The Evolution of Employee Engagement

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It’s no secret that organizations with high levels of engagement consistently outperform the competition. According to a meta-analysis conducted by Gallup, “business or work units that score in the top quartile of their organization for employee engagement nearly double the odds of success” in comparison with those in the bottom quartile. In practice, that increased success looks like a 41 percent reduction in absenteeism, a 17 percent increase in productivity, 59 percent less turnover, 10 percent higher customer ratings, and 20 percent higher sales, among other things.

Still, for many companies, employee engagement is an elusive goal. Despite an annual investment of $720 million in engagement programs, the majority of workers are disengaged, resulting in $550 billion in lost productivity for the US economy every year.

What can be done to engage employees for the present and the future? In order to answer that question, we must first take a look at how the concept and practice of workplace engagement have evolved over the years. Knowing where we’ve come from will help us get where we need to go.

Did You Get the Memo?

Seasoned veterans of the workforce will undoubtedly remember the motivational posters that graced the walls of most offices in the 1990s, espousing broad platitudes about perseverance, teamwork, leadership, attitude, and work ethic. Beyond serving as affordable office décor, these posters were intended to inspire workers to achieve higher levels of productivity. Unfortunately, the effect was often one of bitter irony, given the sense of hopelessness that pervaded many of those work environments.

Faced with a “morale” problem, executive management would delegate the matter to the HR department. HR then had the daunting task of motivating a fundamentally disconnected and disenfranchised workforce. In the absence of a forum for authentic communication, HR turned to the very limited selection of tools at its disposal, which often included the aforementioned posters, alongside awkward get-togethers and icebreakers, performance plans, and disciplinary action when goals went unmet.

One of the most famous depictions of disengagement in the workplace is the 1999 cult classic, Office Space. In one of the film’s most beloved scenes, the main characters — a group of disgruntled IT workers who are laid off in a corporate downsizing — take the company’s malfunctioning printer to the middle of a vacant lot and smash it to smithereens with a baseball bat.

Later in the film, we see a well-meaning HR representative throw the saddest birthday party on the planet for Milton Waddams, a meek collator who is largely ignored by his coworkers. Unfortunately for Milton, there are more employees at the party than there are slices of cake, and he ends up empty-handed. This relatively minor slight has significant ramifications: Milton eventually retaliates by burning down the building.

Office Space’s popularity is due in part to the fact that it addresses themes that have become all too familiar to professionals: disconnection between executive leaders and workers, unfair and pointless protocols, impenetrable bureaucracy, and the delegation of major decisions impacting employees to outside consultants who know much less about the business than the people who actually work there do.

Although the film exaggerates these elements, there is an undercurrent of truth to its portrayal of corporate life in the ’90s. For the characters in the movie, and for many of its fans at the time, work was a futile exercise in soul-killing monotony within an endless labyrinth of cluttered gray cubicles.

Free Snacks to Recession and Back

As the economy grew in the 2000s, so did the need for skilled workers — and the need to keep those skilled workers engaged. The dot-com bubble gave birth to startup culture as we know it, with its foosball tables, bean bag chairs, hallway scooters, and free snacks. These were offered in order to make work seem more fun and squeeze more productivity out of workers by eliminating the need to leave the office for necessities like food and recreation.

The Great Recession of 2008 changed the game temporarily by forcing businesses of all sizes to eliminate significant portions of their workforces and consolidate responsibilities among those who remained. For the companies that survived, profits went up for a time, but it quickly became clear desperation wasn’t a sustainable employee engagement strategy.

In the 2010s, as the economy rebounded, corporations once again faced the challenge of retaining good employees, and talent acquisition reemerged as a significant point of pain. The increased focus on business metrics and analytics during this time fueled interest in what has become one of today’s most commonly deployed employee engagement tactics: the annual engagement survey.

Is Once a Year Enough?

