Ep. 223: Sarah Rubenstein - Boosting Employee Engagement: Strategies for Success

May 15, 2023 | 24 Minutes

Discover the secrets to unlocking employee engagement in this eye-opening episode of the Count Me In Podcast. Join us as we welcome Sarah Rubenstein, Chief Accounting Officer at Clearway Energy, as she shares valuable insights into employee engagement, strategies to transform disengaged employees, and the importance of creating inclusive communities within the workplace. Don't miss this chance to learn how to maximize productivity and employee satisfaction in your organization!

Connect with Sarah: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-rubenstein-a724632/

Full Episode Transcript:
Adam:            Welcome back to Count Me In. In today's episode, we're thrilled to have Sarah Rubenstein, Chief Accounting Officer at Clearway Energy. With us to discuss the crucial role that employee engagement plays in an organization's success. 
Sarah brings her extensive experience in cultivating positive work environments to the table. Offering valuable advice on identifying disengaged employees, implementing effective strategies to boost engagement, and the benefits of fostering an inclusive, collaborative workspace. Stay tuned as we uncover the keys to unlocking a happy, productive, and thriving work environment.
Adam:            Well, Sarah, thank you so much for coming on the Count Me In podcast, today. We're really excited to have you on, and today we're going to be talking about employee engagement and all that that encompasses. And maybe to start off, maybe, you can start by defining what is employee engagement to you.
Sarah:            Sure, to me, employee engagement is how positive people feel about their work, and we measure that in a lot of different ways. But, really, I'm lucky, the company that I work at, we survey our employees every year, regarding employee engagement. And we ask some really good questions that were developed by very smart people at Harvard, and Yale, and Stanford, that tell us how engaged people are. 
And, so, we're able to evaluate, and a lot of the questions relate to things like management, leadership, integrity, work-life balance, workload, allocation, autonomy, and things like that. And all of those factors really tell us how engaged our employees are.
Adam:            That's interesting, and when you mention engaged, a lot of times when you see discussions about employee engagement. You see engaged employees versus disengaged employees. And, so, maybe we can start by talking about that a little bit. Because you have your engaged employees, and you can usually tell who those are. But the disengaged maybe a little harder to see, or maybe not so hard, depending on what they're not doing, I should say.
Sarah:            Yes, sure, and the first indication we have, that some employees are not engaged, is that they don't answer the surveys. So we don't get 100% participation. So that tells us that some people feel like maybe their voice won't be heard, even if they answer. And those people, usually, just have a negative outlook, maybe, on what type of work they're doing or their future within the company. 
And, so, a lot of times, you lose the engagement when people feel like there's no career development path for them, or the work that they're doing isn't valuable, or they're not being told that the work that they're doing is valuable.
Adam:            And that can be very difficult for an employee, especially, when you don't feel like you can't move up in an organization. How do you take somebody who is disengaged and try to get them to be engaged?
Sarah:            That's a great question, and, especially, when you don't have a development path for a person, it is really challenging. And, so, what we try to do is we try to provide a lot of personal and professional development opportunities. And we talk to our employees about how those types of opportunities can help them develop themselves. Whether for this particular company and role or just in general for their career. So we try to offer them opportunities to learn and also to, maybe, work in an area that isn't related to their job. 
So we try to look for things we call stretch assignments. Where there might be an opportunity in another group, where someone needs help with a special project, and that might give that individual the opportunity to learn new skills that they can put on their resume, even if it doesn't give them direct path to promotion. So we try to demonstrate what we can offer the employee, even if it isn't upward mobility, and that maybe we can't keep them forever, but we can keep them a little bit longer, and that helps us overall.
Adam:            Yes, because it shows that you care and that you're engaging with them, even though they seem to be disengaged. And, so, it encourages them, even if there is no upper mobility at that moment.
Sarah:            Right, because everyone is looking for some type of personal development, even if they don't see a future for themselves at that company. So we try to offer something for everyone. If you don't see yourself as a leader at this company, that's okay, we'll work with you on how you can make yourself a better employee and a better person. So that, at least, we can keep you around, and have you feel happy to be working at the company for the time being.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, that makes a lot of sense. So maybe we can focus a little bit on what are some benefits, to organizations, to creating an engaging environment?
Sarah:            I haven't read all of the studies, but there are numerous studies that show that engaged employees are better employees, they're more productive. Of course, we know that hiring new employees, and training them, and getting them up to speed is very expensive and time-consuming. And, so, it benefits us to take the time to develop programs to promote employee engagement. Because, overall, we end up with better productivity and just a better workforce.
Adam:            I mean, that makes a lot of sense to want to have a better workforce, especially, when they're engaged. And, so, maybe, we can talk a little bit about what do you need to look for, especially, when your team is not engaged. Are there certain signs that you can look for? Obviously, you mentioned you can tell people are not engaged when they're not taking a survey. But then what are other signs that you can look for, within your team, if you can talk a little bit about that?
