The Enrichment Experience: 
Engaging Great Minds and the Power of People in the Workplace

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How do leaders stay connected with their people in a virtual workplace?  What secrets do the best coaches know about managing people for results? How did a Chicago pizza guy create an exceptional workplace in spite of the odds?  Those three topics formed the basis for the 2011 Forum Think Tank: The Enrichment Experience: Engaging Great Minds and the Power of People in the Workplace. 

Built around its research about the newly- identified concept of “Employee Enrichment,” the event brought together experts from The Forum: Business Results Through People at Northwestern University and a diverse group of business leaders for an exploration of “shared concepts” and open conversations about the power of fostering “real relationships” with employees in a world where face-to-face contact is steadily declining.

Simply put, the concept of “Employee Enrichment” is the practice of actively engaging employees in ways that:

• Develop employees as people, not just as employees;
• Make employee lives fuller and richer;
• Strive for higher levels of contentment and meaningfulness.

With current economic and global workplace conditions setting the tone, senior business leaders and academic experts reviewed and analyzed the results of The Forum’s recent studies about (1) successful virtual workplace practices and (2) the parallels between successful athletic coaching methods and people performance. The group also heard firsthand about the concept of “people as a competitive advantage” from Nick Sarillo of Nick’s Pizza & Pub. The focus of the day was built around The Forum’s historical findings demonstrating that employees who have a strong relationship with the company and the customer double their performance results.

Employee Relationships In a Virtual World

With off-site workers now representing up to 40 percent of the U.S. workforce in companies with 5,000 employees or more and as many as three out of four organizations already using remote employees, The Forum’s latest study examined the challenges of building relationships between the company and virtual workers who may feel disenfranchised due to geography or cultural barriers. The study consisted of a series of interviews with leaders at several organizations that were identified as having virtual work arrangements as a routine part of their business-- Accenture, Adobe, Automattic, Cisco, Performics and United Healthcare.

Analysis of the interviews resulted in these key findings that were presented at the Think Tank:

  • Engaging remote employees must be a strategic part of a bigger virtual employee management practice endorsed by top organizational leaders.
  • Virtual employment helps address the trade-off between finding the quality talent needed within a restricted geographic area.
  • Periodic face-to-face contact can help overcome the disconnect of distance.
  • Formal policies and programs for virtual employees enhance the performance and quality of the work experience.
  • Companies need to invest in technology that empowers virtual employees.
  • Leaders need to actively work on integrating virtual employees into the organizational culture.

Against that backdrop, participants explored the kind of strategies and tactics an organization might use to foster “real relationships” with employees while still creating a virtual workplace that leverages technology, coming up with the following suggestions:

  • Simulate face-to-face contact and “level the playing field” by using video conferencing and hosting virtual town halls;
  • Use a digital brand and even avatars to help employees connect;
  • Understand the best type of  technology to use for each situation;
  • Make sure the facilitator is aware of local conditions and time zones, introduces participants and provides materials in advance;
  • Balance informality with definitive structure, policies and guidelines;
  • Use a variety of communication methods: phone calls, video, etc.
  • Provide adequate support for the technology used;
  • Use an internal social networking approach to connect people via information sharing, photos, etc.;
  • Understand employees’ situations, use their preferred method of communication;
  • Validate employee importance by always replying and providing feedback in timely way.

Participants also explored strategies and tactics that organizations can use to foster “real relationships with customers while still creating an efficient enterprise that leverages technology. 
Their suggestions included the following:

  • Periodic personal contact such as a customer meeting, check-in call, anniversary/birthday greeting, special event or even a handwritten thank you note;
  • Customize personal communication perhaps using social media or online “chat;”
  • Understand the customer by building a complete customer profile, engaging in customer relationship management (CRM) through surveys and other tools like LinkedIn groups, etc.
  • Use personal recommendations and surprise elements like “authentic” incentives.

When it came to discussing possible strategies and tactics to help build an organizational culture that makes virtual and offsite employees really feel part of the organization, participants had these recommendations:

  • Foster a culture characterized by clear expectations, accessibility, mutual respect and communications that keep virtual employees informed;
  • Create face-to-face and “personal” touch point opportunities like replying to an email with a personal call or having a meeting that includes “virtual” people;
  • Solve problems through the filter of the company culture;
  • Embed values in various ways such as email, intranet, social media tools, etc.

Athletic Coaching and People Performance

The Forum’s Academic Director Frank Mulhern, Ph.D., of Northwestern University presented the results of his recent study regarding The Parallels Between Athletic Coaching and People Performance: An Exploration of Shared Concepts.  He noted that “the single most important aspect of successful sports coaching is building and maintaining personal relationships between players and their coaches and that the same is true for organizations--people perform best in their roles when their organizations support all aspects of their lives.” Mulhern shared these key findings of the study:

  1. Know the whole person – organizations should have genuine concern for all aspects of an employee’s life.
  2. Establish and maintain a culture of respect that goes both ways.
  3. Provide customized, individual attention.
  4. Create an environment that promotes superior communication.
  5. Promote a sense of pride and belonging.
  6. Be highly responsive to individual needs.

As they did with the virtual workplace study, event participants discussed ways that business managers could get to know employees better as “whole persons” and not simply as employees.  Among the suggestions are these ideas:

  • Start with genuine leadership buy-in to build a culture of trust through accessibility and personal conversations about the things that are important to employees.
  • Set expectations for managers to build relationships with teams through visibility and accessibility.
  • Use communication tools like newsletters, social media, billboards to showcase personal stories and achievements.
  • Include personal goals in performance discussions. Demonstrate empathy and compassion towards employees with personal challenges.

Pizza Success Tied to People

Keynote speaker Nick Sarillo of Nick’s Pizza & Pub in Chicago shared his view that “people are his competitive advantage.”  He urged attendees to “be explicit about the culture you want” and that “leader behavior must continuously reinforce the organization’s culture and values.” Rather than focusing strictly on the quality of his product, Sarillo explained that he built his overwhelming success around three core values:

  1. Building trust,
  2. Having a clear purpose and values, and
  3. Fostering a “trust and track” versus a “command and control” culture.

He strongly endorses an “open book/transparent” management approach that creates a “safe space” for employees by using “I” statements as a way to foster “high performance communication that eliminates drama and conflict in order to focus on finding active solutions.”  He strongly believes in using a “two-way feedback loop” communication process that includes performance feedback as well as “direct feedback” (five words or less). The company purpose and values are even publicly posted on its website to help recruit the type of people who are attracted to the cultural prerequisites.

He also stressed the value of “celebrating daily successes” with employees as a way to reinforce a strong culture of customer service.

Summing Up

The fourth annual Forum Think Tank provided an opportunity for research experts and business leaders to explore the concept of employee enrichment through the analysis of data, stories and ideas to take back and help energize the workplace. In the course of the discussions they were able to come face-to-face with the enrichment paradox:

  • Common business practices emphasize short-term solutions and focus on creating logic and order as prerequisites for productivity and financial success while
  • Employee enrichment is a long-term approach that defies the business logic about money as the most important thing—yet generates a far greater and longer lasting payoff.


About The Forum
The Forum: Business Results Through People, affiliated with Northwestern University, is an organization for thought leadership advocating that the most effective way business leaders create and sustain organizational values is through partnership with people.

About Nick Sarillo 
Nick Sarillo is the founder and CEO of Nick’s Pizza & Pub, located in Crystal Lake, and Elgin, Illinois. Nick has been featured by Inc. magazine, FOX Business and Newsweek for his creative and values-driven approach to leadership and training. Find Nick and Nick’s Pizza & Pub on Facebook and on Twitter at @Nickspizza.