Asking employees for their opinions is a great idea in theory, but the annual survey leaves much to be desired in practice. It typically consists of a long list of generic questions presented in a dry format. HR is tasked with chasing people down to make sure they complete it; the whole process can take months when employees view the survey as an unpleasant chore. Once surveys are completed, they generate a mountain of data that takes months to compile.

Like many legacy workplace strategies, the annual survey just can’t keep pace with the speed of business today. By the time reports are delivered to upper management, the results are out of date and no longer relevant. After the investment of time and money, the surveys lead to complicated reports that are overwhelming in scope and inconclusive in their recommendations. The net effect? A continuation of the status quo, with no impactful change until the next survey is administered, starting the cycle all over again.

Now, however, companies are wising up to the shortcomings of annual surveys. As Josh Bersin writes, “The days of the annual engagement survey are slowly coming to an end, to be replaced by a much more holistic, integrated, and real-time approach to measuring and driving high levels of employee commitment and passion. … The change we need to make is to redefine engagement beyond an ‘annual HR measure’ to a continuous, holistic part of an entire business strategy.”

Cultivating Engagement From the Inside Out

As we head toward the 2020s, we are seeing the rise of another new trend in employee engagement: the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in performance measurement. A host of new software platforms and applications have flooded the market, offering insights into how each employee spends each moment of each day. These tools may be effective in documenting which employees are most productive, but they are unlikely to make employees more engaged.

Why not? Because, as we’ve learned from all the employee engagement trends that preceded the current AI boom, top-down engagement efforts don’t work. The most effective way to increase employee engagement is to begin with the employees themselves.

Employees are human beings; they are dynamically affected by a wide range of factors on a daily basis, all of which cannot be measured and compared in a vacuum. Physical and mental health, relationships, living situations, world events, the weather, work environments, roles, strategies, teams, leaders: All of it affects how engaged an employee is at work on any given day.

Employee engagement is a moving target because it changes constantly over time. Your most engaged employee yesterday may be your least engaged today — literally. Couple this with the fact that the overall business landscape and employee expectations for work are changing as well, and it becomes clear that we need to think about employee engagement in brand new ways if we are to crack the code.

In order for employees to truly feel engaged, they need to buy into what they are being asked to do. That buy-in requires an amazing employee experience from the inside out. A one-size-fits-all approach to engagement cannot possibly work. Employees need to personalize their roles and contributions based on their own unique core values.

Fostering trust and transparency in the workplace encourages accountability and motivation. This leads to more engagement and, in turn, higher performance, increased productivity, and better business outcomes.

The problem is that most companies still tackle the problem from the wrong end. Many focus exclusively on productivity, performance, and business outcomes. They implement performance management software to measure the engagement of employees, but that does nothing to encourage engagement at a fundamental level. In fact, it may actually hinder engagement by contradicting the core values of employees and damaging trust.

An amazing employee experience doesn’t just mean providing perks like free lunches and happy hours. It means creating a foundation of trust on which to build a culture where people feel free to express their ideas and know their opinions matter. This is why engagement requires a two-way communication platform that gives people a voice and enables managers to stay attuned to the employee experience at all times. Communication is the key to better business outcomes.

One thing we’ve learned from decades of employee engagement programs past is that it’s not possible for HR to just “keep everyone happy.” As Gallup explains, “While positive feelings, such as happiness, are usually byproducts of engagement, they shouldn’t be confused with the primary outcomes. Rather, the primary emphasis should be on elements that engage workers and drive results, such as clarity of expectations, the opportunity to do what they do best, development, and opinions counting.”

For your engagement efforts to succeed, they need to involve everyone at every level of the organization, including executive management. The future of employee engagement lies in providing tools that enable employees to stay motivated through highly personalized goals and support. Provide employees with a voice, and you’ll gain the insight to take actions that make a real difference in engagement.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Waggl blog.

Kate Benediktsson is the CMO of Waggl, the most human way for organizations to crowdsource feedback.

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