Sarah:            Yes, no problem, I think, there are  a couple of different signs that I look for. Generally, I look for people who aren't participating in the conversations, who don't speak up in meetings. People who have been doing the same work for an extended period of time. 
And, of course, you look for the signs of people who are not responsive. They're taking a long time to reply to emails or teams' messages. 
Those are all signs we look for, for people who aren't engaged. And then we really try to find ways to bring them into the conversation. To make them feel like we're committed to their success, and that we're interested in having them as part of the conversation.
Adam:            Do you think that having engaged people with the not so engaged people, connecting them together, that can help drive or improve a team?
Sarah:            I definitely do. Maybe one other thing I'll say about employees who aren't engaged is they tend to leave. So, really, our primary focus on employee engagement started when, and I won't say it started, we've always had a focus on it. But we renewed that focus when the great resignation occurred. We were hearing about that. 
It didn't really happen at my company. But we were very concerned that once everyone was out of sight, out of mind, working remote from home, people might start to feel disengaged when they're working on their own. Without interacting with others. They might start to look at other jobs online while they're at home and things like that. 
So we really wanted to focus on making sure that didn't happen. So we started some programs that were designed, specifically, to promote employee engagement. And one of those was a mentoring program within the accounting department. 
So we matched up individuals who were at lower levels with our managers and directors, so that the managers and directors could give the staff-level folks an idea of how they could get to that level. And also they could just give them the ability to communicate with someone they didn't work with all the time. So that they would feel more engaged in the overall department, and not just able to speak with their direct supervisor and their specific team.
Adam:            That's great. Mentorship is a huge way of connecting different departments, different people, within an organization. And it also helps people feel like they're part of a community. Because a lot of times corporate structures feel like a prison, in a lot of ways, with the fluorescent lights and everything. And it sounds like you guys are building a sense of community. Has that been what you're looking to do?
Sarah:            Yes, definitely, I would say there were two very large parts of our program were communication. So making sure that we had adequate amounts of communication across the department, and within the specific teams, and then collaboration, in general. 
So having a team's channel for our whole department, where people could even just share a photo of their pet or something funny that they wanted to share. So that people do feel like they're part of a broader community and not just a small, little, group. And, then, I'll say that I'm very fortunate, I work for a company that is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
And, so, two years ago we started inclusion groups, and those have been a really big help in employee engagement and in helping people feel like they're part of a community. So I will say for companies that don't have inclusion groups, yet, I think, it really is a big benefit to employees.
Adam:            Can you, maybe, talk a little bit more about the inclusion groups? What does that look like?
Sarah:            Sure, so, typically, they're focused around a specific group. So we have a women's inclusion group. A veterans' inclusion group. We have a Latinx inclusion group, things like that. But it's to give employees, across the company, the ability to connect with people that they relate to and then also the ability to share with the whole organization, the things that are important to that inclusion group. 
And, so, it's really been great, both, for bringing employees together with people that they relate to. And, then, also, making them able to share that with the whole company and educate them on the issues that are important to them. So it has been really great in bringing our whole community together.
Adam:            That's awesome, that's a great way of connecting people and also helping to educate the greater community, as well. Because a lot of times, if you only are focused on what you know, you never get to experience or understand what other people's experiences are, which helps you understand the human condition better.
Sarah:            Right. And the other thing that's nice about the inclusion groups is that they have executive sponsorship. So the issues that are important to the inclusion groups are brought to the attention of the executive leadership. So they're then aware of what's important to their employees and it gives them a forum to do that. But without the inclusion groups, the executives might hear about it but it wouldn't, necessarily, be in a positive way and it doesn't give them as much exposure to it.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, and it also gives people a voice who may not have had a voice before.
Sarah:            Yes, and that also because it's open to anyone. It's nice that some of the people who are at lower levels, in the organization, can still become very active in these inclusion groups. And have access to people at different levels that they might not have access to if they didn't join that inclusion group.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, that's awesome. So we're thinking about engagement, I want to talk a little bit about what are some drivers that bring employees to become engaged or to engagement, within an organization. And maybe you can talk about some drivers that have helped your organization, as you've seen it, especially, over the last two years?
Sarah:            Yes, the main one that I see is employee development because it demonstrates that you care about your employees and their own career. And, so, that you're not just worried about the company or yourself. You care about that person and how they can grow themselves. So we've focused a lot on personal development. Fortunately, we have some really good training tools, online training tools. 
So we have a lot of programs that our employees have access to, and what we've tried to do is go through and identify some that would be useful to people. So they don't have to go combing through a thousand training programs.
So leadership training and teaching them how to manage people and how to improve their interpersonal communications. And then technical training to help them develop their technical skills, so that they can perform their job better or be able to potentially move into a different role. 
We have a really good opportunity for our employees to receive coaching, which a lot of our managers have taken advantage of. Which is really great because it gives them a chance to work with a trained coach, to improve the skills that need improvement. 
