Rx for Your Business: Ask Your Employees for Advice

Aug 22, 2019

By Pamela Bilbrey and Brian Jones

Chances are you’ve spent many hours over the past year looking for innovative ways to cut costs, jump-start sales, and generally run your business more efficiently.  But you may have overlooked your most valuable source of inspiration and innovation:  your employees. When it comes to problem-solving, your employees may be better able to see opportunities for improvement than the upper-level executives.  And, by asking your employees for input on improving processes, you’ll endow them with a sense of ownership and empowerment.

One of the most valuable things you can do as a business leader is to make your employees feel like they have a stake in what's going on at the company. When you help them view the organization as if they have an ownership stake in it, they are more likely to voice their ideas for improvement, and they'll be more passionate about putting them into action.  Creating a sense of ownership increases the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment of your workforce and drives results.

So what's the best way to get the ideas flowing and your staff feeling like owners at your organization?  Ask for their input. 

Here are five questions to start the process:
#1: What would make this a better place to work?
Managers often shy away from asking this question for fear of what the answer might be. Most of the time, they are surprised by the answers they receive. It's often the little things that matter most to employees; their satisfaction may increase greatly thanks to minor, low-cost changes.  It may be something as simple keeping the break room water cooler filled or maintaining a comfortable temperature in the office. regulated throughout the seasons. The answers you get to this question will most likely not be outrageous requests, and your employees will appreciate the opportunity to be heard.

A hallmark of any well-run business is employee retention. If your employees are happy and satisfied, they’ll stick around, which means less time and money spent recruiting new people. Happy employees are more productive. If they feel as though their needs and concerns are being addressed, they will be more motivated to do what is in the company's best interest.

#2: How can we enhance customer service? Just because something worked really well in the past doesn't mean it's still the best—or the only—way to do things. Ask your staff:  What do the customers complain about most? What do they seem to like? Their answers may surprise you.

For example, at one organization, the staff received ongoing complaints that their business hours were not convenient. If the owner hadn’t asked his staff what they were hearing from clients, he never would have known that his store hours were hurting the business.  Simply shifting the opening time by one hour increased both customer satisfaction and sales.

#3: What would you do away with?  Beware any process that is in place simply because that’s “the way we’ve always done it.”  As a business grows and evolves, its needs change. The processes that once made sense may now be nothing more than busy work for your employees.  Ask them if they could do away with any one thing—be it a policy, paperwork, your regular morning meeting, and so forth—what would it be and why? Again, because many of them are doing these tasks every day, it's much easier for them to see when a process is ineffective or unnecessary. Hearing them out may save you time and money in the long run.  Ridding the business of outdated tasks and procedures will increase employee satisfaction and improve efficiency.

#4: What would you do if you were footing the bill?  Ask your employees to look at the money that is spent in each department. Ask them to imagine that money coming out of their own pockets. Then have them brainstorm about ways to cut costs and eliminate unnecessary expenses. If they were paying for the coffee cups in the break room, would they be more likely to re-use their cups for refills?  By giving the people in your organization a sense of ownership over the way the money is spent, you'll open yourself up to finding new ways to cut down on costs...and you'll be saving more dough for a rainy day.

Question #5: What is working well, and how can we make it even better? All too often, we focus only on what isn't working, and we forget to consider the things that are going well. By examining what works we can find ways to improve upon those systems, and use them as a guide for success in other areas of the business.

Ask your employees what they think is working well in your company.  Have them create a list of the things that make their job easier or help make them more successful, and why. Be sure to ask if there are ways that you can improve upon those things. By focusing on the positive, you will find that even more successful strategies.

Real-life examples of "ordinary greatness:"
#1:  An employee at a health-care facility noticed that many of the elderly patients had to stop to rest before being able to complete the walk down some of the hospital's longer hallways. The employee suggested that the hospital place benches in the longer hallways so that the elderly patients who were struggling to walk would have a place to sit and rest.

While the benches may seem like an obvious solution to the problem, here’s the bonus effect: the benches also provided an opportunity for hospital staff to stop and talk with the patients who were resting. This increased the staff/patient communication and added an extra boost to overall customer satisfaction.

#2: An employee in the human resources department at an organization suggested that the company begin outsourcing background checks for new hires rather than having the human resources department staff complete them internally.  The result: for each HR staff member, half of their on-the-clock time was saved and was re-allocated to other duties in the office, making the department more efficient overall. The cost of outsourcing the background checks was less than the cost of the staff time that was spent doing them internally, and the checks were received much faster through the outsourcing agency. This improved overall efficiency and satisfaction among the staff in the department.

So, if you want to increase productivity, satisfaction, and the bottom line, ask your employees for advice.  You may be surprised by how much you’ll learn.

About the Author(s)

Pamela Bilbrey and Brian Jones are management consultants.  They are coauthors of Ordinary Greatness: It's Where You Least Expect It...Everywhere (Wiley, 2009).  For more information, visit www.ordinarygreatnessbook.com