Career Compass

Creating the Ideal Workplace: Employee Engagement with Eric Garvey

Episode Notes

Knowing that high levels of employee engagement promote retention of talent, foster customer loyalty and improve organizational performance, it’s no wonder why companies are focused on the employee experience. In this episode of Career Compass, co-hosts Vernon Williams and Kevin Abbed are joined by people experience guru Eric Garvey to explore employee motivation, engagement and best practices to  retain top talent.

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Episode Transcription

Vernon Williams: Welcome back to season five of Career Compass, a podcast from SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, and the SHRM Foundation. Career Compass prepares future leaders today for better workplaces tomorrow.

Kevin Abbed: As the voice of all things work, SHRM supports students and emerging professionals with advice, information, and resources for every step of your career.

Vernon Williams: Designed for the student and emerging professional, Career Compass delivers timely, relevant, and critical conversations about work to help you succeed in your career journey. Thank you for joining us for this episode. My name is Vernon Williams, and I will be your co-host.

Kevin Abbed: And my name is Kevin Abbed and I will also be your co-host. During this episode, we'll be joined by HR expert Eric Garvey to discuss employee engagement and ways organizations can create meaningful connections with workers. Also, just so you know, this episode is valid for professional development credit or PDCs for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP. We will provide the code later in the episode. And with that, let's get started.

Vernon Williams: Kevin, as you know, SHRM recently celebrated our employee appreciation day. Did you leave feeling appreciated? And if so, for what?

Kevin Abbed: I did. I think one of the nice things about doing an employee appreciation day is pulling your employees out of the ... I won't call it monotony, but just the humdrum of day to day work. It's awesome to have the opportunity to meet with people I don't normally get to talk to and interact with them in a non-business related mode. Just being able to connect with people on a personal level. I love talking sports with people who I didn't know they were huge sports fans, and then you talk to them and they end up talking your ear off for an hour. I just love making those types of connections.

Vernon Williams: I couldn't agree more. I'm a sports person as well. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to chat that day, but I do sit next to you so we'll get our sports banter in. I will say that I showed up and I was a little bit ... I got there a little early and I was pleasantly surprised by just how much the organization was doing to recognize us as staff, including obviously the popcorn and all the movie themed things since we were meeting at Movie theater. And it just really made me feel good to work for such a great organization that takes pride in making sure that their employees feel recognized and feel supported so it was a great day for me.

All right. Let us transition to our speaker. I know there's a lot going on and we certainly do not want to delay anything further. So with that, Eric Garvey is an HR leader based in Los Angeles, California who most recently was the director of people experience at SWIFT, a fitness company born from gaming. Over the course of his career, he has been responsible for practices focused on engaging and developing employees in the area of leadership development, coaching, performance management, diversity and inclusion, and broader human resources. He worked for companies such as Experience, Riot Games, Target Corporation, and Korn Ferry. He obtained his master's in IO psychology from Minnesota State University, Mankato and his bachelor's in psychology from the University of Minnesota. We are extremely excited about today's conversation. With that, Career Compass would like to warmly welcome Eric Garvey.

Eric Garvey: Hey everybody. Thanks for having me.

Vernon Williams: Appreciate you joining us. One of the things ... And I wanted to make sure that I did mention that you also started as an intern in human resources and that should be thrown out there as well because it seems rare that students know exactly what they want to pursue early on in their careers. What drove you to want to pursue a career in human resources and how did you know so fast and more specifically, what made you think about employee relations?

Eric Garvey: Yeah. Early on in college, just like a lot of college students, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do. Coming out of high school, I actually was not planning to go to college in the first place. I always had interests in science and technology and other things. But at the same time, I had a couple psychology classes in high school that I was just fascinated by human behavior and what makes people tick and different personalities and things like that. And so when I went to the University of Minnesota, I studied psychology with the thought of I wanted to help people. I thought about getting into counseling, I thought about getting into clinical psychology, but I also had an interest in business. And so my junior year I was fortunate enough to have a class that was an introduction to industrial organizational psychology, and that's what I eventually went and got my master's in. So yeah, I wasn't initially thinking HR, but I knew I liked business and I liked psychology and I liked helping people. And so fast forward to today, I've had a variety of positions that I've been ultimately focused on making the employee experience enjoyable and making the workplace a great place for everyone.

