You Can’t Ignore Employee Engagement Any Longer: Find Out Why

As the world recovers from a recessionary period, companies are now poised for growth but are faced with several challenges: an even more global and interdependent world, the big mobile/social/cloud wave, an increasingly diverse workforce, and a technological shift in how people in organizations do their work. These challenges bring in different human capital issues, and one of them is employee engagement. Businesses in the knowledge and professional services industries rely heavily on human capital, and the only thing you as a leader holds on to is their employees’ commitment and engagement.

Now more than ever, business leaders must understand the people they lead and draw upon those insights to create winning people management strategies. In this article, we will look at the 21st century worker and the options that we have to engage them at work.


Engagement and Motivation: An Introduction

I’ve always been interested in others’ (as well as my own’s) motivations – may it be at work, at home, or just about anywhere. I would ask myself questions like “How could someone last as a septic tank cleaner?” Surely that guy has something that motivates him. As I started taking on leadership positions at work and in not-for-profit organizations, I’ve started looking into motivation and value creation. What makes you get up in the morning and spend at least a third of your day doing that job, in that company, with those people?

Some time in 2012, I stumbled upon this YouTube video produced by The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in the UK. It was a talk given by Dan Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us). In it, he outlined four basic elements that organizations need to provide to motivate employees: profit, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These elements contribute to the overall engagement of an employee, but they may not be enough.

At this point, you might be asking: isn’t employee motivation and employee engagement the same? There might be some HR experts who would agree with you. But for the purpose of this article, I am positing that they’re not the same. Engaged employees are always motivated, but motivated employees are not always engaged. Simply put, an “engaged employee” is someone who’s entirely absorbed about their work and contributes to further his organization’s interests and reputation. This means that an engaged employee goes beyond his personal motivators, or those that directly benefit him (or Dan Pink’s four elements). Paul Marciano, a consultant and writer on the subject, argues that a motivated employee is in the game for what they can get out of it while an engaged employee is in the game for the sake of the game because they believe in the cause of the organization. Engaged employees continue to work toward accomplishing the task and supporting the mission of the organization, despite environmental challenges. This is why it’s important not only to seek employee motivation – it can only get you so far, and it presents high risk in terms of employee retention. Bottomline: when the going gets tough, the engage pushes on. You would want those kinds of people in your organization, to ensure sustainability.


The Engagement Problem

Yes, there is a problem and it’s of global magnitude. In late 2013, a Gallup 142-country survey found that only 13% or roughly 180 million employees are engaged at work. In the study, they defined an engaged employee as someone who is psychologically committed to his job and is most likely to make a positive contribution to his organization. In addition, the study found that 63% (around 900 million worldwide) of respondents lack motivation or are less likely to exert effort to further an organization’s goals or outcomes, therefore are not engaged. On the extreme end are the “actively disengaged”, which at 24% is almost twice as many engaged employees there are in the world. That equates to 340 million people who are not only unhappy and unproductive, but are liable to influence coworkers and spread negativity at work.

The numbers vary by location. US and Canada had the highest percentage of engaged employees at 29%, while Southeast Asia listed 73% of its employees as not engaged. The Middle East and North Africa had the highest count of actively disengaged employees at 35%.

As you would see in these findings, there is a whole lot of employee disengagement going around. This is partly the reason why growth across the globe has been sluggish, despite being in a state of economic recovery. This also presents an opportunity not only to weed out the actively disengaged and prevent their growth in numbers, but also to find ways to increase engagement among those not engaged.

Related Infographic: 13 Signs of a Disengaged Employee

In March 2014, Deloitte revealed its Global Human Capital Trends, a study that focused on three core areas: leadership and development, attracting and retaining employees, and transforming and reinventing the HR function. The report is brimming with insights from 2,500 organizations in 90 countries and I’ll be citing several of them in this article. One of the most glaring findings is: 79% of respondents believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem and 26% see it as urgent.

Behind this issue is a changing talent landscape: Millennials are on the rise and they are a new kind of workforce. They are expected to make up ¾ of the global workforce by 2025. They have a new set of expectations. They want an experience more than a career, they want meaningful work and they want organizations to make more rewarding in many ways. It’s as if most of the 12 million viewers of that RSA YouTube video are Millenials. A Deloitte study on Millennials found that aside from the expectations I just mentioned, they want to lead right now and do it their way, and they want a fast career growth.

That seems like a lot to ask for, but these same people also value openness, transparency and inclusiveness in leadership, they thrive on fairness and performance-based appraisal, they are flexible enough to be comfortable with less role clarity, and they also strive to innovate and change. I’m excited with this kind of workers, but something tells me that this is mainly due to the fact that I am Millennial myself and I fit the general characteristics of this workforce.

In line with Millennial taking over the workforce, leaders (mostly from the baby boom generation and Generation X) need to start thinking of ways to adapt to them and do it fast. Studies have shown that almost 26% of the US workforce is planning to change jobs in 2014. This also concurs with the Global Human Capital Trends report in which respondents cited retention as the #2 human capital problem, next to an adequate leadership pipeline (86% of respondents said this is a problem).


Your employees cannot look like this everyday. Instead, it’s you who should look like this while figuring out your employee engagement strategy.

