Increasing Employee Engagement:  How We Created Magic in Our Lifeguard Culture

Many years ago, I ran across an article online and the premise was how our children need 17 hugs a day to thrive.  My immediate thought was “Wow, that’s A LOT…and I surely am failing as a parent.”  This idea of 17 hugs a day stayed with me and ultimately became a personal “mom goal” for me.  I even put the number 17 on my vision board (cut out from magazines) to remind me of my goal. I learned a lot through this challenge of hugging my kids 17 times a day.  I learned a lot about human needs, a lot about my kids, a lot about my personal thoughts and interactions with people.  Now, honesty moment…I wasn’t always the best at this challenge.  17 is a lot of hugs to give someone, actually 2 someones, every day…but I did my best and I think that is the important part. 

You are probably wondering how me hugging my kids has anything to do with lifeguard or employee engagement, right?!?!  Stick with me…

One of our basic needs as humans is to “be seen”.  This is a scientific fact and it starts when we are infants.  If we aren’t “seen” we won’t be taken care of, we cannot feed ourselves, we cannot move to safety, and we ultimately won’t survive.  We have to rely on others “seeing” us and responding appropriately, and as they “see” us we build connection, engagement, and trust.  This was an “aha” moment for me with my children and throughout this 17 a day hug challenge.  It is amazing what happens when someone feels “seen” and is connected to 17 times a day. 

At work, I started to think about the idea of this challenge and the basic principle and need for people to be “seen”.  I sat down and thought about how many times one of our employees would have been “seen” or connected with on a typical day.  I picked a few employees to keep an eye on over the course of individual shifts and I realized there was no way we were connecting with individuals 17 times in a day, in fact we were probably weren’t connecting with some at all.  We had crew set-ups in the mornings, they met with a lead to be assigned a position for the day, their were Supervisors in the park, they checked out with a member of the leadership team, they may have been audited, but as I observed it was very easy for an employee to walk away from all of those interactions without feeling “seen” by our leadership team. 

I estimated we were hitting anywhere between 0-4 real connection points per person every day, and it just made me sad.  I could see it, a valuable employee could be at work for 8 hours and feel completely “unseen”.  I started to think about how I was seeing the engagement and connection with my own children at home change and I started to brainstorm how I could make this challenge work appropriate.  Since physical hugging isn’t the best HR strategy, I brainstormed with my team and we decided to call them “E-Hugs”. E stood for Emotional/Mental hug (made sure to steered clear of the physical hugs).  We talked about how a hug makes someone feel, how powerful they are (just google it!), to stop and be present, how to engage, how to prevent staff from being present but not “seen”, listening, asking questions, reading body language, being inclusive instead of exclusive, creating smiles, giving compliments, encouraging, and many more ideas for how to provide these intentional “mental and emotional hugs”. 

Now a typical 8 hour shift is approximately half of our non-sleeping time, so I started with a goal of 8 E-Hugs for each employee.  This seemed daunting at first when I started to do the math of hundreds of employees and 8 daily E-Hugs, but my leadership team accepted the challenge.

It was hard work.

It wasn’t easy, but…

It was magical.

I wish there was some tangible way to measure our level of engagement and the impact we had on our staff during this challenge. We had to work on being intentional (I had to work on doing the same with my leadership team too), and I don’t think we always hit 8 E-Hugs per person, but the magic was in the journey.

The process of being intentional about connecting and recognizing each other as valuable and important was life giving to our operation. The feeling of intentionally “seeing” someone was contagious and it felt amazing.  And the magic came in all levels of our operation and could be seen and felt in employee buy in, employee willingness to go the extra mile, and so many other tangible areas.

Our goal was simple: focus first on meeting the basic human need of being “seen” and then secondarily on all the other operational stuff.  And everything fell into place and felt right.

In the world we live in now I think we could all use more “E-hugs” everyday, and I think our operations are a great place to start! What do you think? How have you worked to increase employee engagement?  Share below.

Natalie Livingston