About six years ago, Telus Corp. was having a problem. It was having trouble keeping its employees engaged at its company.

In 2007, an internal survey of about 4,000 employees showed only about 53 per cent of its employees were truly engaged and involved with their community. The year after, that number jumped to 58 per cent – good news, until that dropped back down to 54 per cent a year later.

While the numbers don’t seem to mean much, that resulted in lost productivity and a reduced bottom line for the large telecom corporation employing a workforce of about 40,000. And of course, it also indicated roughly only half of Telus employees truly felt involved and satisfied with their professional lives, said Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at Telus.

He was speaking at a session at the Mobile Enterprise Strategies Summit in Toronto on Thursday, sharing what he and his team at Telus have done to try to develop a stronger work culture within the company.

“The question was, are people happy to be at work? Are they going to company barbecues, the skating rinks? Would they want to stay with you?” he said. “Without a work culture, there’s no engagement.”

He shared a few ways that Telus worked on bringing its employees closer together.

1. Being flexible
While many businesses see face time in the office as a prerequisite to getting a solid amount of work done, Telus set a goal for its employees – by the year 2014, about 70 per cent of its workforce will be working from home or on the go.

Right now, that number is up to 50 per cent, said Pontefract.

“How would your culture handle that, if employees weren’t coming into their cubicles day in and day out?” he said. He added that flexibility was one reason Telus’ engagement rose steadily from 53 per cent in 2007 to about 81 per cent in 2012, based on an internal survey.

And of course, using that figure is also a handy way of recruiting new talent and retaining current employees, Pontefract said.

2. Using tech as tools for fun
Beyond giving Telus employees the choice to work from home, another way the company boosted its employee engagement was through introducing new social tools.

For example, Telus has a peer-to-peer recognition program, or gamification, where its employees reward each other for jobs well done, Pontefract said. Similar to Aeroplan, employees award each other points, which can be redeemed for things like spa visits or hotel stays.

Plus, Telus is also on social media. Using a network called Habitat Social, Telus employees can log on to the company’s Flickr pages to share photos of things they’re doing.

It also uses Cisco WebEx for video conferencing – but not simply for closed-door meetings between team members. Instead, company executives will often have an informal, 90-minute chat on Cisco WebEx that any Telus employee can watch and then respond to via a forum posted before the chat. Habitat videos are also available through mobile, Pontefract said.

And then there’s Telus’ program with Avaya Inc. Employees can log onto a virtual world through their tablets, with an avatar walking around what looks like an office building. Team members can even use Microsoft Outlook to book virtual meeting rooms for their avatars to get together and chat, as well as access web presentations and “fireside chats.”

“Five years ago, we would never have been able to do this,” Pontefract said. “And now we don’t have to introduce our programs since people are already on board the train. We just introduce new tools.”

3. Trust
Having employees who work mostly at home, or who have access to all kinds of social tools, really embodies a certain degree of trust, Pontefract said.

“We work in a state in which there’s reciprocal trust,” he said. “Can you imagine if every issue had to be cleared by management, like if an employee offered a customer a discount on his or her next monthly bill. Allowing employees – that’s trust.”

Another example was back in 2008, when Telus blocked its employees from accessing Facebook until the CEO asked the CIO to turn it back on, allowing it to be a part of the company culture and trusting employees to use their time wisely.

What it boils down to is that trust is a key part of having that culture of engagement, Pontefract said.

However, not every small to mid-sized business (SMB) can afford to do what Telus has done with its employee engagement program, he added.

His company is offering a program called Telus Transformation Office, which will help SMBs and enterprise start turning around engagement in their workplaces too. Right now, a few companies are currently participating in that program as part of its pilot phase, Pontefract said.

“It’s always going to be about behaviour first. It doesn’t matter about the size of the company,” he added.

And while gamification and virtual worlds might be beyond the scope of a small business, there are still plenty of free tools for SMB employees to use if they want to be more flexible in their work environment.

For example, a closed group on Facebook might do the trick, or using Google Docs to work together might be an option, he said.

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