Kevin Abbed: Appreciate that Eric. One thing I wanted to touch on, we often talk about the pandemic kind of like the blip in Avengers. There's life before the blip or life before Covid and then life afterwards. Can you give us a sense of how employee engagement has evolved over the years? And that could be several years leading up to the pandemic and where things are now.

Eric Garvey: Yeah. As I think about that, I think about the early part of my career where I used to take a commute to downtown Minneapolis. I'd park my car in a parking garage and walk across downtown Minneapolis to go to my office. I'd say hi to people. All my meetings were in person. Very, very rarely did we ever have somebody dialing in remotely for a call. And if we did have a call with our international offices, they were all sitting in another conference room on the other side of the globe, but it was all in real time and things like that. It was also a time where you mostly did your work out of in-person meetings, email, the occasional instant message, but that wasn't always the case. But now fast forward to today, for those of us who do work in more office types of positions, working remotely has become the norm as a result of the pandemic.

And so it's been funny to go from even as late as 2015 where employers were a little bit skeptical about having employees work from home. They weren't sure if they could trust them getting their work done, if they were working on the right things. And then suddenly the hand was forced where everybody had to work from home that could. And so there's been that evolution of what work really is. And today it's not just emails that you're managing. You're managing a lot of instant messages through Slack messages or through other types of instant messaging platforms. And so it's become a lot more challenging to juggle all the information that's coming in. We have a lot of programs and things like Google Suites and Microsoft 365 where it's constantly collaborating asynchronously on projects. And so the type of work that we're doing in the office is drastically different than it used to be.

The pandemic just accelerated the ability to work remotely. So there's a couple different viewpoints that I look at before pandemic and during. As we hopefully get to the tail end of this pandemic, there's a couple of viewpoints and lenses that I look at this from a human resources standpoint. The first one is really the law and policies that are involved. So if you think about the physical work site, whether that's manufacturing or in an office, the physical work site changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic. And so local, federal, state laws all had to evolve as a result of that and deciding everything from being six feet apart in the workplace and managing that to personal protective gear and what was required for people that were on site in an office or in a workspace. And then there were other things like if I need time off to recover from Covid as an illness, what is my employer providing me? What is the state providing me? And so all of those things changed.

And so as an HR professional, suddenly I had to get a lot more familiar with not only the federal laws, the state laws as they were already in place, but just how they were evolving week to week, month to month throughout the pandemic. And so there's the legal and policy side of that. The other lens that I want to talk about is really the engagement morale side of it. Helping employees adjust to the new ways of working. When the pandemic happened, I had to move a team to full remote and I had people working on computers that were really high end engineering developer types of machines. And so figuring out how to get their equipment home. Could they work from home? Did they have the right internet connection? If they didn't have the strong enough internet connection to do their work, is the employer providing that? So all of these little challenges came up immediately that we had to solve for.

And so day to day, week to week, we were all trying to figure out how to first of all do our jobs effectively, and then as we started to figure those things out, it became how do we keep morale high? How do we keep engagement high, keep people engaged? And especially hiring new employees that are joining remotely. What is the sense of culture? What is culture anymore? All of these questions were things that we all had to figure out. And so at the individual level, I think some of us quickly adapted to working remote. The idea of being able to roll out of bed in my PJs and log onto the computer and do my work, it was very appealing. We no longer had to deal with ... Especially in Los Angeles, dealing with a long commute both ways. And then just being able to get the work done when we wanted to get it done.

And then there's others of us that were really struggling and maybe are continuing to struggle with what is this idea of work and do I like working remotely? I miss my coworkers. Being able to connect in person in the morning when you get to the office and you spend the first five, 10 minutes just catching up about your weekend or things like that. For some that can be draining and for others that can be really exciting and engaging and a great way to start the work week. And so all of us are experiencing that differently. And so as an HR professional, ultimately we have to figure out ways to build programs, processes to help foster meaningful relationships.

