Employee Engagement: Mission 70%

May 23, 2014by Dave StawinskiCultural Transformation


A SciAm article about workplace burnout got me thinking about what we at Vignette don’t do. Or, more specifically, what our work is meant to prevent. Disengagement. Burnout.

For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s define “burnout” as employee disengagement in the extreme. When a person reaches this state, they are no longer a benefit to their team, whether or not they are conscious of it.

To explore this, let’s say Vignette has been contracted by a mysterious New Client to create a Dis-engagement Campaign.  The briefing meeting goes like this:

“Vignette team, please help. Our employees are too happy and productive. Please help us burn them out.”

“Um.  Is it April Fool’s Day?”

“No, Vignette Team, really. Our people are too engaged and productive. You’re our last hope.”

“Well, this is quite unexpected, and not really in our sweet spot, but what the heck, you got a deal. We’ll call this campaign, ‘Fizzle.’ Coming right up, weirdos.”

Many NDAs are signed.

Hitting the Bricks

A short time later, back at Vignette HQ, our creative team sit and stare at each other in short-circuited silence. A mission to disengage people?  Finally, a brave young content strategist offers a pump-priming idea:  Our usual approaches will fail us here. To achieve The Opposite, we needto do The Opposite of what we would normally do. That means we all must leave Vignette for a time, to experience life in the cold, harsh world of the 70% of the US workforce who are, at some level, disengaged. We must all leave our beloved posts at Vignette and seek out temp positions elsewhere. Most of us end up at [Cable TV and Internet, Inc.], in the customer service department.

Wow, the place is rough. Sitting still, staring at a call queue for an eight-hour shift, and interacting with customers who are disappointed and frustrated is already enough to make you close your eyes and try to picture the Care Bears. But it’s the total lack of support from our leadership that really puts the icing on it. There’s just zero communication—until something goes wrong.

Management at [Cable TV and Internet, Inc.] customer service don’t seem to know they have employees at all. “Onboarding” consists of being emailed a link to file server full of PDFs. Most of them seem to focus on what will happen to me if I make a mistake. “Training” is on-the-job.  I spend my first day shadowing a “high performing” employee who is too busy to pay attention to me. I don’t learn much about our service values or solutions to common issues, but I do learn where the coffee and bathrooms are.  The next day, I am turned loose on customers, and am soon too busy to pay attention to them.  I spend most of my time figuring out what’s expected of me, what I am authorized to do without permission, and how to do it. I spend the rest of my time worrying about those things.  None of it is documented, and when I ask I hear homilies about ‘paying my dues.’ The customer soon becomes a sort of tse-tse fly to me. Who cares if they can’t order pay-per-view?  I don’t even know my job description. I can’t log in to my email. I spent my lunch break locked in a broom closet having some kind of engagement withdrawal attack.

The Vignetter in me wants to lead a revolt and bust all of my cube-mates out into the sunshine. I want them to know how it feels to come to work every day with a sense of engagement and pride in the brand they are helping to build. But that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here to see suffering first hand, so I can help our Mystery Client inflict more of it… Oh, mother of mercy. It all becomes clear in a flash. Theforces of disengagement are wily and cunning. [Cable TV and Internet, Inc.] IS Mystery Client!  It’s a Shyamalan Twist!


The next morning at Vignette HQ, we all sip coffee and stare at each other (again), dazed by our experiences. We’ve been shaken to the core, and our mission has been, to put it mildly, renewed. We know we’re fighting the good fight for that 70%.

My take-away is that companies who treat their customers like annoyances cannot know how to treat their employees like valued customers, and vice-versa. We talk a lot about driving cultural change, and we really mean it.  Even companies with high engagement are really just a beachhead for workplace engagement when we look at the national and global scales. When your company is ready to join the effort, we’ll be right here waiting for you.

Dave Stawinski

With nearly 20 years of production experience working for leading digital agencies such as DNA Studios, BLITZ and Second Story, Dave has managed a large number of diverse projects and teams. Over the years he has managed important projects for clients like LOFT, Nike, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Honda, Anheuser-Busch, Sony Pictures, Disney, Microsoft, HP, the Library of Congress and others.