PALM DESERT, Calif.—A co-op CEO's to-do list is long, and sometimes staff engagement just doesn't make it.

"Communicating with employees, it's easy to think about that as a soft step: It's a nice thing to do but not a need to do faced with all the work to address the dramatic changes to our industry," said Holly Wetzel, NRECA director of marketing and member communication.

It's also a mistake.

"Effective employee engagement is actually essential," Wetzel told co-op leaders at a CEO Close-Up session. Not only can it help achieve co-op goals, but it can keep costs down. Wetzel cited a Gallup survey that found about half of the nation's workforce is not engaged, annually costing upward of $550 billion in lost productivity.

How do you make sure that's not the case at your co-op? Wetzel brought some CEOs to share their best practices, including Steve Rhodes of Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative (CHELCO) in DeFuniak Springs, Florida.

"We try to involve every employee in our strategic planning process," said Rhodes. With about 135 staffers that can be tough, and Rhodes acknowledged that "some of them are involved more than others." But at the very least, everyone completes a survey.

The process yields about four to six initiatives, and employee teams are formed around each. "Over a third of our employees are involved in developing the tactics and goals that come out of that strategic plan," said Rhodes.

Why do this? Rhodes said employees are "much more willing to support the plan if they had a hand in creating the plan." And, he added, "constant communication" is key to keeping staff engaged.

When Scott Moore started as an apprentice lineman 24 years ago, there was a "revolving door of linemen" who loved their jobs, but not where they were working. When he became line superintendent, Moore set out to make FEM Electric Association a better place.

"For the past 18 years the goal has been to turn employees into thinkers, leaders and ambassadors," said Moore, who is now CEO of the Ipswich, South Dakota-based co-op.

At FEM, Moore is big on sharing emails with staff. There's a monthly employee meeting, and he also has at least one staffer at board meetings. New employees get to see every facet of what the co-op does, which means office folks go to substations.

And because many new hires didn't know what a co-op is, several years ago FEM hired two retired educators to go to schools to teach students the co-op business model, along with electrical safety.

"They're going to be our future members and our future employees," Moore said of the youngsters.

That strikes a chord with Jeff Wadsworth, CEO of Poudre Valley REA in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they engage employees to engage younger members.

"We've created a next generation co-op employee team," said Wadsworth. The team includes seasoned professionals as well as more recently hired millennials. The goal, he said, is "to come up with ideas and talk about what our membership wants when it comes to change, and what are some ways we can engage with our employees as well as our members."

Wadsworth said the team has already had successes, including developing ways to better communicate about capital credits and making the work order process more efficient.

"We've seen a great return for us," said Wadsworth. "As the employees become more engaged, we see more employees that want to get on these types of teams."