One thing that I noticed during the pandemic here is that when you have new employees joining, some of the first couple weeks of your new job, you're meeting coworkers by video or by phone call or whatever it might be. There's a tendency to jump into the work right away and talk about what you do for work and all of that. And that personal touch of getting to know the human being that you're working with has become a little bit more difficult. And so we all need to do a better job of just forcing ourselves, reminding ourselves that we're all a bunch of humans trying to do cool stuff at work, and we need to take that time to connect personally.

And so I think the personal engagement, there are ways to do that and foster that as an HR professional. So nothing really fully replaces hanging out in real life, but I've noticed people are also tired of Zoom happy hours. But there's other ways to connect. I know for some of my teams that I've led, we've done remote game happy hours. So instead of just hanging out on Zoom and looking at each other and talking about random things, we do things like Jackbox Games. There's trivia companies you can hire. Things like, which is Pictionary online. Codenames, just to give you a few ideas if you're looking at ways to hang out remotely in more of an informal setting. So the relationship building part of it has definitely become quite a bit different as a result of the pandemic.

Kevin Abbed: I think what's important was exactly what you said is doing those other activities. I know our team specifically did a virtual escape room. Going into it I was like, I have no idea how they're going to ... I've never been to an escape room, but I just can't imagine how you do one on a computer. And we went through it. It was an hour. But at the end I was like, "Oh wow, that was actually pretty awesome." And especially given the circumstances, it was I think a great benefit and it helped me grow with my team, and again, boost morale and made the work easier.

Vernon Williams: I want to build a little bit off of that, Eric, in talking about employee engagement. And we know that sometimes HR professionals who work in the employee engagement space have to work through conflict management. That's oftentimes between a manager and a staff member. But can you talk about some of the other aspects that employee engagement professionals might have to work through?

Eric Garvey: Yeah. Absolutely. I think when people hear the phrase employee relations, sometimes it can elicit a negative response because we often think about employee complaints. As the employee relations professional or somebody that works in employee engagement, am I just dealing with people complaining and upset employees? And the reality is the answer is no. You might deal with that a little bit, but there's so many different areas across HR where you're ultimately trying to create a positive relationship between the organization and the employee. And so there's lots of ways to go about that. And so the way I've thought about my career and the different types of work ... Whether it was a leadership development program manager where I was facilitating classes to help leaders improve their own skillsets, or it was being more of a business partner, working with organizational leaders, just determining how we can keep employees happy, engaged, provide career growth, all of those things, all of those jobs are all forms of employee engagement and figuring out ways to make a positive employment experience.

And so the way I think about it is from a positive lens, how do we promote growth and happiness for employees? What are the programs, processes that we can build in order to recognize great work? And so you talked a little bit about that employee appreciation event. And so that's an example where there was a group of professionals in your organizations coming together and coming up with a way to promote recognition in the workplace and acknowledge each other as, "Hey, good job on doing your job and appreciate you as a teammate and all of those other things." So there's other questions that HR professionals in this space need to be able to answer. Another one that comes to mind is what opportunities are there to improve my skillsets or even explore and learn new skillsets?

And so I'll give you the example of a software engineer at a company. Me as a software engineer, tech is constantly evolving. And so I need to make sure that my coding skills are up to the latest and greatest trends. And so as an employer, what we can do is design and deliver programs that are focused on learning and development. So you might be an instructional designer that designs a technical learning and development program that helps that engineer get better at their job or even explore different areas of coding or other areas of engineering that they may not be familiar with. So let's say it's somebody who works on more front end engineering. So that means for a website, all the visual stuff that you see. But maybe that person's interested in getting in more of backend engineering. So it's more like the server side, the stuff behind the scenes that you don't see that makes that website run. As an employer, we can provide programs and ways to professional develop in that space. Might even be sending you to a conference or doing these other things. But all of those opportunities are intentionally constructed and created by HR professionals to promote employee engagement.

And so of course we want to invest in our people and we want to make them as awesome as possible in their jobs, but it also helps the organization be more effective and future proof the company when it comes to new technologies that come out, especially if you're a software company. And so some other questions that you should be able to answer as an HR professional in this space, how can we design programs that foster meaningful relationships in a remote workplace? We talked about it earlier. There's an example shared where doing a virtual escape room ... What is this thing? What value am I really getting out of it? But at the end of it, you're like, "Wow, that was really fun. I got to know some of my coworkers." And you were able to do that without having to be in person.

