Employees Aren’t Vending Machines

Lately I’ve been getting the same plain trail mix from our office vending machine. Exciting, I know. I actually love trail mix. It’s a nice afternoon snack; inexpensive and healthful. And it’s certainly convenient. All I have to do is walk a few steps from my desk into the lunch room, dig a dollar out of my wallet, hit a couple buttons, and I’ve got myself a tasty trail mix treat to tide me over.

I think it’s pretty safe to say we take our office vending machine for granted. As long as it’s stocked and plugged in, that Butterfinger is as good as yours! … But only if you don’t have a ripped or crinkly dollar bill… Oh, the disappointment when the break room snack machine decides it hates your one and only dollar with a tear just above G.W.’s wig! So other than being a little picky about the condition of your dough, vending machines are reliable at providing us an expected output (snackies!) in exchange for the requisite input (a crisp, clean single).

So what do vending machines have to do with employee engagement? Well, many organizations today still look at employees merely as sources of output: products, services, intellectual capital, etc. The input is a paycheck. “We give you a paycheck, you do whatever we say.” Except the employment relationship is much more complicated than that, especially when factoring in the concept of employee engagement. If we define ’employee engagement’ as capturing workers’ discretionary effort and inspiring them to feel invested in the success of the organization, then it takes much more than a paycheck. It takes the sincere and empathetic leadership to engage employees. It takes heart.

If you really want an engaged workforce, don’t treat them like vending machines. Here a few points to further illustrate this admittedly odd comparison.

1) When you put a dollar into a vending machine, you expect that it will dispense any item marked $1.00. If you insert 75 cents, then you get nothing because $1.00 is what the vending machine company felt is a fair price. No buck, no luck. An employee’s salary is negotiable and often, not in his or her favor. If you pay employees less than what’s fair, they aren’t likely to work as hard or be as engaged as they would if you paid them well, or at least the market average. However, a fair wage is only the foundation for employee engagement. True engagement takes more than just a paycheck.

Engagement Lesson: Paying your employees well is a prerequisite to engaging them.

2) Everything inside a vending machine is visible, so you can decide before you buy. If it’s all out of your favorite potato chips, you can purchase something else. You can’t readily see everything inside most employees (strengths, struggles, passions, grievances, weaknesses etc.), therefore you need to have strong leadership and communication skills to understand what makes them tick. You also need to speak and act with the utmost integrity in order to establish the kind of trusting relationship that encourages employees to be open – open to giving and receiving feedback, open to sharing innovative ideas, and open to following your lead. It starts with the recruiting process and continues throughout the employment lifecycle.

Engagement Lesson: An open and trusting conversation with employees first requires leadership and integrity.

3) We’ve all had it happen: That 3:00 hankering for something sweet sends you to the vending machine, spare change in hand, only to have your purchase get stuck mid-release. It just hangs there, mocking you from behind the glass as you contemplate how best to get it down without making a racket or looking like a crazy person. Fortunately, vending machines don’t have feelings, so you can kick, bang, shake, all you want until that candy bar is finally yours. The next day, you can come back and buy another snack. Employees, on the other hand, aren’t emotionless machines. If they feel abused or mistreated, they will not be engaged. Mistreatment in the workplace comes in many forms, but it’s when managers are unaware that they are causing a problem that there is the highest likelihood of disengagement.

Engagement Lesson: Treat employees the way you would like to be treated. Actually, treat them the way they would like to be treated.

4) Vending machines are always available to sell their wares. You could technically buy a bag of Funyuns any time, day or night, though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be in the office at 4:00 in the morning… But, hey, some folks do it. The point is: vending machines don’t ever have to “go home” or disconnect. They’re constantly ready to meet your snacking needs. Employees are not (or should not be) available around the clock. They need to be able to “switch off” and leave their work until tomorrow. Expecting employees to constantly be connected or guilting them into working 50, 60, 70 + hours a week will cause them to burn out and disengage. Countless studies have proven that productivity drops off sharply after a certain number of hours, so there really is no benefit for anyone.

Engagement Lesson: Work-life balance means working to live, not living to work.

5) When a vending machine needs to be replenished, it probably takes about 10 minutes before it’s once again fully stocked with an assortment of goodies. Employees need to take vacations in order to rest and recharge. Studies show that a large portion of the workforce simply does not take any paid time off, and those employees who do are fearful that it will negatively affect their jobs. Time away from work can have just as much of an impact on an employee’s level of engagement as their time at work. But encouraging employees to use their vacation time is not enough. Employees who are overburdened with more work than they can reasonably handle are much less likely to take any substantial time off … Or they will become stressed and disengaged when they do return from vacation.

Engagement lesson: Foster a culture that celebrates employees taking time for themselves. And make sure they don’t end up regretting those days away from the office.

6) The vending machine in our lunch room has stayed in the same place, selling the same stuff for as long as I’ve been with my company. Vending machines are perfectly content to stay in one place. Employees need to grow, develop, and move. Development opportunities are critical for employees who do not want to be stagnant in their careers. There are, of course, those who prefer the comfort of staying in the same job for their whole career, and that’s fine! They should be supported in following whatever path they choose, but make them aware of any roles or projects that would better engage them based on their strengths or passions. One of the most powerful ways to engage employees is to show them that you support their dreams, whatever they might be.

Engagement Lesson: Give your employees room to grow, even if that means growing out of their current role.

Now that I’ve stretched my vending machine analogy pretty much as far as it can go, I’ll leave you with a final thought to bring it all together. Organizations with the highest levels of engagement don’t have to offer the most glamorous perks or the biggest bonuses. Those things don’t yield sustainable engagement in the long run if employees are not treated like human beings. Your employees are not machines. That is the critical lesson all leaders must never forget. You can easily buy a bag of Cheetos from your office snack machine, just like you can easily demand results from your employees because you’re paying their salary. But it takes so much more to truly engage employees. It takes leadership and a humane organizational culture.. and maybe trail mix. Free trail mix couldn’t hurt.

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