According to a 2014 poll by Gallop, 68.5% of workers aren’t engaged in their jobs. With the problem estimated to cost $500bn a year, how do you create an environment where employees feel empowered to deliver their best?

Smile sweetly next time you’re grabbing a Skinny Latte from Pret A Manger, and you might just get it for free. Under a new initiative, CEO Clive Schlee has given his front-of-house teams the ability to reward their favourite customers with the occasional drink on the house. The firm has shunned traditional loyalty cards, and simply left it down to the staff to decide who deserves a complimentary coffee.

Needlessly giving away product is crazy enough. But allowing your employees to donate it without any control? How can you be sure they won’t invite all their mates in? Or give coffee to someone they think is easy on the eye? The fact is you can’t. And Schlee doesn’t care. In fact, he’s actively encouraging staff to hand out drinks to people they fancy.

Pret has always believed that employees are key to its success. In its early days, founder Julian Metcalfe would often crack open the beers and have a party with his team. He figured happy employees equal happy customers, which in turn equal a happy business. It appears he was right. Pret has experienced phenomenal growth since that first store, with 33 new sites opening last year alone.

Motivated employees make financial sense. According to a Towers Watson study, organisations with high employee engagement benefit from a 19% increase in operating income and a 28% increase in earnings per share. Sadly, so many workplaces don’t reap these benefits. So how can you ensure yours is one of the few that does?

Tow the line, or outwardly shine?

Getting employees to do their basic job isn’t that hard, especially if they are dependant on your paycheque at the end of the month. It’s far more difficult to have them volunteer their imagination, enthusiasm and creativity.

There’s a far more compelling, yet subtle message than free coffee in Pret’s initiative. It says “we trust you” to the employees. We believe you’re going to do the right thing.

Trust isn’t something that has been traditionally built into our workplaces. We’ve been great at implementing lengthy policies for Internet use, expenses, and working hours. We’ve insisted basic decisions need umpteen levels of approval. We’ve forbidden people to work from home, through fear they’ll be gorging on Netflix in their pyjamas.

All of which communicate that our default stance is distrust.

In order to build better employee engagement, we need show more confidence in those we’ve hired. All too often, we’re suffocating talent with rules and restrictions. Instead of setting the context and communicating a clear goal, we feel the need to give detailed instruction. This culture of petty micromanagement does little for employee morale.

Who chooses your brooms?

Former Starbucks President Howard Behar thinks micromanagement kills morale. He believes that we spend time hiring great people into our organisations, only to rattle on about what they’re forbidden to do. So much so, that they have no freedom to inject their own creativity into their work.

In a talk to EBWA students, Behar explained that in Starbucks, “the person who sweeps the floor chooses the broom.” After all, who knows more about brooms, than the person hired to do the work?

“People are not assets; they are human beings who have the capacity to achieve results beyond what is thought possible. We need to get rid of rules – real and imagined, and encourage the independent thinking of others and ourselves.” – Howard Behar.

As a leader, it’s your job to articulate the vision of what a specific job means inside of your company. Set the context, but try to avoid telling people how to do the actual work.

What business are you in?

People want the freedom to use their talents. But equally, they want to know they are contributing towards something that matters. How do your employees view their work? Is it just a list of responsibilities and things to get done? Or is it an integral part of something much larger?

In his book “Great Work”, David Sturt highlights the research of university Professor Jane Dutton. Dutton studied how people in unglamorous jobs were able to cope with what many would feel is “devalued work”. She interviewed the cleaning staff of a hospital, and discovered a select group who didn’t consider themselves in the cleaning business at all. Instead, they viewed themselves in the healing business, just like a consultant or nurse.

Rather than just doing the minimum, this engaged group made the effort to get to know patients and families. They offered support in any way they could. One even rearranged pictures on the walls of comatose patients, with the hope that the change of scenery would have a positive effect.

A job can either be just a list of things to get done, or it can be a key component of something much larger. If you want to build a highly motivated and engaged culture, your job as a leader is to understand and actively communicate what that larger purpose is.

Purpose, not perks

According to Harvard Business Review, companies spend over $720 million each year on employee engagement, and that’s projected to rise to over $1.5 billion. Yet, Gallup continues to report that employee engagement is at record lows.

More often than not, engagement programs fail because they focus heavily on extrinsic rewards such as bonuses and perks, rather than intrinsic rewards such as freedom over execution, and contribution to a meaningful purpose. Ask yourself:

  • Have I articulated a vision everyone can contribute towards, regardless of role?
  • Have my managers articulated what the vision means to their individual teams?
  • Do the teams have the autonomy to execute against the vision in their own way?

Pret a Manger didn’t set rules about which customers to give coffee to, they just trusted their people to do the right thing. Starbucks didn’t instruct its floor sweepers how to use a brush. They allowed them to bring their own style to the role.

Your vision, and the manner in which people contribute has a huge impact on how much of themselves they bring to your organisation daily. When people have a deep attachment to their company, they are motivated to help it succeed.

A workplace in which people feel trusted, respected and valued is one of the biggest producers of innovation and creativity. Workplaces like these pulsate with energy, excitement and commitment.

How does your workplace feel? Are you building an environment people are envious of?