So that they can work to become future leaders of the company. And, then, I mentioned before the stretch assignments. But all of those things have been really helpful, showing our commitment to the development of our employees. And, then, the other area, I'd say, especially, during the last couple of years people have really looked for is just empathy and understanding. We're very aware that everyone has things that they need to do outside of work. We're very respectful of people's time with their families. 
We're flexible in work arrangements and we try to be aware of what's happening in people's lives. So that we can make sure that we're not putting too much work on them. If they have something they're dealing with outside of work that they need to focus on. And I will say we've gotten really positive feedback, when we do take the time to show that we care about our employees, as individuals, it makes them feel very positive towards the company. So things like that really pay off. 
And, then, the third area would be recognition. So I think that recognizing the positive contributions of your employees, has a huge benefit. And some studies show even more than compensation, I don't know if that's true or not. But it really does help to ensure that people know how much you appreciate them. 
And, so one thing we've started to do is we have a quarterly meeting for our entire department. And every quarter I ask people to nominate people that they work with, that they think have done something that was, particularly, special or helpful. And, so, then we acknowledge that in front of the whole group, and that really goes a long way towards making people feel really appreciated and that the work that they do doesn't go unnoticed.
Adam:            That's amazing to hear, and in the conversations that I've been having, even just in this podcast. It seems like the common theme is that we've all understood our human condition outside of the corporate structure. And recognize that it's okay to have a kid run into the room when you're in the middle of a meeting, or a dog barking, because that's just life. And you can still have your meeting and still be professional in the midst of all those things, and it kind of brought us all together at the same level.
Sarah:            Yes, I agree. And it is true, you do observe those things happen to executive vice presidents, down to staff-level people. Especially when we were all home, we're all dealing with the same type of things going on, and it does help everyone feel like we can relate to one another.
Adam:            Yes. And, so, as we look forward into the future, a lot of people have moved to a hybrid situation, or all in the office, or partially in the office, every organization is different. How do you think we can continue engaging employees in the midst of rising costs?
In the midst of shareholders saying, "Hey, okay, you had your little break from the COVID now you need to get back going there." And a lot of organizations are finding it difficult to find that balance. Because workloads are starting to increase, as people are increasing what they want out of their employees. How do you balance that?
Sarah:            That's a great question and it is really difficult. I'll tell you my experience because we have our own struggle with bringing people back to the office. And we're recommitting to a hybrid work schedule because we had attempted one, and people still really wanted to work, primarily, from home. And it's hard because people do want the flexibility of working from home. And we know that they're very productive at home. 
I think that we've tried to emphasize, to our employees, that "We know you're productive from home. We're not worried about productivity. But we want people to have that human connection. Because it is an important part of engagement to talk to people in-person, and just have a conversation that's not related, primarily, to work. 
And, so, we're going to renew our enthusiasm for encouraging people to come to the office two days a week, and we are emphasizing that we're going to be very flexible with the time that people arrive and the time they have to leave. 
We understand they have commitments outside of work. And, then, it still gives them a few days a week to work from home, and have those really productive stretches of uninterrupted work. Where they're not having to drive to the office or someone is not stopping in to say hello. And, hopefully, this gives everybody the best of both worlds. 
Where they can have those two days with the in-person interaction, maybe some visibility to higher level executives that they can't get from home. But then still have that uninterrupted time at home, the productive time, and that flexibility to not have to commute. 
And then the other thing that we're trying to do, we did this year, was we did have a, and, although, it's expensive, but we got our whole team together in one location, for a couple of days to just do some training, and some brainstorming, and some planning for the future. And it was such a great experience and everyone really loved being together in-person, and being able to brainstorm together. And then everyone left feeling renewed about the future and excited.
And, so, I think, that goes a long way towards keeping everybody engaged, is having that opportunity to all come together.
Adam:            Yes, there's something about the human connection and seeing somebody, as opposed to as you and I are, we're looking at each other through little webcams. But sitting across the table from somebody, there's a huge difference in that connection point. And I think we do need that, as humans, we need that human touch. And, especially, getting out of the house every once in a while is good for everybody.
Sarah:            Yes, I think so, I enjoy the two days a week in the office, and then I enjoy the rest of the week working from home. So I'm hopeful that the hybrid approach works.
Adam:            I am too. I think this is the new normal, is hybrid, because everybody recognized, "Hey, we can be successful working from home and be just as productive, if not more productive." And then finding that balance will be the way forward. Because if you can't adjust your organization to be a hybrid, then, you might find more resignation. Because people are like, "I'll go to someplace where they will let me do that."
Sarah:            Yes, and that's a fear that a lot of companies have and, especially, in accounting because there are a lot of jobs. If people want to work fully remote, then, they will. So we're trying to emphasize what are the benefits you get from being around people. We understand there's benefits to being home, and that's very appealing. So we're trying to show the appeal of the two days in-person, and the opportunity to interact with people and benefit from those in-person connections and interactions.
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