Making Employee Engagement More Than A Tick Box with Shea Heaver

We conducted a Q&A interview with Shea Heaver, Founder at OptimaWork, around employee engagement and business transformation.

Could you introduce yourself and what you do?

I’ve spent the majority of my 25-year career managing IT projects in Europe, Southern Asia, the US and Canada, during which time I increasingly recognized that while planning and process is important, it is highly engaged people who make projects successful. When they feel valued, can express their opinions, are invited to provide feedback, manage differences etc… they are much more motivated, loyal and productive.

This led me to partner with the folks at An Even Better Place to Work a few years ago and in particular helped bring their unique Employee Engagement & Experience solution to the US (which I moved to from the UK in the mid 1990’s).


There is a lot of noise around employee engagement, but what exactly is it?

There is no exact definition of Employee Engagement, and hence the one below is simply my interpretation of what it is.

“Employee Engagement is the demonstrative passion, loyalty and effort the workforce gives to their job, their team and the organization.”

In reality, there’s a myriad of ways to describe it and a plethora of experts, authors and consultants willing to bend your ear on the subject. Words and phrases such as ‘morale’, ‘enthusiasm’, ‘over and above’, ‘happy’ and ‘extra mile’ get tossed out there with reckless abandon. The upshot is that it is about getting the best from your people.


How is employee engagement and an employee engagement strategy beneficial to an organisation?

When employees are working to their individual and team’s full potential, the business benefits greatly and attains a significant competitive advantage.  Productivity and profits will be high while dysfunction and inefficiency will be very low.

Unfortunately, that is rarely the case with various reports estimating annual disengagement costs of;

  • upwards of $450 Billion in the US
  • up to £70 Billion in the UK
  • up to €138 Billion in Germany

To put that in context, as of mid-2018 approx. 150 countries have a GDP of less than what the US is losing to disengagement. And if those number seem difficult to correlate to your own business, try the Employee Engagement Calculator at to see how much you may be losing to workplace dysfunction.

In addition to the financial impacts, a dysfunctional workplace can also have a damaging effect on the mental wellbeing of employees.  In an environment where there is a lack of trust, low morale and people don’t feel valued, the employee’s stress levels tend to be much higher.  They will likely be worried, nervous and feel pressured in their jobs, leading to higher absenteeism and turnover.

On the other hand, highly engaged employees are productive, pay attention to detail, promote the company, treat colleagues with respect, are loyal and genuinely want the business to succeed.


People often conflate ‘employee engagement’ and ‘employee experience’, but what is the difference?

The term Employee Experience is still a relatively new idiom that encompasses a more complete employee-centric business strategy.  It’s about the workplace environment, the technologies, the policies and procedures, etc… that impact the employee’s ability and desire to perform at their best. Going after increased Employee Experiences is the natural progression for companies who are serious about Employee Engagement and creating a better place to work.


What are the issues in organisations today and how can employee engagement improve these?

The main symptoms of a disengaged workforce are low levels or quality and productivity coupled with absenteeism and high turnover.  This is due to low morale, mis-trust, conflict and employee’s having no sense of value or purpose. The common denominator is Poor Working Relationships…frequently with colleagues, but especially with management and leadership. We’ve all heard the line that employees leave managers, not companies. When Employee Engagement is used as the catalyst to improve relationships and hence boost openness, morale and trust; the individuals, managers and teams will quickly bond and become a high performing unit.


What does an employee engagement strategy typically consist of and is there a rough ‘footprint’ for a successful employee engagement strategy?

Unfortunately, far too many Employee Engagement strategies still consist of a lengthy annual survey, which is then dumped on HR and Management to hunt and peck for enterprise wide solutions that are finally communicated back to the workforce months later. The problem with this sort of approach is that today's workforce (not just younger employees) expects speedy, pertinent transformation. And what’s more, they anticipate being an integral part of it. Smart organizations and leaders have realized that a successful Employee Engagement strategy is one that solicits more frequent feedback and empowers the employees to be the agents of change (thus also freeing up HR and Management to do what they do best).  These organizations are taking Engagement to the next level and starting to embrace the concept of Employee Experiences.


