How Working on Special Projects Can Significantly Boost Employee Engagement

One of the struggles any company faces is finding—and keeping—the right talent to help propel the organization to success. Promotions and salary increases are  good, but results from a recent study suggest that feeling engaged in work, along with feeling like there’s an opportunity to learn and grow, isn’t necessarily tied to a paycheck.

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The study, part of our annual Global Culture Report, polled more than 14,000 workers in 12 different countries who work for companies with at least 500 employees. The results were striking: 41% said they would forgo a promotion if they could have more variety in their day-to-day work. One way to achieve that variety is to allow and encourage employees to work on special projects.

Special projects let employees learn new skills, as well as use their existing abilities in different ways. They allow workers to connect with colleagues with whom they might not otherwise work and to produce feelings of success by making a meaningful impact on the company and its mission. Three out of four employees surveyed reported feeling that special projects helped them grow in ways their day-to-day duties could not. And of those employees who worked on special projects, they have a 20% increase in overall job satisfaction.

Beyond the emotional and cultural impact special projects can have on a workforce, special projects can also bring tangible benefits to companies. Google famously encourages employees to devote 20% of their time to side projects, which has resulted in products such as AdSense, Gmail, Google Maps, and several other now-ubiquitous tools.

While the benefits of having employees work on special projects are clear, how to implement special projects is less well-defined. There are several low- or no-cost ways to add special projects to the opportunities available within an organization.

Identify the Right Projects

Special projects are more than allowing a group of employees to plan the company holiday party or digitize paper records. These projects should be meaningful and contribute to the company’s overall mission. This could include streamlining existing company processes or researching the viability of a new product or market. Among respondents who had been involved in special projects, 40% worked to improve an outdated process, procedure, or product, with a similar number creating a new process, procedure, or product; another 21% had moved the organization forward in a new or challenging direction. There are plenty of ways for employees to contribute and grow. Look at the company’s current operations or mission to find places where some concentrated attention could benefit the organization.

Pick the Right People

The benefits that come with special projects can have a strong benefit to employee engagement and the company’s bottom line, but this doesn’t mean any project and any employee will be a winning combination. Assigning a highly technical employee who may not be comfortable speaking in front of large groups with leading an officewide discussion, for example, might not bring about desired results. Likewise, asking someone whose specialty is in customer service to overhaul a recordkeeping system could be a bad fit.

Special projects can help employees develop new skills, but they cannot create aptitude from scratch. Talk to employees being considered for projects and ask them if that is an effort they’re interested in undertaking—and make sure they have the time and resources to tackle them.

When choosing employees for special projects, it can be tempting to turn to the same workers who have already proven themselves either in their daily roles or previous projects. While that previous success and expertise should certainly be leveraged, take care not to play favorites. This study found that 33% of the respondents thought only the favorite employees in the organization had the chance to work on a special project. Make sure all employees have an equal chance to participate in special projects. While some workers may be untested, they could also have hidden abilities or skills that could be key to the success of that project.

Leverage Multiple Departments

One of the biggest benefits of special projects is giving employees access to leaders and colleagues they wouldn’t normally work with. Bringing together people from different departments also gives an eclectic collection of skills—and a holistic approach to problem solving—to the project at hand. Mixing workers with different specialties and backgrounds can also help employees gain new skills and experience.

There are many facets to building a great culture, and the implementation of special projects is just one of them. But it is a great way to increase employees’ sense of opportunity for growth and development. Employees want to learn and grow and make a positive impact on their companies. Special projects help them do that—and can also help increase a company’s bottom line.

Gary Beckstrand is a vice president at O.C. Tanner, the global leader in employee recognition and workplace culture. He helps oversee the O.C. Tanner Institute, a global forum that researches and shares insights to help organizations inspire and appreciate great work. He has consulted with numerous Fortune 100 companies to assess recognition cultures, develop strategic solutions, and measure results.

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