Main driver for disengagement: feeling overwhelmed

Before we jump into the ways we can improve employee engagement, let’s first diagnose this human capital issue by describing what’s happening to the workforce. Global Human Capital Trends also found that 2/3 of employees feel overwhelmed, due to technology blurring of the lines that separate life and work. This phenomenon is affecting workers in their ability to engage in a company in two ways: it erodes their performance and gets in the way of other activities that seek to improve employee engagement.

More hours, more distractions and more communication touch points have brought too much on the modern worker’s plate. The Deloitte study found that 40% of male workers are working over 50 hours a week and 80% of them want this changed. They also found that over 50% of HR executives think that they are weak in terms of the capability to help employees manage time and schedules and help leaders manage demanding schedules and expectations.

The Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’s 2013 Internet Trends report found that mobile phone users check their phones 150 times a day. In that count, they found that they check their phones an average of 23 times a day for messaging, 22 times for a voice call and 18 times to get the time. Taking out 8 hours of sleep, that figure translates to checking one’s phone every 6 minutes.

With communication channels exploding in the past couple of years, workers are now faced with information overload. From traditional phone calls and SMS to email to VoIP to social media, there’s just too many ways anyone can reach you. I once experienced being in a Skype call when an email and a voice call came in at the same time, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who experienced this. In addition, by the fact that workers are always online – whether through their laptop, their tablet, or their mobile phone – may seem good for their work life but not for their personal life.

Being available 24/7 seems good because most leaders think that this contributes to quicker response and bigger output. However, studies have pointed out that this information overload leads attention breakdown. Research psychologist Larry Rosen pointed out that people nowadays can only be “on task” for 7 minutes before they open Facebook or switch windows/tabs. Notice that agrees with the Internet Trends figure on how often people check their phones. Rosen also found that heavy phone users are generally more anxious about not having their mobile phones with them, and it increases at a much higher rate over time. Another alarming finding: Leo Yekelis’ study on multitasking revealed that on the average, a multitasker switches screens every 19 seconds. These distractions and the habits that go with them are found to tire our brains, contributing greatly to that feeling of being overwhelmed.


What we can do about employee engagement

There are several ways to improve employee engagement, and the following tips are not prescriptive to all kinds of organizations. The first step any leader should take is to study the workforce’s demographic and psychographic profile through inputs. This can be done through surveys, but annual data may not reflect what is really happening in the organization. Talk to your employees and listen hard. After you’ve done that, you can explore these options and see how you can make them work.

1.     Let employees see the big picture. This gives them a sense of ownership and inclusion, as well as a sense that their seemingly small contributions contribute to the bigger strategy. More importantly, this will align them with everyone else in the organization.

2. Promote  your organization’s raison d’être. By integrating your mission, vision and values integral to everyone’s day-to-day activities gives them something to believe in strive for. Also show that you trust them in preserving and proliferating the culture that you are building. Similar to the purpose that Dan Pink proposed, but this time it’s on an organizational level.

3.    Simplify. To address the phenomenon of the overwhelmed employee, make workflows and processes simple. Aside from avoiding worker burnout, this will make your organization more agile. Include your employees when conjuring ways to eliminate waste, because they are more in tune with how to make their own and other’s work experience more effective and enjoyable.

4.     Staff according to the workload. Outsourcing or insourcing repetitive non-core tasks will allow for more breathing and thinking time and contribute to strategic work. Zeynep Ton cited that overstaffing retail companies enables employees to think, serve more customers, re-arrange the store, and cross-train. These companies turned out to be more profitable. This kind of approach should be taken with a pinch of salt, and it needs a solid employee development strategy.

5.     Embrace telework/telecommuting. Flextime and flexplace not only provide work-life balance, it also reduces commute time and allows employees to work within their unique body rhythms and energy cycles. This also shows that you trust your employees that they will give the output on time and of high quality no matter where they are in the world.

6.     Boost commitment through recognition. Although not everyone admits it, all employees have this need to feel valued and appreciated by others. There’s nothing more powerful that getting recognized for doing good work, and this will motivate employees to commit not only to you but to the organization.

7.     Tame your technology. One of Larry Rosen’s studies involved students giving up their phones for 15 minutes then taking a “tech break”. The teachers then ramped it up all the way to 30 minutes, achieving higher attention among students. Aside from policies regarding the use of technology, organizations can also start rolling out work-life balance initiatives and provide guidelines regarding email etiquette and mindful communication practices.

8.   Encourage employees to work smarter, not longer. It’s been well-documented: productivity goes down after around 10 hours of work (some say 8 hours). Longer hours not only mean lower productivity but less down time to sleep, exercise, or simply live outside the office. Other than that, longer hours can lead to sickness, absenteeism, and even general resentment. The first step in encouraging less work hours is leading by example.


On a final note, one of the biggest deterrents to deploying strategies that will improve employee engagement is the lack of leadership buy-in. Whether you’re the CEO or a middle manager in your organization, think of how you can get everyone in on the changes that you will propose and eventually roll out. It’s time to fortify your organization against the troughs of the global economy. Engage employees today so that they will not only stick around, but stick it out with you and your organization’s cause no matter what happens.

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