What Can Companies Do to Improve Employee Engagement?
Employee engagement has come into a sharper focus in recent times, and perhaps rightly so. After all, after two-plus years spent in a global pandemic and then dodging relentless disruptions, people in general are tired. And tired isn't good for business.
Research has repeatedly shown that happy employees are productive employees. So, it is no surprise that employers would want to see their workers thrive in all facets of life. In a recent blog post, Gallup CEO Jon Clifton said the only thing people spend more time doing than work is sleep. Which begged the question: "If we spend so much of life at work," he wrote, "how is life at work going?"
Most leaders today invest significant resources looking for ways to support employees. The Great Resignation and lack of skilled labor have contributed to the trend. But the reality is that employee engagement is a complex, long-term issue that has no simple fixes. Tackling it effectively will require organizational leaders to focus on a few key areas.
Employee Engagement in 2022
Prior to the pandemic, employee engagement and well-being had been rising globally for nearly a decade. But today, they are stagnant, according to figures from Gallup's State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report.
Only 21% of employees report being engaged at work. Overall, 60% of workers are disengaged, and 19% of them say they are just plain miserable. Considering that Gallup estimates that low engagement costs the global economy $7.8 trillion, or 11% of GDP, that's hardly sustainable for both workers and their employers.
Leaders are constantly looking for new ways to enable workers to ease stress and disconnect from work at the end of the day — particularly in a remote workplace where the lines are increasingly blurred. Among the strategies currently used are initiatives to improve work-life balance, four-day work weeks and expanded remote working.
However, the research shows that what's making workers unhappy is not a single issue that can be fixed by tweaking the way we work, but rather a combination of factors that have become part of the workplace itself.
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Communication Breakdown in the Digital Workplace
Much has been written about the importance of communication in the digital workplace. Despite that, communication, or the lack thereof, still ranks as a primary cause of disengagement among employees. One reason is because of how communication happens in the workplace.
According to research from video communication software company Loom, 87% of office workers can identify ways that working remotely and using digital communications tools have improved their jobs. But 62% say miscommunication and misinterpretation of digital messages at work have a negative effect on their mental health.
The survey, "Building Connection in the Post-Modern Workplace," polled 3,000 adults in the US and UK who work full time in an office setting to assess how workers are communicating. The research found:
- 39% of office workers spend three hours a week in client meetings.
- 27% spend three or more hours a week in company-wide meetings and team check-ins.
- 25% spend three or more hours a week in informal one-on-one meetings with managers and/or coaches.
- The average daily message count includes 32 emails, 21 instant messages/chats, 13 text messages and 12 one-on-one phone calls.
If this sounds about right, then some of the negative findings of the research will look familiar too:
- 91% of workers said digital messages are misunderstood or misinterpreted at work.
- 62% say miscommunication or misinterpretation affects their mental health.
- Over a third (37%) say digital communication caused a loss of empathy.
Messages sent in an asynchronous setting lack tone, body language and facial expressions. Without this context, a simple question that was intended to mean one thing could be interpreted in a completely different way and could have a significant impact on the mental health and happiness of an individual.
Positive Employee Experience Requires a Human Touch
According to Christophe Martel, CEO of South Korea-based FOUNT, fixing the broken workplace requires a shift in perspective. Today, companies offer ergonomic desks and chairs, but not ergonomic work. This is not surprising given that work was never really designed around humans and their needs. Rather, it was designed around the organization and its needs.
Employee experience is born out of interactions between people and their environment, Martel said. Marketing and services teams understand this concept and have built better customer experiences that continue to improve over time. But this hasn't yet been transposed to the workforce in many organizations because people misunderstand the nature of human experience at work.
“Without the right tools to reflect individuals’ interactions at work, company leaders can’t understand the highs, lows and various points of friction where they can make a measurable impact,” Martel said. “They keep trying to help but fail to be helpful.”
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Overcoming Unrealistic Expectations
John Lincoln, CEO of La Jolla, Calif.-based Ignite Visibility, said unrealistic expectations are often the source of disengaged and even disgruntled workers.
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“It's a matter of expectations, leadership and the messaging of American culture,” Lincoln said. "American culture and current social media messaging trends teaches us that anyone can do anything. You should not work for someone else, and you can be vacationing often, if not all the time. The messaging on social media simply is not true. It conflicts with the real world and thus leaves workers feeling a disconnect."
But, he said, there is a way out of this: leadership.
"When there are great, efficient leaders in the workplace who bring energy and meaning to the work, it becomes a place people enjoy and thrive in," he said.
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The Role of Individual Personality in Employee Engagement
Employees are a company's greatest asset, but according to Travis Lindemoen, managing director of Kansas City-based nexus IT Group, depending on their level of engagement, they may also be its greatest liability.
“Unfortunately, the majority of firms continuously make poor hiring decisions due to their inability to analyze individuals' attitudes," Lindemoen said. "Is it reasonable to fault employees for their own disengagement? In most instances, yes."
Personality influences elements of employee engagement 50% of the time. Positive, hard-working and extroverted individuals are more likely to work proactively, according to a meta-analysis of approximately 45,000 participants from around the world.
But things are not always so black and white. Engagement levels can also be affected by many other factors, such as job quality and office culture. Companies should not automatically disqualify applicants simply because they appear unenthusiastic. Those individuals may bring other desirable qualities to the table that can support the organization in a much-needed manner.
Related Article: The Greatest Risk and the Greatest Asset: People
Tackling Employee Burnout
Research published by Benenson Strategy Group on the mental health and well-being of American workers showed that despite employers' best efforts, US workers are still feeling burned out and overwhelmed. This stress is further exacerbated by inflation and the economic climate, which in turn is contributing to strains in relationships and, like a vicious circle, fueling the problem of disengagement in the workplace.
As part of its research, BSG conducted 1,881 online interviews of Americans nationwide in April 2022. The findings dovetail with those of Gallup:
- 60% of Americans feel burned out.
- Employed Gen Z (67%) and millennials (66%) feel more burned out vs. Gen X (58%) and boomers (44%).
- 43% say it takes them longer to do work and complete tasks than pre-pandemic.
- 40% report that inflation is causing them to change their behavior significantly.
- 46% of parents say they can’t balance taking care of their children and having a job.
There are no miracle, set-it-and-forget-it fixes to any of these issues, and none of the research cited offers concrete solutions. However, the fact that there is all this research being done is creating discussion that is, in itself, part of the solution. While disengagement has always been present in the workplace, organizational leaders are becoming increasingly aware of its existence among their own workforce and that is opening up a general discussion that needs to take place in order to find a sustainable working environment for all involved.
About the Author
Mike Prokopeak is editor in chief at Reworked, the premier publication covering the r/evolution of work, where he leads content development focused on the transformation of the workplace.