When you hear the word "engagement," what do you think of? No, we're not talking rings and marriage vows here. Webster's dictionary defines engagement as "emotional involvement or commitment," or even "the state of being in gear." In the realm of working with the employees on your farm, would you consider your employees to be engaged in their work? Let's look at some insight into what employee engagement means, why it's important, and how you as an employer can work to improve employee engagement on your farm.

Engaged employees have an emotional involvement or commitment to their job. They feel the work they do is important and meaningful. Isn't this what we all want? Dairy farming is, of course, hard work. It is physically and emotionally challenging. It takes incredible planning and organization. It involves long and sometimes inconvenient hours. So, why do you dairy farm? We can infer that most dairy farmers have some kind of emotional involvement or commitment. It's this commitment that keeps you going every day, even when the weather, the cows, or the milk price aren't cooperating. The same holds true for employees on your farm.

Why is employee engagement important? Research shows that highly engaged employees are more productive and are more likely to stick with the business. According to an article in HRMagazine by Nancy R. Lockwood, "Employees with the highest level of commitment perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the organization." This increased productivity and employee retention can translate into dollars for any business. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to include employee engagement in business strategy for the farm operation.

What are some things you, as a dairy owner or manager, can do to increase employee engagement on your farm? Here are a few suggestions, from "What Engages Employees the Most, or the Ten C's of Employee Engagement" by Dan Crim and Gerard Seijts:

*Connect – Managers/owners must make the effort to connect with employees and show they are valued. This really takes an effort of going the extra mile to get to know employees and making them feel connected to the dairy as well. The idea of "connection" is an overarching theme throughout the rest of these suggestions as well.

*Clarity – Employees must be made aware of the clear vision/goals of the dairy farm business. What are the farm's goals, and how will we get there? Having this knowledge also gives employees a connection to the dairy and allows them to see how their role clearly ties into the overall goals of the farm.

*Congratulate – When an employee does something wrong or subpar, he/she often receives pretty fast feedback about it. What about when he/she does something right or goes above-and-beyond in a situation on the farm? Employees need to feel appreciated. Congratulating an employee on a job well done and thanking him/her for doing a great job is a great way to make an employee feel appreciated and best of all, it doesn't cost a thing.

*Contribute – Do employees on your farm have an opportunity to contribute their thoughts and ideas? When looking at a different milking system, barn layout, or even teat dip, do employees have a chance to weigh in their thoughts? Giving employees the chance to have a say in some farm decisions that affect them can make employees feel important, valued, and connected to the farm in a way that a top-down approach to decision making does not. Of course, the farm owner has the final say, and employees need to respect this fact. However, asking employees their thoughts based on their experiences in the barn can give a perspective that otherwise might not have been brought to light.

*Communication, communication, communication – Another overarching theme when working to improve employee engagement is communication, and it is imperative in all of the above mentioned scenarios. No business owner/manager can make employees feel connected and engaged without communicating effectively with every employee. Not sure about what should or should not be communicated to your employees? Put yourself in the employee's position – what would you want to know? What would be absolutely essential for you to do your job correctly? What would help you feel connected to the farm and its goals?

Maintaining or improving employee engagement should be an ongoing strategy for the dairy farm business. Doing so should increase employee productivity and reduce turnover. Let's go back to one of Webster's definitions of engagement, "the state of being in gear." If we look at success in the dairy business and compare it to competing in a race, it sure would be hard to win that race without having the car in gear. Strategizing and implementing tools to improve employee engagement should get everyone in gear and on the right path towards achieving success in the dairy business.