The most progressive small and midsize business (SMB) leaders have long understood that high employee engagement typically yields stronger business performance, while low engagement tends to net poorer bottom-line results. But what makes high engagement possible – and meaningful?

The answer is employee development focused on individual, team and/or organization-wide performance. As Management-Issues argued last month based on a new global survey of HR and business unit executives by The Boston Consulting Group, investment in employee development is critical to post-recession success.

How should small businesses consider allocating their resources so that learning and development efforts have the most impact on both the individual and the organization’s results? The following five employee development approaches, culled from Winning Workplaces’ latest analysis of our award-winning small workplaces for the Hitachi Foundation, are helpful not only from a practice implementation standpoint, but show their substantial impact on the bottom line.

1. Employee Referrals

Over 90 percent of employees in the manufacturing area at 2010 Top Small Company Workplaces Award Finalist NewAge Industries are referrals from current workers – a practice encouraged by management as they pay out a $1,000 bonus for successful referrals. Management has found that this practice helps to reduce hiring costs and results in higher quality applicants as employees are very conscious not to recommend substandard workers since everyone’s compensation is linked through the incentive systems.

2. Competency Mentoring/Training

Production and manufacturing employees at our 2008 Top Small Workplace New Belgium Brewing have additional skill requirements, training processes and competency checklists they must master. New employees work closely with co-workers observing specific tasks and equipment procedures. Once the more experienced employee observes the new recruit mastering the equipment or process, he/she signs off on the checklist and the new recruit moves on to the next competency. This self-paced, flexible process takes into consideration a person’s previous experience, knowledge and skills. Management has observed that employees working side by side, in a less pressured manner, often leads to improved communication and work relationships.

3. Group Dynamic/Team Training

While technical proficiencies are essential, most staff at 2008 Top Small Workplaces Finalist HUI would acknowledge that it is the interpersonal training that really accounts for their success. All employees undergo a series of training sessions in Group Dynamics where they learn how to collaborate more effectively as team members. The sessions are conducted on site, facilitated by internal staff and incorporate many hands-on exercises to help employees practice the concepts. For example, team members are required to discuss each other’s performance directly with other team members without a manager present. At the end of the training employees learn:

  • What differentiates a high-performing team from a dysfunctional one.
  • That individual behavior in a group is often driven by fear of separation.
  • How to lead an effective team by facilitating frank, honest discussions.
  • Why teams go into spells of unproductive non-work modes.
  • About accountability and how to put a team in the position to be accountable.
  • Common vocabulary around basic group behaviors.

4. Cross Training

Beginning with entry-level associates, cross-training and experimentation with different responsibilities within the organization are always encouraged at 2009 Top Small Workplace Tohono O’odham Nursing Care Authority. It is not uncommon for new associates in housekeeping to be allowed to assist with hosting hands-on activities for the residents or transfer to the dietary department. This is an organizational imperative as it allows the facility to operate with a minimum amount of staff, most of whom are well-versed across functions.

5. Continuous Improvement

As a lean manufacturer, 2010 Top Small Workplace Optimax Systems spends a great deal of time documenting, creating and updating its standard work procedures. For the past few years, the firm has held internal training on continuous improvement where they identify the practices that create true value and what does not. Then, Optimax cuts out the areas of waste. These efforts have resulted in better processes leading to more money earned and saved. Detailing specific work processes for running certain parts and training employees have eliminated wasted time and material. The freed time gives Optimax the opportunity to start and finish more jobs consistently. Also, creating standard work methods allows employees to better predict when a part will be finished, which, in turn, gives the optician greater confidence in setting and meeting deadlines, increasing satisfaction of customers and staff.