Illustration: Chris Gash Illustration: Chris Gash

There’s an ice-cream trolley in the downtown Toronto headquarters of digital marketing agency Klick Health. There also is a yoga studio, a slick Starbucks machine, a lounge with leather couches and a huge Lego wall filled with designs of employees’ making. All the space needs is a foosball table to hit pretty much every cliché of the New Economy, “people first” workplace.

But none of the perks seem all that popular with employees. In fact, at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, hardly anyone is using them—they’re too busy working. Employees type fervently, shout ideas back and forth and cheerfully dispatch client updates as they pass one another in the hall. There’s not a vacant-eyed Facebook surfer to be seen on the three (soon to be four) floors the company occupies. This is how CEO and co-founder Leerom Segal knows things are going well. “You can feel the energy as you walk by. You can feel the creativity, the pride,” he says. “That’s my leading indicator.”

It’s obvious even to someone with unbiased eyes that Klick staff love to work here, which is a big reason why the company earned the No. 30 spot on the 2014 list of the 50 Best Small and Medium Employers in Canada (BSME). Compiled annually by the Queen’s School of Business Centre for Business Venturing and Aon Hewitt, the ranking identifies an elite group of entrepreneurial organizations from coast to coast that demonstrate very high levels of employee engagement.

Now “employee engagement” is a phrase we’ve been hearing a lot lately. It looks good in an annual report or etched on the mission statement in the lobby. Its ubiquity, coupled with its somewhat hippy-dippy vibe, tends to make some managers roll their eyes: “Yes, yes, we have weekly on-site massages, so we’re good.”

More Advice from the Best Employers: 6 Employee Engagement Mistakes

But to dismiss engagement as another trendy buzzword is to miss out on a massive opportunity. Contrary to popular misconception, engagement is not about making employees happy. It’s about making them productivity powerhouses. Engaged employees are excited to work for you. They want to stick around. They strive to excel, even at the most menial of tasks. In short, they’re the type of people who propel a company to greatness. Studies show that engaged employees crank up innovation and output, and deliver shareholder returns five times higher than organizations with dispirited staff.

But you can’t buy this kind of productivity with Barbecue Fridays. “A lot of managers use perks to try to foster engagement, because perks are visible and tangible,” explains Einar Westerlund, who heads the BSME program as director of project development for the Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing. “They’re easier to understand than the underlying concept of engagement, which is a very deep-rooted commitment to performance.”

This misunderstanding leads many companies to spring for fringe benefits that do little or nothing for productivity—essentially, wasting their money. “Perks can be there as embellishments,” says Westerlund. “But by themselves, they don’t work.”

Read: How Engaged Is Your Staff? 6 Steps to Finding out

Instead, true engagement comes when you get to know your employees—their abilities, their ambitions and their preferences—and, whenever possible, put staff to work on tasks that tap into those skills and motivations. This takes effort. But this effort can deliver more benefit to your company than any other initiative, HR or otherwise. “There’s nowhere in your organization you can add more profitability and productivity than by simply turning on your existing team,” argues Eddie LeMoine, a speaker and author specializing in employee engagement who splits his time between Calgary and Halifax.

Klick and its peers in the BSME class of 2014 are proof of this. Emulate what they do and you will supercharge your own staff—no pinball machine needed.

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