What Drives Co-op Employee Engagement


Workplace employee engagement is a hot topic.  Open any human resources publication and you’ll find countless articles on making work fun, motivational and results-oriented.  No matter what the individual strategies are to achieve that, the connection people feel to the business values and whether they feel aligned with them is a big part of fostering engagement in the workplace.

While some workplaces may struggle with getting employees to care about their mission, food co-ops most often attract staff who want to work there because co-ops are community-owned, values-driven organizations.  That’s a great starting point, and a strong advantage for food co-ops as competition for hiring increases.  Working for a business with a mission and contributing to its achievement is often more satisfying to employees.  Maintaining a strong workplace culture that values participation requires systems, alignment and commitment.

melanie-reid-L-pullout-solutions-2017-03“Employees like to feel the sense that management cares about them and is interested in hearing from them and is responsive to what they say,” said Melanie Reid, human resources systems and support consultant.  She said it can be easier organizationally when staff find it easy to like the co-op’s mission, yet the risk is that people could be disappointed or disillusioned when they feel the workplace doesn’t measure up to its professed ideals or doesn’t welcome ideas for how to be better.  “People need to see the co-op taking in their ideas and suggestions to make a difference.  If employees see positive changes as a result of their input, they will be more engaged,” Reid said.

Reid believes that co-ops need to create opportunities and channels for communication using this simple, yet powerful three-step approach:

  • Solicit input
  • Listen to what people say
  • Act on the information gained

There’s a saying that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.  Workplaces that achieve higher levels of engagement also have fair, compassionate leaders who hold them accountable, and offer regular check-ins, not just annual performance reviews.

Levels of satisfaction can change during times of growth or stress, when there is greater pressure on staff to meet the rapidly changing needs of their co-op and its customers.  Employees can become less satisfied as the co-op grows, especially when operations are spread over multiple location.  In these situations, keeping good communication is more important than ever.  “And that doesn’t mean people just get more emails.  You have to put forth the effort to hear staff and engage in dialogue.  Remember how important everyone is and honor their contribution.”

“If you start to get the sense that alignment is diminishing, there are ways to bring it back around,” Reid said.  She suggested bringing the co-op’s mission or Ends back to the forefront, examining how management is interacting with staff, and recommitting to a strong workplace culture based on engagement.

It’s also important to note that in the current environment, a big source of workplace stress is external.  Competition is putting pressure on reaching sales goals to cover labor costs and workforce size.  Good change management strategies are critical.

sarah-dahl-L-pullout-solutions-2017-03Sarah Dahl, compensation analyst and human resources systems and support consultant, said that tying reasons for changes back to the mission even when scaling back is important.  “Engaged employees are the ones who want to do what it takes to see the co-op succeed.  You have to be absolutely transparent with staff about the problem with the status quo and why changes are the right answer.  Otherwise people come up with their own reasons.”

Many studies have been done that show a strong correlation between staff engagement and lower turnover, higher sales, less shrink and absenteeism.  “Engagement is good for business and it’s more important than ever,” Dahl said.  “But it’s not the only thing.”  She said that the retail basics of good training, strong communication systems, clear policies and fair pay also play a role.  “It’s all part of the big picture.”

No matter what you think of the fantasy environment created by Disneyland, Disney’s approach to service (process, place and people) encapsulates the interplay that smooth systems, appealing physical plant and warm and welcoming staff have on success.

rebecca-torpie-R-pullout-solutions-2017-03Rebecca Torpie, Power of Participation (POP) consultant, said the outward face of the co-op is channeled through its customer service.  “Great customer service is authentic.  It’s based on good communication and feeling connected.  It’s hard to fake.”  When the co-op provides clear goals and empowers staff, “It can be inspiring and lead to genuine, personalized interactions with shoppers,” she said.

She pointed out that staff can also be engaged with communicating the organization’s stories to customers.  “The co-op needs to have clear communication about what the co-op stands for and how that can be shared with customers.”  As the personal face of the organization, employees who regularly interact with members and customers, who are fully engaged with the co-op’s mission, can share their own excitement in a way that ripples throughout the community.

Satisfied, engaged employees offer exceptional service to customers.

Torpie said, “Employees have the expectation that we are demonstrating our values.”  To which Reid added, “Our employees are the best ambassadors for spreading the word.  They are the key to the survival of the business.  It’s really important to the future that the co-op will build and maintain workplaces where people are engaged and becoming future leaders.”

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  1. Don Kreis March 12, 2017 at 11:52 am - Reply

    So . . . this is really cool and persuasive, as far as it goes. But mostly it’s just generalities offered on the concept of employee “engagement.” Maybe CDSCC should publish a case study or two about what this really means in practical terms. I couldn’t figure out what “open book management” is — now it differs from business as usual — until I saw it in practice. Admittedly, as a once-and-future board member I’m probably not the intended audience for a piece like this; I’m always striving for operational insights that lots of folks think board members shouldn’t have. My theory is that the more board members know about operations the more confident they will be that they should stay out of them!

    • Don Kreis March 12, 2017 at 11:53 am - Reply

      I meant “HOW it differs from business as usual.” Sorry about the typo.

  2. Marilyn Scholl March 14, 2017 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    Hi Don,
    Thanks for your comment and suggestion! It’s always nice to hear from readers! The case study that was published with this article can be found at https://library.columinate.coop/staff-engagement-key-to-success/

    Here are a few other resources we think you might find helpful:

    Let us know what you think.

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