And so right now, I would argue is a really fun time to be creative as an HR professional, to come up with ideas of how do we build relationships when all of us are continuing to be remote? Or some of us are actually going back to the office. And so now you've created this different experience from an employment standpoint where you have some folks that are in the office, occasionally. They're able to hang out with some of their coworkers in person. But you continue to have colleagues that are maybe fully remote in the middle of Montana or something like that. And so how do you build those relationships in different ways and how do you create an equal playing field in terms of the access to conversations, people that they're working with, projects that they're working on. And so that's another series of challenges for HR professionals.

And then another really fun topic, when we think about employee engagement and overall employee relations, what can we do as an organization to promote wellbeing? Wellbeing, I'll define that as you are a whole person and so when you bring your whole self to work, there's a lot of things that go into total wellbeing. There's physical wellbeing, there's mental wellbeing, emotional wellbeing. And so as an employer, I think it's our responsibility to figure out ways to promote and support the whole person. And so if you're at a big enough organization, there are jobs that you can go into that are purely on the benefits side that are focused on employee wellbeing programs. And so that might be getting employees to be more physically active, participate in different medical plans, and just promote overall wellbeing for that employee.

There's a lot of mental health resources that can be provided. We're seeing that to be more and more for those that are having a harder time continuing to work from home, feeling a little bit more isolated. And so as an employer, we want to make sure that those folks are happy and feel like they have somewhere to turn to. And so there's just so many different opportunities career wise to go into that do promote positive employee relations. And then the other thing I'll comment to is with the pandemic, the pandemic pounds are real. I myself, I miss being able to go to an office where you could get 10,000 steps no problem because you'd get out of your car, you'd walk to the office, you'd walk around for meetings, you had to walk building to building. Well suddenly I'm sitting in front of the computer now and I'm in back to back Zoom calls and all of that and I'd find myself looking down at my step counter on my watch and I go, "Wow, I feel real bad about myself."

And so I try to get creative with the teams that I lead too and saying ... Whenever we have a one-on-one call ... I used to do a lot of walking meetings, one-on-one face to face, but you can still do that remotely. You can both hop on a phone call and just walk around your neighborhood as long as it's safe to do so. I think those types of creative ways to promote different types of wellbeing in practice, that can be up to an HR team to promote and communicate across the organization.

And then the last thing that I would say about just conflict management since that was brought up a little bit earlier, conflict management is inherent in every job. It's not just HR's responsibility. It doesn't matter what kind of work you do for a living or what kind of teams you'll eventually lead, but conflict is inherent. And so there's healthy conflict and there's unhealthy conflict. But there were two books that I wanted to recommend that have been super helpful in my career. One is a little bit older and it's called Crucial Conversations. That book has been updated over the years, but it's a great foundation for how to think about dealing with difficult conversations no matter what type they are. And then a second book came out a few years ago now, but it's called No Hard Feelings. And that's another one that just talks about emotions in the workplace and how to manage those and make sure that they're healthy. Because being human is being emotional and how do we deal with that in the workplace? I think those two books help promote a healthy level of empathy, but also teach you great life skills.

Kevin Abbed: One of the things you touched on there was how employee relations is really about helping maintain a relationship with your staff. This season we're focused heavily on various HR career pathways. Our previous shows looked at compensation and benefits as well as talent acquisition. If part of employee relations is about creating and maintaining a positive relationship with your staff, how do these other areas of HR impact your ability to support employees? And what are your interactions like with fellow HR professionals who are working in these other areas?

Eric Garvey: Yeah. That's a great question and it really does take a team of people to deliver on a great employment experience. And so some areas, as I was looking back at the previous episodes for this podcast, talent acquisition. My partnership with them is so critical in bringing in great people and helping set expectations of what it's like to work here and also just get them excited about it and build a strong employment brand as we look to compete with other companies that are looking for great talent as well. And so part of my role in partnership with talent acquisition might be to educate them on all the great things that we offer as an employer. So a great recruiter will fully understand the benefits, the compensation, the perks, the types of learning and development opportunities and career growth that we have as a company. They can be able to articulate those to potential candidates that are looking to join our company.

