engaged with their work and more connected to their colleagues. 

Make recognition a regular part of your culture

The positive impact and importance of recognition are undeniable. Taking the time to highlight your team and individual wins goes a long way to building happiness and morale among your team.

You don’t have to look far to find studies that prove the importance of employee recognition and appreciation.

  • A recent 2021 study of manufacturing workers showed that workers who felt valued were more than four times as likely to report high levels of work engagement (59% vs.13%) and less likely to say they feel stressed out on a typical workday (16% vs. 66%). That's huge!
  • A 2021 study by Mckinsey showed the top factor employees cited as reasons for quitting was that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54%).

That said, many leaders know recognition is important. Yet they are not sure where to shart. Indeed, cultivating greater appreciation in the workplace is a big, broad goal.

That said, many formal and informal solutions are available to support this goal, including:

  • Implementing a peer-to-peer recognition platform.
  • Taking 5 minutes at the end of your weekly team meeting to give employee shout-outs. The manager can take the lead and open the floor to anyone else who wants to share.
  • Starting a "recognition" or "appreciation" channel on your internal chat tool. This can be a digital space where people can share their support for each other.
  • Sending out a weekly "recognition" email to your team highlighting the small wins from that week.

Whether it's digital or face-to-face, there are many ways to create space for appreciation in your workweek. It only takes a few minutes, and it will have an instant impact.

Remember: Specificity is key to giving powerful recognition.

Blanket statements like “you’re the best” or “great job” are acceptable, but truly meaningful recognition should go into more detail as to why the employee is so great. When your recognition is timely and specific, positive feelings will naturally follow.

Create opportunities to cultivate honest interpersonal connections between workers 

In the late 1990s, Shell suffered a spike in accidents on one of its major oil rigs. It was even common for these rig workers to die on the job. 

Many workers remarked on the harsh conditions – workers never showed weakness, rarely asked for help, or admitted that they couldn't perform a task. Consequently, Shell believed that the cold and aloof nature of the work environment may have contributed to the rise in accidents.

So Shell began exploring ways to curb these incidents.

In an Invisibilia report, journalist Hanna Rosin explains how the Shell oil company launched "vulnerability" seminars to curb the surge in accidents.

These sessions were designed to get employees closer to one another by asking them to share their life stories. Interestingly, these seminars had a dramatic impact on the company. The company's accident rate decreased by 84%! Worker productivity also improved significantly. 

Developing strong bonds and trust among team members seems to have a profound effect on employee motivation and performance. 

A number of other studies and research support this claim.

A recent article on HBR sheds light on what high-performing teams do differently. "Investing time in bonding over non-work topics" and "being more authentic at work" are cited as two key characteristics of high-performing teams. 

Similarly, during a 2-year research effort led by Google called "Project Aristotle," it was determined that psychological safety is the single most important predictor of effective teams.

In sum, the quality of our relationships at work determines how emotionally connected we are to our jobs. And people are more likely to feel connected with leaders and colleagues who they know and understand on a personal level. Simply put, being human and genuine at work pays off.

Allow for more play and experimentation

In their research on employee motivation, Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi (the researchers we introduced at the top of this article) also emphasize the importance of "play" at work.

As Mcgregor explains in this HBR article How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation, "play" is not about playing an actual game like ping pong or chess. Play at work is about activating "our learning instinct." In other words, it is about exploring challenging problems and satisfying our natural curiosity.

You're probably asking yourself -- how can I encourage my customer service or manufacturing workers to "play?" These jobs are routine, task-based. They are the opposite of play and experimentation.

McGregor and Doshi insist that "play" is a motivation strategy that can be applied to any work context. You just have to get a little creative.

Here are some examples:

  • Southwest Airlines encourages its employees to treat each customer interaction like play. Mcgregor gives examples of the way flight attendants turn boring safety announcements into funny skits.
  • Promoting “play” can also take the form of giving your employees dedicated time to work on experimentation and innovation. 3Ms 15% time is a famous example of this idea in action.
  • Instead of giving customer service reps a rigid script to follow, offer them flexible “guidelines” instead; allow them to experiment with how they talk to clients. Just like Mcgregor and Doshi did in their experiment with a bank’s call center employees above.

As you can see, making space for more “play” can benefit many industries. Play gives employees a sense of autonomy, control, and freedom. It allows them to apply their skills and strengths but also to experiment with new skills, so it promotes growth. All these factors are vital to employee engagement. 

Give every employee a voice and listen to their opinions

How can anyone feel compelled to perform at their best when their opinions are not valued? 

Organizational research supports this notion.

One particular study suggests that asking manufacturing employees for feedback and input before implementing change can profoundly impact workers' performance.

In 1950, psychologist Alfred Marrow conducted many fascinating experiments on workers at the Harwood clothing factory. He wanted to test the best way to get factory workers to embrace change.

Leadership asked factory workers to adopt a new cutting process. Here's the catch. Researchers divided workers into a few different groups; in each group, management gave varying degrees of control over the new process.

The results were astonishing.

The group that was forced to make process changes (without being asked for feedback or recommendations) suffered. This group experienced a rise in complaints to management, and worse, their productivity dropped by 20%! And it never recovered.

In contrast, the group whose opinions were sought before a change experienced completely different outcomes. While their productivity initially dropped as they adapted to the new process, it recovered and surpassed previous rates by 15%.

The findings are clear: giving your employees a chance to be heard fuels a sense of competence and expertise. These feelings are critical for creating a sense of psychological fulfillment at work and ultimately driving higher employee performance and productivity. 

Promote transparency and trust by sharing information with your employees

At Google, transparency is a cornerstone of its corporate practices.

In the book Work Rules!, Lazlo Bock, now former Head of People Operations at Google, explains why this is such a critical component of Google's success.

Leadership teams at Google strive to ensure transparency at all levels.

For example, Google's intranet contains product roadmaps, launch plans, weekly status reports, and quarterly team goals -- accessible to anyone.

This is very different from the opaque, centralized power structures in most large organizations. Even the book in itself is a testament to Google's transparency -- allowing Bock to reveal Google's HR "secrets" to the world.

Why are trust and transparency so critical for employee engagement?  

Transparency communicates to employees, "we are all in this together." But most importantly, being transparent with employees shows that you trust them.

In return, Bock explains that employees will be motivated to live up to that trust.

On the other hand, if you operate on a negative assumption (i.e. employees can't be trusted with information), it creates a rigid, imbalanced environment. It cultivates an "us" versus "them" mentality within the company. In turn, it creates a self-fulling prophecy where employees only do the bare minimum of what is required of them. 

As Bock says, "the truth is that people usually live up to your expectations, whether those expectations are high or low."

Final Thoughts

After reading this article, I hope you can see why employee engagement shouldn't be thought of as just for creative workers or young companies. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and consideration. 

That said, as you peel back all the layers, you will see that all engagement strategies have the same goal: to meet our universal psychological needs. In other words, employee engagement is nothing more than making structured efforts to treat people more humanely. 

For example:

  • By helping employees learn and grow. 
  • By helping employees feel recognized, respected, and appreciated.
  • By taking employee opinions and expertise into consideration when making decisions.

When a workplace can tap into and satisfy employees' most fundamental psychological needs, employee morale and performance will improve.

Category Tags

A Happier Workplace


Subscribe and join our community of curious HR Professionals and Managers.