Other Voices: Driving Employee Engagement in a Flight Department

 - April 12, 2019, 5:57 AM

Building a team of highly engaged, motivated professionals is a critical part of any company’s success. Employees are the very foundation of any organization and, regardless of industry, lack of engagement contributes to high turnover, which is costly and can negatively affect a company’s culture. But, with aviation, there’s another wrinkle to consider: Lack of employee engagement can affect an organization’s safety record.

For smaller corporate or private aviation teams, the risks associated with disengagement and subsequent turnover are too great to ignore. Even seemingly small issues can not only result in costly delays; they can also put employees' lives in jeopardy.

Though a strong, safety-oriented culture is just one benefit of a highly engaged team, statistics show that engaged employees are 38 percent more likely to have above-average productivity. But that’s not all. Engaged employees stay. When employees feel like they have a voice, are contributing and feel valued, they’re less likely to look for other jobs.

It’s clear that creating camaraderie and a great workplace culture has the potential to decrease turnover and mitigate risk; however, corporate aviation teams are often scattered and moving in different directions. Directors of aviation, maintenance professionals, and schedulers/dispatchers typically work on site, while pilots and flight attendants are scarcely seen.

So the question becomes: how do directors of aviation create a team-oriented environment with so many moving parts? I recently spoke with three leaders in the industry who oversee multi-aircraft operations to learn firsthand what they’re doing to cultivate a healthy, engaged team. Here are the top four common themes:

Manage expectations. Managing expectations starts during the hiring process. For pilots and flight crew, even if there’s a “no show face” policy, it’s imperative that they know they must be available to attend events like staff meetings and briefings—even if they’re working remotely. Not only that, schedulers, dispatchers, and maintenance crew may, at times, be the only people in the hangar. If potential hires need a more interactive work environment, it’s possible that these positions aren’t the right fit.

Reinforce expectations. While it’s important to set expectations during the hiring process, those expectations must be reiterated during mid-year and annual performance reviews. Even setting aside a few minutes to make sure everyone is clear on job descriptions and what is expected of them can make a huge difference in engagement. Every person is a critical part of the team, so when each segment of the department understands their own roles and responsibilities as well as those of the other team members, teams will thrive. 

Interact with staff members. Directors of aviation have a lot on their plates, which means they can often be head-down on important business. However, it’s still important to be both visible and approachable, especially in the case of non-flying directors. That can be as simple as getting away from a desk and walking the hangar and the office space on a regular basis. By observing and interacting with team members, they’ll be able to identify friction or small signs of disengagement, giving them opportunities to help employees course correct before a resignation letter appears. This type of visibility builds rapport with those who are regularly in the hangar and shows investment in an employee’s ability to perform his or her job. Not only that, it ensures team members succeed in the long run.

Communicate and build camaraderie. Sometimes staff meetings can feel tedious, but they’re a key part of getting a scattered team together and building camaraderie. Monthly is ideal, but if that’s not realistic, even a quarterly all-hands-on deck meeting helps facilitate engagement. While it’s important to cover operational business, these meetings should also be fun! By hosting a group breakfast or lunch, performing team-building activities or even bringing in a relevant speaker, staff meetings can be transformed from boring to exciting. 

Whatever the activity, center it around the state of the flight department and encourage group sharing, no matter the position someone holds. Have a team leader discuss what’s working with communication and bring ideas for improvement per department, including pilots, maintenance, scheduling/dispatch, and flight attendants. If meetings are designed to strengthen team bonds and give everyone a voice, employees will feel valued, and valued employees stay.

Many companies now offer employees the chance to work remotely, and that’s all thanks to technology. While some aviation positions simply aren’t possible to perform remotely, others are, and leveraging technology to bring everyone together is a key part of building a successful team. For example, if some team members can’t be physically present at the hangar for a monthly staff meeting, offer a user-friendly, inclusive option, such as WebEx or Zoom. Even something as simple as offering an online forum where employees can post articles and share professional and personal information gives team members a chance to facilitate dialogue, regardless of physical location. Not only that, it removes some of the mundane elements of communication, such as monthly communication emails.

These are just a few ways that industry leaders are helping to build and retain strong teams that thrive. Even small changes can net big results, and when it comes to employee engagement, those changes are always worth it in the end.

Colleen Kelly is vice president of talent management at Mente Group.