I know another area that was explored was around compensation. Compensation is a critical partner in terms of keeping an eye on market trends in the industry, how other companies are making offers as we compete for talent. And so that partnership is critical to understand, okay, what do we need to do to be competitive with the Googles and the Metas of the world? And so at the core of it, communication's critical between all these different types of stakeholders. Because ultimately we're trying to do the same thing as an HR team. Whether you are in talent acquisition or you are in compensation or you're an HR business partner or you're an employee relations specialist, it doesn't matter. All of us are working together ultimately to attract great talent and then keep great talent at our organization and help them grow over time. So I think it's important to recognize the different players on the field and the different roles that we all play, but ultimately it is to make a great employment experience.

Vernon Williams: I want to pause just for a second to take care of a quick housekeeping item. For those of you who are listening to this podcast who are seeking professional development credit, this program is available .5 PDCs for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP. The code to redeem your PDC is 23-YHTK7. Please note that this code will expire on October 19th, 2023. Again, that code is the number two, the number three, dash, the letter Y as in Yankee, the letter H as in hotel, the letter T as in tango, the letter K as in kilo, and the number seven.

All right. Jumping back into the podcast, just a couple more questions for you Eric. We certainly appreciate your time. These days not too many people are probably doubting the value of human resources given everything we talked about in terms of the pandemic and the war for talent and so forth. But for some of our listeners, they might be interested to know how do employee relations professionals demonstrate value to the larger organization? Or perhaps said differently, what does success look like for the employee relations HR professional?

Eric Garvey: Yeah. When thinking about success of somebody who works in employee relations or trying to promote employee engagement, I would start with, it really depends on the size of the company and it also depends on the type of industry that you're in. because those two factors do determine some of the norms in that space. And the reason I share that is because if you think about a small startup company that maybe is less than 50 employees, you might only have one HR professional, or it might be actually HR is part of somebody else's broader responsibility. Versus a huge corporation ... I worked at Target Headquarters. Amazing experience and really enjoyed that time there. And that company has multiple departments and teams and many individuals that are responsible for things like employee relations. And so each of those people have different elements that contribute to the overall employee engagement and happiness.

And so that factor alone will determine what types of job opportunities are out there. So the bigger companies generally will have multiple functions. You might have somebody that is overseeing compensation and benefits in total. If it's a big enough company, you might have somebody that only focuses on the 401K within benefits. And so it is important to acknowledge the company size and that determines what types of roles are available.

Now when we think about how do we define what success looks like in that role, I think ultimately, like I said earlier, it comes down to how are we attracting great talent but also retaining them. And so there are some metrics that you can look in terms of success. What's the average tenure of employees in certain departments? And then being able to compare that to industry norms and say, "Well, you know what? We're better than most companies at retaining engineers at this type of organization." And so that might be an actual metric that you look at for success. But I think overall, being able to attract great talent, convert those offers into employees that have signed those offers and are joining the company, that can be another metric that you're looking at.

But my favorite is really to look at employee engagement survey data. I think because I have a background in IO psychology, I had studied psychometrics and things like that where statistically I love looking at the data to understand what makes people happy at this place that we work, what makes them happy, and ultimately what keeps them there longer term? And so that survey data can be critical when you have a really large employee base to determine what are the factors that are keeping people here? What are the factors that are getting people to possibly consider other opportunities outside the organization? Really that engagement survey data does act as a report card for how we're doing as a company. And there's a lot of ways to look at that data. The large companies like Google for example, will have a fully dedicated people analytics team that's constantly looking at that data and using statistical analysis to predict what keeps people at their organization. And so those types of companies have a lot more robust data. But even if you're at a startup and you're the only HR person that works there, you can still conduct engagement surveys and get a pulse of how people are dealing with your organization, how happy they are.

Kevin Abbed: Yeah. I love the point you make on employee engagement surveys. I know we do one. The first meeting we have when that data comes out with our teams and then as an organization is literally going through the report page by page and seeing where we can change, what we're doing great and getting in the weeds for feedback on we have this numeric data, but let's get descriptive on it. Let's understand really what these numbers are telling us from an employee's perspective. So I think that's a phenomenal point.

Vernon Williams: We're going to get you out of here on this last question. What advice or parting tips do you have for students or emerging professionals who are looking to pursue an HR career specifically in employee engagement?