Is employee engagement a cultural issue or is it more than that?

In my opinion, they are tied at the hip, BUT they are also a classic “chicken or egg” conundrum. Culture is about the personality of your organization and (as mentioned above) engagement is primarily about the relationships within and feelings towards the organization. But culture can also mean the various workplace practices, work environment, policies, etc… These can indeed impact levels of engagement by aiding or hindering relationships.

Conversely, an engaged workforce that is encouraged to be open and who’s suggestions are actively taken into consideration (or are empowered to make small changes at the local level) can help change and shape the culture. This again is where we start to bleed into the Employee Experience space. It’s certainly ok to speak about Engagement and Culture together as a collective, but they aren’t identical or interchangeable.


It seems that employee engagement often sits within the HR space, but who should own it?

There seems to be eternal confusion as to who should take ownership for increasing levels of engagement within the organization.

Ask most companies about Employee Engagement and you will likely be directed to the HR department. But outside of their own department they aren’t in the trenches day-to-day hearing employees needs, concerns and suggestions. And while they may have the means to help with sending out surveys and company-wide communications (and as such can be a facilitator and advocate of the engagement efforts), they should not own it.

Sometimes the finger is pointed at management, with people expecting them to drive culture and engagement in the workplace. This happens when employees blame their manager for not meeting their workplace expectations while doing little to improve it themselves.  Equally ineffective is the parent-child ideology where management asks, “what do you kids think?” yet, follow it up with “…and we’ll do what appeals to us”.  These are just 2 reasons why Management should not own Employee Engagement.

So, if HR and Management shouldn’t own it, perhaps the answer to ‘who owns employee engagement?’ is found in the question.

After all, let’s think about who is responsible for;

  • The upkeep of your car… You or the mechanic?
  • What you order at a restaurant… You or your server?
  • Catching your flight… You or the pilot?
  • How you spend your money… You or your financial advisor?

While the mechanic, server, pilot and financial advisor are significant participants in the examples above, the responsibility to make it happen falls on each of us (to at least start the process). Therefore, it is my strong opinion that the Employees should be the ones that own and drive Engagement forward, with the full support and assistance of HR and Management.


How important is employee engagement during times of business transformation?

Employee Engagement is an endeavour in perpetuity that is needed in good times to thrive, and in lean times to survive. It is equally important during any transformation to the business, be that process or operational change, mergers or acquisitions, strategic or leadership overhaul, etc. By keeping focus on maintaining employee relationships and a great organizational culture, you ensure a much higher level of buy-in, support and participation from the workforce.


Employee engagement today seems to be treated as a tick box - shouldn’t it be more than this?

YES. As mentioned earlier, the (antiquated) tick-box annual survey is still much too prevalent today, as many organizations simply want to be seen to be doing something. Smart organizations are starting to treat Engagement as a core element of day-to-day business by incorporating tools, activities, goals, etc. that are designed to get the best out of individuals and teams. This is the building block for the larger Employee Experience objective mentioned above. By adopting the approach of more frequent workforce health-checks and then empowering the employees to be a big part of making things better in their area, each team or department will improve and thus the organization will improve holistically.


This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.


Shea Heaver was born in England but grew up, was educated and started his career in Northern Ireland before moving to South Florida in the mid-1990s.

Drawing on his years of management experience in the global IT field, he became a passionate promoter of a people-centric culture to improve organizational performance.  Through his work in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, etc... he increasingly realized that individuals who feel valued lead to teams that are motivated, innovative and highly productive.

He founded Optimawork, with a focus on helping organizations achieve higher Employee Engagement, improve Leadership, increase Job Satisfaction and build better Workplace Relationships.