Struggling to Engage Employees? Try Approaching That Goal the Old-Fashioned Way.
Remote work programs, office perks and next-generation tech might help to attract talent, but they've largely failed to engage those doing the work.
Finally, there's "good" news on the employee-engagement front! According to Gallup's latest survey on the subject, the proportion of engaged U.S. workers -- a whopping 34 percent -- is as high as it's been since at least 2000.
Of course, like all things in life, "good" news is relative. It didn't take an entrepreneurial genius these past two decades to see that something was wrong with the business worldview that having just one in three workers engaged as a "win." The question shouldn't be, "Where's the champagne?" but rather, "What about everyone else?"
Clearly, contemporary approaches to engagement aren't connecting with two-thirds of the workforce. So, what do we do about it?
A new (and old) approach
Believe it or not, the term "employee engagement" is barely a quarter-century old. Coined in 1990 in a study by psychologist William Kahn, the term gained immediate popularity as a way to study shifts employers had been noticing in the workplace.
Does the timing of that term's creation prove that pre-1990s working conditions fostered better engaged workers? Of course not. It does, however, provide hints as to how leaders might boost engagement today:
1. Get more face time.
After frantically rolling out telecommuting in the early 2010s, employers like Aetna, IBM and Yahoo have pulled their programs back. Why? Because, despite reports that millennials would be willing to trade part of their pay for a flexible work schedule, remote work isn't great for cultural cohesion. "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings," then-CEO of Yahoo Marissa Mayer wrote in an internal memo banning telecommuting. "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with being physically together."
Although it wasn't popular at the time, Mayer's choice was likely the right one. Like it or not, human beings are social animals. To solve problems, to create human connections and to operate as one team, there's no substitute for face time.
Event Business Formula founder Eric Rozenberg agrees. Rozenberg's work in the event industry, for which his company now consults and trains, has taken him to more than 50 countries and taught him that there is simply no substitute for the potential impact face-to-face communication. "Take any business challenge," Rozenberg wrote on the company's blog, listing the examples "aligning people, increasing customer relationships, engaging your team, etc. ..."
No business challenge, Rozenberg wrote, will ever "be solved without a face-to-face meeting." In-person time, he argued, is critical for clear communication and interpersonal bonding.
2. Double-down on traditional benefits.
Besides a salary, what benefits do you think workers want most? Remote work opportunities? Paid gym memberships? Office snacks? Surprisingly, it's the "boring" benfits that get employees excited. HR provider JustWorks found that health benefits (45 percent), paid time off (38 percent) and 401(k) plans (37 percent) matter most to the job-seekers it surveyed.
JustWorks' study fit with what others in the HR space have found. "When it comes to employee retention and engagement, goodies, gimmicks and gala events, do not replace creating a work experience that satisfies core human needs," management consultant David Lee, the founder and principal of HumanNature@work, argued in an article on TLNT.
Although creative perks can be effective supplements, Lee wrote, employers should invest first and foremost in HR basics like health insurance and retirement programs.
3. Put more time into training.
Benjamin Franklin knew what he was talking about when, in his book The Way to Wealth, which is one of his most famous writings, he wrote that, "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest." In both Franklin's day and today, employers who provide education and training opportunities for their team members recoup those costs through greater employee loyalty and engagement.
The sheer number of surveys on the topic leaves little room for debate. A study by Middlesex University's Institute for Work Based Learning determined that 74 percent of U.K. workers surveyed wanted more job training in order to reach their potential. Another, by Canadian firm Go2HR, found that four in ten employees who receive inadequate training leave their job within a year.
4. Never miss a chance to build trust.
In the employee-engagement equation, trust is the factor that's both the most difficult and the most important factor to build. Research firm Towers Watson found that 80 percent of highly engaged employees trust their leaders, and a BlessingWhite report pointed out that 90 percent of engaged workers trust their immediate supervisor.
"Trust is like a workplace currency in that its value is demonstrated through exchange -- it is given and received," wrote Will Campbell. He heads the employee idea platform SoapBox and was writing in Business2Community. "Like all currencies," Campbell added, "trust is convertible into real-world value. How? Through increased employee engagement ... resulting [in] improved productivity."
So, what's the best way to boost trust with your workers? Being kind, keeping promises, defining expectations and apologizing as needed are frequent points of advice. In other words, employer-employee trust is created the same way it is in other relationships.
Although there's no magic formula for employee engagement, there is a blueprint. But just like what happens in homes and offices, engagement isn't built overnight. Spending more time together, providing development opportunities and helping your workers with their healthcare and retirement needs may not be glamorous, but these things are what those "two-thirds" who feel left out at work truly want.
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