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Top Engineering Managers Share Five Morale-boosting Tips

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

The lackluster economy has taken its toll on employees. A research report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that only 29 percent of workers in the 31-to-61 age group were “very satisfied” with their job. The rest were either “somewhat satisfied” or not satisfied at all.

To avoid losing valuable professionals when the job market rebounds, top engineering managers are taking steps to boost morale and retention. Here are five recommendations for improving morale.

Improve the work environment
Downsizing not only reduced operating costs at the Washington D.C. office of SmithGroupJJR, one of the largest architecture, engineering and planning firms in the U.S, it helped director of engineering, John Harriman, create a more efficient work environment. The firm’s new intimate quarters foster collaboration because project teams can sit together, share updates and hold impromptu meetings, while dispersed teams connect via video conference in separate huddle rooms.

“We’ve created a more compressed, studious environment with fewer distractions because professionals step away from the main floor to take conference calls,” said Harriman.

The firm also invested in new technology. Specifically, installing dual computer monitors at every workstation has increased efficiency and attracted the attention of tech-savvy Gen X and Gen Y engineers, according to Harriman.

Reward top performers
Primera Engineers Ltd., a Chicago-based engineering, design, commissioning and construction management firm, is forecasting a profit for 2012. But, instead of awarding shares based on tenure and salary, managers will award 25 percent of the pot to less-tenured, top performers.

“We didn’t distribute profits last year and we only gave small cost of living increases, so we thought it was important to reward performance as well as longevity,” said Ken Panucci, senior vice president.

In years past, competitors often snatched SmithGroupJJR’s engineers once they obtained their professional engineering (PE) license. But no one has left since senior management started proactively investing in high-potential professionals.

“We decided to take a long-term view when it comes to compensation,” explained Harriman. “Now, we award raises and additional responsibilities in anticipation of an engineer’s future success.”

Offer stretch assignments and cross-training
With baby boomers delaying retirement, and fewer projects to go around, junior engineers face a dearth of promotional opportunities. Innovative managers are using cross-training regimens and stretch assignments to keep up-and-coming professionals from losing interest or seeking greener pastures.

“Instead of waiting until they earn their PE designation to pick a specialty, we’re giving young engineers exposure to a variety of skills and disciplines, so they can select a specialty and see a future with our firm,” noted Harriman.

Keep your commitments
Instead of adding full-time engineers, Panucci says he’ll continue to use contract professionals to handle temporary peaks and prevent staff burnout until the economy and project base stabilize.

“We haven’t cut staff because we’re committed to being an employer of choice,” said Panucci.

Have fun
Engineers can give each other kudos in real-time, thanks to a new online performance appraisal system at Primera. The 360-degree feedback tool helps managers keep their fingers on the pulse of employees and initiate improvements.

To keep spirits high, Fridays frequently feature staff luncheons and team building events.

“Our staff has been loyal because we’ve kept our promises and we try to make things fun,” said Panucci. “Hopefully, our decisions will pay off when the economy finally turns around.”

In summary, by improving the work environment, rewarding top performers, offering assignments that expand junior engineers, keeping commitments and including fun in the mix, top engineering managers are helping to increase job satisfaction and retention. This will place forward thinking engineering managers in a stronger recruiting position as the economy recovers and talent becomes scarcer.

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