Employee Engagement Hit an All-Time Low: Here's How to Revamp Your Strategy
Just about every organization is chasing employee engagement as part of their goals and objectives. Yet Gallup's most recent data found employee engagement had its first annual decline in a decade.
In truth, organizations have struggled to get a good return on their investment in this area for many years. They've spent millions a year on employee engagement initiatives, without the commensurate increase in engagement expected.
While the percentage of engaged employees showed steady growth between 2010 and 2020, there was never a point where even half of an organization was engaged in the 22 years of measuring it. And it’s a costly problem, with Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report stating that employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost companies $7.8 trillion in lost productivity.
Study after study demonstrate the many benefits of engaged employees. From sales to productivity, improved customer service and lower employee turnover, the impact of engaged employees touches almost every facet of the organization. So, what does it take to achieve a truly engaged organization?
1. Make a Commitment to Employee Engagement
To move the needle and gain sustained results requires time, the right effort and commitment. “While everyone wishes for an easy fix, employee engagement and company morale can’t be solved with a monthly Zoom happy hour,” said Brett Martin, co-founder of Kumospace, a provider of virtual offices. “There is no silver bullet for fixing employee engagement. Rather there is a symbiotic relationship between visibility, collaboration and culture.”
Band-aid solutions and temporary perks, while perhaps affording short-term gains, will also not create the desired engaged workforce. As Yvette Cameron, SVP Global Cloud HCM Product Strategy at Oracle said, engagement will require “a new type of leadership … a people-first approach — shifting from traditional leadership models to one more focused on commitment and collaboration with employees, and doing so with trust, transparency and empathy.” According to Jamie Aitken, VP of HR transformation at performance enablement platform Betterworks, sustained employee engagement requires a shift: "a shift from performance management to performance enablement where employee needs are at the center."
Understanding an employee's needs, creating and then implementing the right plan for engagement will take time and require change. Without the right level of commitment, leadership will need to adjust their expectation of returns and outcomes.
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2. Build Capacity
Pavel Bahu, a global human resources director at travel sales firm the Trevolution Group, describes employee engagement as the “degree to which employees are ready to invest extra time, emotional and behavioral energies towards the positive outcomes of an organization.”
It is, “the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward the work they do, as well as their co-workers and the business they work for, ” said Gretchen Pisano, founder of executive and leadership development company pLink.
As a prerequisite to achieving these, employees will have to have the capacity for those connections and the energy to invest in the organization in the first place. If they are depleted, burned out, or running from one fire to the next, they will not have the mental and emotional space to be engaged.
This will require looking at organizational health, how employees are feeling, and the root causes of burnout or depletion. In organizations with high levels of burnout or human energy deficit, it may be worthwhile to consider first building back employee capacity.
3. Understand What Care Looks Like
For employees to invest themselves in, and care about, their organization's success, the organization will need to reciprocate. Because to be truly engaged, an employee “will need to feel heard, seen and recognized as a full person — beyond the scope of job they perform,” said Jill Katz, founder of talent strategy firm Assemble HR Consulting.
Organizations will need to demonstrate that they care for employees as individuals and show they are invested in their success. This is true no matter how large a company is, as “increasing employee engagement means creating personalized employee experiences at-scale,” said Cameron.
Doing this successfully “requires trust between organizations and employees, [as] employees need to feel valued as individuals by their employers, and organizations need to respond by demonstrating that they value an individual's contribution to organizational success,” said Ryan Mckenzie, co-founder of eco-friendly household product company Tru Earth.
Crises and stressors aren't going away, so making sure employees feel cared for at the human level, and not just for their role, is more important than ever. This can look different to each employee and may include, “showing appreciation for employees' successes, providing clear feedback and communication, and offering opportunities for personal and career development,” said Mckenzie. How companies demonstrate care can make a significant impact on employee engagement. This starts with understanding what each employee needs to feel valued and respected, do their best work, and feel their best throughout their day. “Business leaders also need to think about reskilling and upskilling opportunities and putting talent intelligence to work,” added Cameron.
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4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate … But Do It Well
Poor internal communications leave employees in states of confusion, shock or fear — hardly an environment for high levels of engagement. In fact, organizations with poor communications also see high levels of stress and burnout. However, the fix is not as simple as increasing communications, but to communicate in the right way at the right time in the employee's work-life journey.
“Business leaders can deliver personalized step-by-step workflows that guide employees through important milestones and opportunities — both personal and professional — such as new-hire onboarding, transferring to a new role, new project engagement, or growing their family. This allows the employee to get the resources specific to where they are in life or their careers, and reinforces that their employer both understands them and their relationship with the company, and cares about them as a person,” said Cameron.
"Straightforward communication between both teammates and managers is essential to keep everyone engaged. By setting up expectations clearly and encouraging employees to speak up you motivate the team to be transparent,” said Bahu. However, he cautions that, “it is also important to recognize that there are limits to what can be reasonably expected of employees.”
Communications also need to be continuous. Conversations, “should never wait until the end of the year during a performance review; it should be ongoing and frequent … for every single person within an organization,” said Aitken. Brendan McGreevy, head of strategy at document automation company Affinda agreed, noting that, “when managers and leaders communicate regularly with their employees, they instill in them a trust that they work for a team where the higher-ups are genuinely interested in their well-being.”
Listening is a critical element of successful communications. “Communication must be two-way and leaders must practice active listening in order to be open to needs for the team members’ success,” said Katz. In tough times, communication becomes even more paramount, added McGreevy. “Even when employees are up against challenges, active leadership that guides them through and appreciates their efforts makes all the difference.”
Employees will need clarity and transparency to feel calm, cared for and to build trust. Understanding which communication styles and vehicles are best, what happens after communications are delivered, and what is top-of-mind for employees can help drive more meaningful and impactful communications.
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Creating an Employee Engagement Strategy
Employee engagement can feel like a nebulous and enormous task, so start small. Begin by gaining insight and increasing awareness so you invest your resources wisely:
- Learn what is needed to identify what will work best in the short-term and long-term.
- Don’t just look at superficial data such as numerical trends. Look at the comments, talk to people and cross-correlate different data sources.
- Consider the impact to engagement, in addition to time, money and effort, when weighing options, to better allocate and maximize your allotted resources.
No magic wand will improve employee engagement. It will take effort, resources and patience. But if you can commit to giving it that, the outcomes are worth it.
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About the Author
Sarah Deane is the CEO and founder of MEvolution. As an expert in human energy and capacity, and an innovator working at the intersection of behavioral and cognitive science and AI, Sarah is focused on helping people and organizations relinquish their blockers, restore their energy, reclaim their mental capacity, and redefine their potential.