34A new report from Quantum Workplace introduces some fascinating data about the best places and conditions for high employee engagement.

This study, as with so many others before it, reminds us upfront of the connection between employee engagement and profitability, so the data here is relevant to any organization with a headcount exceeding one.

The good news is that employee engagement is creeping back to more palatable levels after dipping dramatically during the depths of the recession.  According to Quantum’s engagement survey, 67.7% of employees ranked as engaged in 2012.  Quantum divided and analyzed these respondents within four categories: engaged, contributing, disengaged and hostile.

As I read through the firm’s analysis of employee engagement across cities, industries, job positions and other categories, I found that their key revelations only underscored the power of corporate volunteer and giving programs to increase engagement.

First, let’s look at the cities that score highest and lowest in employee engagement, a factor that becomes important as cities compete with each other for top talent:

Top 5 Cities

  1. Charlotte, 70.7%
  2. Denver, 70.7%
  3. Sacramento, 70.7%
  4. San Antonio, 70.1%
  5. Washington D.C., 69.4%

Bottom 5 Cities

  1. Cincinnati, 53.2%
  2. Omaha, 54.8%
  3. Las Vegas, 58.3%
  4. Albuquerque, 59.4%
  5. Kansas City, 59.4%

Makes you wonder what the best cities are doing right, and why the worst cities are stumbling, no?  What does Charlotte know that Cincinnati doesn’t?

Here’s another interesting perspective; the cities with the most improved and biggest drops in employee engagement:

Most Improved Cities

  1. Baltimore, +11.5%
  2. Phoenix, +8.4%
  3. Las Vegas, +7.7%
  4. Dallas, +4.5%
  5. Omaha, +3.8%

Most Declining Cities

  1. Huntsville, -6.3%
  2. Cincinnati, -3.6%
  3. Albuquerque, -3.5%
  4. Houston, -3.4%
  5. Nashville, -3.3%

Again, an intriguing snapshot of how different parts of the country are faring with employee engagement.  Why is Baltimore soaring and Huntsville belly-flopping (relatively)?

One clue lies in three areas where more than two-thirds of the cities are experiencing declining perceptions: job satisfaction, retention and benefits.

All of which happen to be areas where corporate giving and volunteering programs make a big difference.  These days, a strong volunteer and giving program is considered by many to be an essential company benefit, one which helps employees feel good about their company, their job and their inclination to stay.

Another standout finding comes from Quantum’s analysis of employee engagement ideas across five position levels: executives, managers, salaried professional/technical roles, other salaried employees and hourly employees.  At each level, one engagement issue was among the most uncertain for employees: “We have benefits not typically available at other organizations.”  In fact, this was the only issue in the survey where more than 20 percent of executives showed uncertainty, and one of only two survey items that were rated with uncertainty by 20 percent or more of managers.

As the report notes, areas of uncertainty represent areas of opportunity.  Companies need to help their employees assert with confidence that yes, indeed, they undoubtedly “enjoy benefits not typically available at other organizations.”  The feeling should be overwhelming, the response unmistakable.

How to accomplish this?  One way: offering a compelling volunteer and giving program, which, when executed well, helps your employees feel that their workplace is unique and special.  But as with any company perk, the communication around this benefit is almost as key as the benefit itself.  That’s why a robust volunteer management platform such as Causecast’s, which provides a social, mobile and interactive experience around giving back, reaps huge dividends with employee engagement.

The report found that one item which continuously, over the years, rises as a top driver of engagement is this: “The leaders of this organization are committed to making it a great place to work.”  In 2012, two of the top drivers were also these: “The leaders of the organization value people as their most important resource” and “I see professional growth and career development opportunities for myself in this organization.”

I can’t help but marvel at how a strong volunteer and giving program dovetails perfectly with these drivers.

A company that makes its employees feel that their jobs fit into a mission that’s bigger than them, bigger than the company itself even, and makes that mission not only important but fun – well, that’s a company that’s creating a culture not just for workers but for believers.  These days, successful organizations understand that their employees are their best brand ambassadors, and passion turns workers who just punch in and punch out into advocates who fully embrace their jobs and feel excited to be part of the team.

Well-run volunteer and giving programs that aren’t just after-hours, check-the-box adjunct activities but which frame the whole workplace culture are a breeding ground for passion. They’re also a unique platform for skills and leadership building that offer superb professional growth opportunities.

Which brings me to the next interesting finding of the report.  Engaged employees, it turns out, would rather receive training opportunities than anything else besides a pay increase.  They’d prefer training opportunitieseven more than spontaneous cash bonuses.  Training trumps cash. Wow.

In fact, access to learning or training opportunities ranked in the top five wishes of every engagement profile (engaged, contributing, disengaged and hostile), and with each category of increasing engagement, the importance of training opportunities also increased.

This issue is also hugely important when you assess preferences for recognition across the different professional levels within an organization.  One of only two forms of recognition that were ranked highest by respondents in every single position (executive, manager, professional/tech, other salaried, and hourly) were – yes, you guessed it – access to new learning or training opportunities.

Providing learning and training opportunities is clearly so desired and so critical for engagement.  But these opportunities are typically expensive and logistically challenging to arrange.

Employee training and development often focus on hard skills; the basic proficiencies needed to perform one’s job duties.  Strong employee training, however, should also cover soft skills such as teamwork, leadership, problem solving and public speaking – the unquantifiable abilities necessary to give companies a competitive edge.  This doesn’t come cheap: according to human resources think tank Bersin and Associates, the average training cost per employee in 2010 was $1200, with most of that going towards developing soft skills like management and leadership abilities.

The beauty of employee volunteering and giving programs is that they not only help fulfill a company’scorporate philanthropy mandate, they also offer workers an unparalleled opportunity to participate in teambuilding efforts and develop job-related skills.  On top of that, these programs are a bargain.  According to the Trends Of Excellence In Employee Volunteering Series by Points of Light Institute, a company will spend about $416 on each person that participates in an employee volunteer program.  That’s quite a savings from the typical training cost of $1200. (You can check out my full blog on this topic here).

So back to the cities.  I’m not sure why some cities are getting employee engagement right while others are shooting airballs, but there’s clearly some common attributes of high engagement that are clustered with more frequency in the better scoring parts of the country.  Whether the higher ranked cities also have more and better volunteer and giving programs is a topic for another study, but I’d wager that they do.

Regardless, Quantum Workplace’s eye-opening report is, for me, a further illustration that the relationship between employee volunteering and employee engagement is ideally symbiotic.

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