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Employee Engagement & The Smiths: What Difference Does it Make?

Todd Johnson | Program Manager II, Expedia Group in Seattle, WA

“I was looking for a job, and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” -Morrissey, lead singer of The Smiths, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now


[ Note: If you’d like musical accompaniment while reading this post, recommended Smiths’ songs have been provided for each section.]

We’ve probably all had jobs like Morrissey. Jobs that made us miserable, cranky, and unlovable—susceptible to the melancholy songs of the Smiths.

But sometimes you get lucky and land the other kind of job: the type that inspires you to give your best effort, to collaborate with panache, and to deliver value to your customer. These types of jobs typically don’t happen in a vacuum. The job is engaging in some part because of the work environment and the culture that each employee helps create and cultivate.

As part of an Employee Engagement Team at Expedia Group, we think about these topics (culture, environment, engagement) all the time. We ask questions daily, like:

  • What makes Expedia Group a desirable place to come and do our best, most passionate work?
  • How do we ensure our customers are satisfied no, ecstatic about “the product”?
  • And, who is our “internal customer” anyway?

The answer, of course, is that it is the people who make the workplace, the people who create the product, and the people are the customer. It’s really all about the people. Or it should be!

When your customer is your co-worker.

[Read to the tune: Is It Really So Strange?]

For my team, the idea of an internal customer can get pretty meta.  We focus on those focusing on the external customer (i.e. our travelers and travel partners). In Employee Engagement, we serve our customer by proxy, by helping to catalyze* the job culture through various programs, communications, trainings, and offerings.

This means we take on a variety of roles:

  • We are administrators: planning large- and smaller scale team meetings, sending out the invites to meetups, bringing speakers into our offices, and hosting brown bags.
  • We are researchers & scientists: creating and evaluating surveys, implementing practices based on a growth mindset and behavioral studies, and letting data drive our decisions about the workplace.
  • We are networkers and leadership gurus: kicking off mentorship and technical programs, offering internal training opportunities, and innovation building activities like hackathons.
  • We are celebrators of differences: conducting allyship workshops, diversity and inclusion practices, and listening tours; making our programs scalable, social, and extensible around the globe.

We refer to these activities as engagement. It is rewarding work that also has its challenges. Like many programs focused on internal customers, our product often falls victim to its own intangibility. Our metrics can be squishy and subject to debate, and our product (i.e. the many programs we offer) is often only noticed when something appears to be lacking or malfunctioning, in the same way that the squeaky wheel gets all the proverbial grease.

But in a large corporation, not devoting time and energy to engagement can be even more costly because environmental neglect leads to job dissatisfaction, poor team performance, and employee attrition and detractors.

So why do we care so much about engagement?

[Read to the tune: These Things Take Time]

Since we spend such a good chunk of our lives at the office, it just makes sense that we would want to come work at a place that was engaging, inviting, inspiring, and supportive of both our career and life goals. A place with great culture, vibe, and people; and (of course) with incentives that encourage us to actually leave the office and travel the globe like our customers.

Learning from the insightful research Google did on work culture and effective teams, we know that having the most highly-skilled specialists populating teams has some importance, but matters much less than having specific qualities and traits in a team. The crucial traits they defined were:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure/clarity
  • Meaning
  • Impact

Digging a little deeper into these traits, it’s not hard to see how the culture (an engaged culture) is foundational to health; it’s what makes good teams possible.  (It’s also no coincidence that Google invested time/energy/resources into this extensive research because of their understanding of the importance of engagement in corporate settings).

Engagement, then, is more than a backdrop to business-as-usual; it’s more than just a set of inter- or intra-personal skills (please don’t call them soft!); it’s more than “optional-tasks-not-related-to-my-real-job”.

In some ways remaining highly engaged in the corporate environment is the hardest “work” each Expedian aspires to each day. But it’s also the work that sets great tech companies and professionals apart.

It can be challenging to perfect the art/science of engagement. We’ve built business objectives and measurements around our engagement goals, and we’ve asked our employees to ask some simple consumer questions about internal products.

Asking consumer quality questions about your work life

[Read to the tune: Ask, or Shoplifters of the World: Unite & Takeover]

When we think about engagement and the products we “consume” at work, we can recycle simple consumer questions we pose unconsciously all the time and make them work-relevant

Does the new smartphone have the features I use most?
Is this corporate email or blog post at all helpful?

Will attending this college help me / my children have a better chance at a good career?”
Did this online training give me skills to improve a customer’s travel experience?

Should I invest ten hours into the next season of < Insert favorite Netflix or TV show here>?
Should I invest ten hours to coach a fellow employee to receive dividends in career growth and greater connection?

Do these clothes make me look dashing?
Do I like the person I am becoming at work?

Is Disneyland really the happiest place on earth?
Am I helping to make Expedia Group the best place on earth for technologists to work?

I know these questions sound perhaps overly simplistic, and perhaps naive. Work is work, after all, no matter how meta you get about it, but at our core, we all know what a “good” work environment looks like and why it inspires us. At Expedia Group, we have healthy debates and may disagree about the nuances and preferences for our culture, but we know what is engaging to us and we know what isn’t.

We even have a mantra that reflects one of our core practices of improvement. You can find visual reminders, couch pillows throughout the office that contain the keywords of this principle: “Better.” “Every.” “Day.”

We encourage those in our teams to ask the consumer questions above while keeping this mantra in mind. Whenever the answer is “no,” there is a built-in opportunity to innovate, to grow, and to offer some change to the current culture/programs. But that requires that we be engaged enough to suggest, to offer, and to emulate the changes we’d like to see happen.

It really helps to have an Employee Engagement team that can help catalyze those changes to culture, because, in the words of the writer, Chuck Palahniuk, the real job is to, “Find joy in everything you choose to do. Every job, relationship, home…it’s your responsibility to love it, or change it.”

And when it comes to changing your workplace for greater job satisfaction, we can all agree with this charming man** who said, “Please, please, please, let me, let me, let me / Let me get what I want this time…”

* I like the word catalyze because it means to cause or accelerate a reaction usually one that is chemical in nature, without necessarily changing the fundamental materials or sequencing of the reaction. A catalyst kick-starts a process, speeds it up, or keeps it going through to an outcome.

** Morrissey again, duh.