The proverbial talent pool, once an abundant oasis, has shrunk to a puddle.

To attract qualified workers and entice them to stay, companies have found themselves in a perks and benefits arms race. In the war for talent, the front lines are armed with four-day workweeks and free office snacks.

Despite deepening pockets for catered lunches and wellness programs, an alarming two-thirds of the U.S. workforce is disengaged. How can this be? To find the answer, I sought the perspective of Agile Engagement co-author and Emplify co-founder Santiago Jaramillo.

Jaramillo shared that perks can lead to satisfied, but not engaged, employees. Contrary to popular belief, "satisfaction" and "engagement" are not interchangeable terms.

"We all know someone who is very satisfied, but not at all engaged," Jaramillo said. "Satisfied employees feel comfortable. They do the bare minimum to earn a paycheck. Engaged employees feel challenged and energized by their work. They go above and beyond to help the organization accomplish its mission because payday isn't their main motivator."

The research backs this up. A Bain & Company study revealed that engaged staff are 44 percent more productive than their satisfied counterparts. The key difference between engaged and satisfied employees, it turns out, has nothing to do with dress code, pet-friendly or PTO policies. It has everything to do with the work itself.

Ditch the perks for 3 proven engagement methods 

Rather than sinking budget into differentiating through commoditized perks and crossing your fingers, Jaramillo offers three tried-and-tested methods to attract, engage and retain employees that actually work.

1. Revisit the mission and how you communicate it.

Glassdoor's 2019 Mission and Culture survey found that nearly 80 percent of respondents would consider a company's mission and purpose before applying for a job. In assessing your mission, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do your current employees know what the mission is?
  • Do your employees believe in your mission?
  • Do your employees know how to connect what they do on a daily basis to the mission?

If the answer is "no" to any of the above, it's time to do an honest audit. Part of the process should include asking employees for feedback on the mission itself and how it can be better activated.

Current and future employees want to find meaning in their work, and thrive on "moving the needle" toward the accomplishment of the organization's mission.

Be willing to make changes to improve their ability to do so. Jaramillo regularly flies in customers so the Emplify team can hear how their work is making a difference first-hand. What does this look like for your organization?

2. Invest in focused manager training and development.

A strained employee-to-manager relationship is a leading indicator of employee turnover. Rather than investing in perks, invest in training managers on how to give feedback and navigate productive conflict.

These are the prerequisites to building a culture of psychological safety -- where people feel that they can bring their full selves to work and take risks without fear of negative consequences.

The reality is, offering pet insurance won't make people want to do better work. But if people trust their managers enough to voice ideas and take risks without fear of failure, they'll want to do better work more often.

3. Mobilize employer brand advocates.

In today's world of digital transparency, an organization's employer brand resides with its employees. If employees find meaning in their work and enjoy healthy relationships with their managers, they won't hesitate to become evangelists.

Ask them to share job postings with friends and family and they'll enthusiastically refer their networks. Ask them to write a review and rate the culture on and they will do so authentically.

Almost 70 percent of job seekers -- even if unemployed -- would not take a job at a company with a bad reputation. Authentic employer brands are born from engaging cultures where people do their best work.

By investing in what will engage employees vs. what will merely satisfy them, your organization will be well on its way to becoming a place where people show up every day excited to do the best work of their lives.