Many elements contribute to morale. So it's often difficult to know what to focus on to improve employee engagement.

That's why the results of two recent studies caught my attention. Both demonstrate that there's one factor that affects how happy employees are with their work.

That factor? The connection employees feel with customers. When workers have an affinity for customers and believe their jobs make a difference, employees are more satisfied and engaged.

Let's start with a 2016 study by Strativity Group, a customer experience strategy firm, which surveyed more than 30,000 U.S. workers. The research found that more than half (54%) of employees are disengaged at work and only a quarter are actively engaged.

That's the bad news; the good news is that there are several actions companies can take to boost employee engagement. The most important is helping employees understand their role in meeting customers' needs and expectations.

Lior Arussy, founder of Strativity Group, explains: "When people are inspired to act, understand how they are meeting customers' needs, and have their role in making an impact clearly communicated, they are ready to make a difference.

"People feel most engaged when they are doing something meaningful with a clear impact on a real human being. An organization that provides its employees with the tools to make a real impact on people's lives is the company that will have the most engaged employees."

A second study, conducted by Andrew Knight, associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Business School, supports this premise.

Knight's research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, surveyed more than 24,000 employees, leaders and human resource professionals at small- and medium-sized companies in Germany.

The study found that employees working in customer-facing companies, such as retailers, tend to be happier at work, while employees at companies further removed from direct customer interaction--manufacturing companies, for example--tend to be less happy. In fact, the study found that every worker in customer-focused organizations, including those in the back office, has higher satisfaction.

But, in my experience, every company--whether B2B or B2C, in consumer products industrial parts or professional services--has the opportunity to create a strong connection between customers and employees. (After all, every company has customers; the only difference is whether those customers are standing at a cash register or sitting in an office.)

How to connect employees with customers? Here are five ways:

  1. Make customers a priority. Take a page from Johnson & Johnson, which in 1943 created "Our Credo," an articulation of the values that guide company decision-making. The Credo begins: "We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services."
  2. Bring customers to life.  Not every employee spends time every day with customers, so it's important to use communication channels to highlight who customers are. For example, create customer profiles, descriptions of ideal customers, including demographics, needs and preferences. Although customer profiles are used most often by sales and marketing teams, profiles can be communicated to all employees on your intranet or in large meetings.
  3. Share what customers are saying. Whenever you do customer research, let employees know the results--including comments, complaints, suggestions and positive feedback.
  4. Give employees the opportunity to interact with customers. One company invites a key customer to every employee town hall meeting. At another, when a customer visits headquarters, he/she doesn't just meet with top executives; a 30-minute coffee chat is arranged so the customer can chat with a cross-section of employees.
  5. Reward employees for meeting customers' needs. It's easy to create recognition awards for front-line employees. But you can recognize employees in every role for contributing to customer satisfaction; you just need to connect the dots.

After all, connecting the dots is what this is all about. The more employees understand how they're making a difference to the real people who buy your products and services, the more they'll feel like their work matters.