On-Site Magazine

Keeping employees engaged

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November 23, 2012 by Andrew Snook

Aon Hewitt’s Top 50 Best Employers in Canada for 2013 lists several construction companies among the finest places to work in the country.

The main requirement for being recognized on this prestigious list is creating and sustaining a highly engaged workforce. Consulting firm Aon Hewitt surveyed more than 280 Canadian employers in its study, representing an estimated 400,000 employees. The focus was to help organizations accurately assess engagement in the workplace and identify strategies to improve engagement using increased information and insight.

The study’s Top 50 companies include firms such as: EllisDon Corp., which took the No. 2 spot, PCL Constructors (No. 17), Clark Builders (No. 32), Cruickshank Group (No. 38), Aecon Group Inc. (No. 40) and Graham Group Ltd. (No. 48).

Mark Goldenberg, senior director of human resources and professional development at PCL, says it’s not surprising that many construction companies rank so highly when it comes to their levels of employee engagement.

“There’s a tremendous satisfaction [that comes with] building something and it’s there forever,” says Goldenberg.

But what do these companies do to be listed above their competitors within the construction sector? How do they engage their employees?

Make connections across the board
A common tip echoed by senior management at all the companies is to listen to employees from top to bottom.

“Make sure you are making every effort to connect with people at all levels,” says Janine Szczepanowski, vice-president of leadership and entrepreneurial development at EllisDon.

Szczepanowski says her company encourages leaders to connect with their employees. When they are engaged this way, they feel valuable and are more likely to offer ideas, as well as put in extra effort.

Keeping employees engaged is deeply rooted into the culture of EllisDon. A diligent effort is made to hire employees that reflect the company’s culture.

Gerald Clark, senior human resources manager at Clark, agrees that connections between senior management and its employees are a vital part of keeping employees engaged. When apprentices are sent off to technical training for eight weeks at Clark, management will take them out for a night of socializing and networking.

“We’ll take them out for Boston Pizza to meet other people going to technical training and show them appreciation,” says Clark. “It is another opportunity to pass along information about what’s going on in the business.”

PCL holds “Fireside Chats” for its employees every six months, where the company’s top executives from each district inform employees about the latest company-related news, as well as employee-related events, such as which employees have recently had children, personal achievements, etc.

“It’s a little about information and a lot about celebration,” says Goldenberg.

Offer employees a stake
Money talks, no doubt about it. So having employees directly invested in the health of a company is a great strategy for ensuring they care about the work they perform.

Several construction companies are employee-owned, including PCL, EllisDon, Clark Builders and Graham Group.

“There’s no question that’s a significant driver of employee engagement,” says Kim Johnson, Graham’s chief strategy officer and senior vice-president, shared services. “You have employees that also feel like owners and it absolutely influences their behavior. When you have somebody who feels like their contributions to the company impact their standing as an owner, as well as an employee, you get a lot more discretionary involvement. People tend to go above and beyond.”

Make their voices heard
Many companies cannot offer their workers employee ownership opportunities; however, that doesn’t mean those companies’ employees aren’t equally engaged in their work. 

At the Kingston-Ont.-based Cruickshank Group, employees have plenty of opportunities to speak their minds and help shape the direction of corporate policies. 

Lisa Anderson, vice-president of human resources at Cruickshank, says open communication and employee feedback are essential elements to keeping employees engaged. For that reason, her company implemented a program called “The WIN” (Workers Input Network), attended by a group of employees at varying levels, including Anderson and the company’s chief operating officer.

“We meet [quarterly] and go over policies and practices, benefits questions, anything to do with workplace issues and employee relations,” says Anderson. “It’s just a way to get a direct line of communication between the workers and management.”

Another engagement tool Cruickshank uses is suggestion boxes, where employees can make suggestions through voicemail and email. The suggestions are brought up at the WIN meeting.

“Sometimes they get implemented right there,” she says. “Sometimes they have to go on to management, then at the end of the year the workers vote on the top three suggestions.”

Another way Cruickshank keeps its employee engagement up, is its Roadkill Barbecues, which they hold approximately 14 times a year. Senior management take a trailer with a barbecue to all the Cruickshank job sites and cook up a steak dinner for every employee.

“When the company was small you got to see the employees on a regular basis, and as the company grows you don’t get to see those employees, so this is a way of getting out and talking to them and reaching out to them,” explains Anderson.

Giving back
Companies have a wide variety of extra-curricular activities and projects they implement to help employees build a stronger relationship with their employers and the communities they work in. PCL is heavily involved in giving back to the communities where it builds, regularly working with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the United Way. Clark also encourages its employees to have involvement within their communities and participate in charity work. The company has done water-related projects in Africa and allows employees to select a charity of their choice for the company to donate to during the Christmas season.

Work hard, play hard
Many construction companies also like to host activity days for employees and their families.

Alberta-based Clark hosts an annual hockey tournament between its Calgary and Edmonton offices, while Cruickshank hosts a four-on-four hockey tournament in the winter and the Cruickshank Summer Olympics.

Honesty is the best policy
One thing all of the companies’ senior management agree upon is that honesty and trust are the best policies in regards to keeping employees engaged.

Anderson says in addition to having open, honest communication between the workers and management, construction firms should try and recognize employees for their efforts whenever possible.

Both Clark and Cruickshank have long-term service awards celebrating various milestones.

Goldenberg says honesty in regards to how a person is performing, and letting them know where they can grow within the organization is also extremely important.

At EllisDon, establishing a culture of trust with employees is vital. One program implemented there that shows trust in its employees is unlimited vacation time.

“We trust people aren’t going to abuse it,” says Szczepanowski. “We trust that people aren’t going to try and take advantage of the company.”

She explains that vacation time is tracked, but only so the company knows which of its employees are at specific job sites and to ensure they can meet their clients’ needs.

“We always have to make sure we’re getting the work done,” says Szczepanowski.

Johnson says having an open relationship is probably the single, best thing that companies can do.
“Not everything can be spoken to all of the time, but wherever possible make sure people understand what the company is doing over the short-term and long-term.”

For more information on the study, or to view the complete list for Aon Hewitt’s Top 50 Best Employers in Canada for 2013, visit: http://aon.mediaroom.com.

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