Eric Garvey: I love this question and I could probably spend many episodes talking about advice or ideas or different things to consider for students that are looking at a career in human resources and specifically in employee relations or employee engagement. So for me, as I've been working with leaders across the course of my career, it doesn't matter if it's somebody that's right out of school or somebody that's been working for over 20, 30 years, I hear this comment that's something to the effect of, I'm trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. And so I think for many of us, yes, there are some people that have it figured out and they know exactly what they want to do over the next five, 10 plus years, but for most of us, we're figuring it out and I think that's okay.

And so what I would suggest for people that are early career is find a job that has a lot of variety. And I like to call it a Costco sample of different areas of HR where you can get exposure. HR generalist roles are a good example. But you can get exposure to different areas of HR and then figure out what sounds interesting, what doesn't. And so I'll give you the example of my own experience. I started out as an HR intern and then I was converted to an HR generalist position. But I was doing everything from full cycle recruiting to getting involved in learning some compensation and benefits and employer relations and other types of areas within HR. And during that time, it helped me get exposure and decide for myself what were some of the areas that I was most interested in. And so one that I didn't expect was actually recruiting.

Recruiting was for me a lot of fun. Talking to strangers about what they wanted to do in terms of the next job that they were looking for. Trying to understand and evaluate are they a fit for this position? And for me, it helped me understand what employers were looking for from a recruiting standpoint. And knowing that skillset and experience was invaluable for the rest of my career. Because when I interview with places or I'm looking for a new job or I'm hiring somebody, that skillset has transferred and those pieces of information have transferred across all of the jobs that I've had. And then ultimately in that position, I discovered a love for training and development and facilitating classes and being more of the teacher. I'd been interested in teaching, but I didn't know if I wanted to be a professor someday. Turns out you can do teaching in a lot of different formats, and one is in training and development.

And so that's how I ended up over at Target Headquarters, getting involved with more leadership development and training and development for broader employee bases. The other thing that I would suggest is as you're interviewing with places, just a reminder that you are interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you. And specifically, I encourage recent grads to look for managers that have the heart of a mentor. When you have that first manager or any manager in your career that has an attitude of a teacher and wants to teach you things and asks really great coaching questions and is encouraging your own growth, that will do so much for you in terms of your potential in identifying what you like, hate, what you love, and all of those things are going to be important as you look at what's next after that. And so I would say finding a good manager that has the heart of a mentor is a critical one.

And then I'll add a third point. This is for those of us that had a lot of student debt or have a lot of student debt. I had mentioned earlier, I wasn't a kid that was planning to go to college. And after I went through college and grad school, I racked up quite a bit of student debt. But one thing I did that I was proud of because I set a really aggressive goal to pay it off quickly, I kept living a very financially tight lifestyle as if I was still a college student. I did that for several years and it helped me pay off a lot sooner. And that will free you up to make career choices you want to make down the road. And so I know some of us will want to pay a little bit here or there, but I think aggressively paying that off just provides you freedom and power of choice for career later down the road. So those are a few tips that I was reflecting on that I think might be helpful for those listening.

Vernon Williams: So many good tips, Eric, including obviously finding a mentor. It helps, obviously if it's your manager, as well as some financial advice there too. So thank you so much for taking the time to share your journey, your thoughts, as I said, some financial tips even, and of course, everything about employee engagement.

Eric Garvey: Thanks for having me.

Kevin Abbed: And with that, we're going to bring this episode of Career Compass to a close. We'd like to thank SHRM and the SHRM Foundation for providing us with this platform. But more importantly, we'd like to thank you all for joining us and hope you stay with us throughout the entire season as we discuss more topics like the episode.

Vernon Williams: For more exclusive content, resources and tools to help you succeed in your career, consider joining SHRM as a student member. You can visit us at to learn more about being a part of a community of over 300,000 HR and business leaders who impact the lives of over 115 million employees worldwide.

Kevin Abbed: If you liked what you heard, follow or subscribe to Career Compass on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And do you have a topic you think we should cover or guest we should hear from? We'd love to hear it. Email us at

Vernon Williams: Lastly, are you looking for more work or career related podcasts? Check out All Things Work and Honest HR at Thank you again for listening, and we'll catch on the next episode of Career Compass.