Last year, after announcing a new business strategy at a company meeting, I went back to my desk and logged on to our online employee community to gauge response to the plan.

Me: "What did you think of today's presentation, and what was missing?"

Employee #1: "Diane, I was with you until the last part, then you completely lost me."

Employee #2: "I loved the vision about where we are going, but I don't quite understand how we can afford to expand globally so quickly."

Candid comments and ongoing conversations enable me to identify what I can do better and how to improve the business. I encourage you to share your comments down below.

But getting to a place where employees feel genuinely valued and know their voices are being heard by the C-suite is about much more than collecting their feedback on processes and presentations. It's about digging deep into the "whys" and encouraging conversation about the "hows." It's about empowering employees to open up and share their thoughts without fear--the good, the bad, and the ugly--not only with me, but also with each other at various levels and locations across the organization.

Employees who are engaged with and enthusiastic about their jobs are more productive, innovative, entrepreneurial, and customer-centric. According to Gallup's 2013 State of the American Workplace report though, only 30 percent of American workers fall into this category. The other 70 percent are either not engaged (52 percent) or, worse still, actively disengaged (18 percent), costing the U.S. $450-$550 billion in lost productivity annually.

While building and sustaining a culture of meaningful employee engagement is challenging, especially as organizations scale, it's worth the investment. Here are examples of companies that have invested wisely, transforming employee ideas and inspiration into tangible action.

Customer Experience Starts with Employees

Starwood Hotels & Resorts knows that gaining deep visibility into its global organization of more than 170,000 employees at 1,200 properties in 100 countries is no easy feat. Yet its senior leadership recognizes that frontline guest interaction--be it face-to-face, on the phone, or online--can yield the important insights the company needs to help improve the guest experience.

In an initiative championed by senior leadership, Starwood provides a forum for open, real-time, global collaboration and insight sharing via online discussions, video, and photo submissions. At the micro level, these unique points of view give Starwood accurate, first-person accounts of what's happening at their properties around the world, as well as innovative ideas on how to enhance the localized guest experience. At the macro level, employees feel a sense of pride in knowing their voices are being heard, their views are valued, and their contributions are helping Starwood build loyalty through a differentiated and personalized guest experience.

"Our employee community connects our portfolio to enable dialogue. Together, hundreds of general managers and property leaders from around the world raise questions, solve problems, and share best practices," says Matthew Valenti, Starwood's vice president of guest experience. "This forum increases our ability to be active listeners with each other and with our guests. Coupled with our Starwood Preferred Guest community, we align feedback from both to improve our guest services and experiences."

Dig into the "Whys"

Employee surveys are important for establishing foundations and baseline metrics in areas like satisfaction, productivity, and delivery. The metrics, however, often result in more questions and a need to understand the "whys" behind survey responses.

The way to do this is to continually engage with employees on a more intimate level. It is important to have buy-in from HR as well as other areas of the organization.

To move beyond employee survey results, the executive team at SunTrust Bank created an active private online community of teammates. From the start, employees shared valuable perspectives on new initiatives and marketing efforts, offered ideas on how to tailor a revamped client information system to each of the bank's branches, assisted with development of new training, and even shared reactions to the bank's positioning.

"Our teammate community has been a crucial tool for us to open up lines of communication, not just between the top and bottom of our organization, but also throughout the lines of business and functions," says Mathew Getz, senior vice president of teammate experience for SunTrust. "It's incredible to see how much this community has grown and developed since we started it. We've evolved from a "suggestion box" to a place where teammates go to collaborate and contribute to core solutions in marketing, technology, and product development that improve the performance of the bank."

Every day, there are opportunities to engage employees, especially those on the front lines with customers, to help a company grow and prosper. Giving employees a trusted forum to discuss issues and share their ideas contributes to a positive work environment, allowing their voices to be heard while everyone--colleagues, HR, managers, directors, even the CEO--listens, participates, and takes action.