Workers Are Disengaged. Here's How Employers Can Win Them Back.
Employers have spent countless time and money on improving their employee engagement scores. But there are better ways to measure dedication.
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The last two years have marked a period of great anxiety for business leaders. We've had to pivot to hybrid workplaces, navigate the emotional and logistical impacts of the pandemic and now we're seeing a surge in resignations from employees who've reevaluated their priorities.
Obviously, these same factors have increased stress on workers too. So if your employee engagement numbers are lower than usual, don't scramble for the panic button just yet. These are different times, and metrics like engagement (and old ways of measuring them) might not be the best indicator of where your workforce is at right now.
There are other, more pressing things to focus on that can give you insight into where problems exist — and how to fix them — before they bubble to the surface.
Related: Here's What's Behind The Great Resignation, and How Employers Can Be Prepared
Find metrics that matter
The way we've traditionally measured employee engagement is misguided. It was a mistake to think that one annual survey would be enough to get an accurate read on engagement, and the pandemic has shown how short-sighted that approach truly was.
Work has changed permanently in the last couple years, and we're finally examining what factors really affect how employees feel. For instance, we know workers appreciate the greater flexibility, autonomy and efficiency of working from home and a majority of knowledge workers say flexibility is more important than salary or other benefits.
But many employers are stubbornly tracking engagement as if nothing has changed — and finding alarming results. A Gallup survey found that in 2021, employee engagement had dropped year-over-year for the first time in a decade, with only 34% of employees reporting they were engaged at work.
It may sound dire, but when we think of high and low engagement, it's important to consider what we're comparing it to. Surveys show engagement was never that high to begin with, often hovering around just a third of workers. The "record drop" in engagement makes a good headline, but it really only represents a marginal decline.
It's similar to inflation. Things cost more every year but the increase is so small that we barely notice day-to-day. Suddenly though, amid all the disruption, it's much more noticeable.
Instead of relying on annual surveys, specific data can give you better insight. Look for what I like to call "hot spots" –– your trouble areas. Drill down to the departmental level to get insights into where your workers are becoming disengaged. What makes an engineer happy won't necessarily satisfy an employee in sales, and healthy relationships with managers are key.
The bottom-line is this: practice continuous listening instead of doing one survey a year. Ask your team fewer, more strategic questions more frequently. This way, you'll get real-time feedback and be able to address disengagement before it becomes a real problem.
Related: Why Active Listening Is a Critical Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs
Recognize and differentiate what drives your team
Another problem with once a year surveys? They treat employees like a monolith. Accurate analysis needs to dive deeper into what keeps different workers tapped-in. I believe there are three main factors that determine engagement: pay, experience, and mission.
Pay is classic extrinsic motivation — some employees are motivated by money alone.
Experience drives employees who respond to things like the learning opportunities, relationships with coworkers, company culture and even working in a small or large team.
Mission inspires people who align with your organization's higher purpose, beyond profit and growth.
While the pandemic hasn't had a measurable impact on pay, it's had an enormous effect on experience and mission. People's impression of work was disrupted by workplace health protocols, remote work or a shift in company purpose. It's no wonder that nearly two-thirds of employees said they're reevaluating their jobs –– only 15% of frontline managers and frontline employees said they find purpose at work as compared to 85% of higher-ups. And this is despite the fact that more people are prioritizing purpose in their work.
This isn't new, I've seen many people with decades of experience struggle with their purpose. One way to address this is to lean into change. Switching up someone's job can actually offer clarity by giving employees perspective.
To that end, our company encourages employee movement internally. One of our software developers is now doing customer support and engagement. A software developer has become a pre-sales engineer, and there's a writer who's now a product manager. Sometimes the best way to reignite engagement is to get people out of their comfort zones and introduce a new challenge.
Put people ahead of process
I've had jobs in my life where I've felt disengaged. As a workaholic though, I've still been productive, albeit frustrated. One big motivation killer for me is when companies get so caught up in their own processes that they forget about the people.
It's easy for leaders to become so process-oriented that they lose sight of the actual humans doing the work. If a company has always done ABC in order to get to D, they may not want to hear that employees find B and C inefficient and unpleasant. In other words: some leaders can't handle the truth.
Related: Today's Offices Should Reflect Employees' Changing Needs
If employers truly want to increase engagement, they need to put people front and center in their decision-making. That might mean finding ways to phase out B and C, and incorporating employee feedback in finding solutions.
Engagement problems grow when leaders stop listening to their employees. Not only does feedback help us refine systems and identify problems, it frees up energy we can put towards things that will actually improve engagement.
Above all, in this era where employee experience has been turned upside down and where even tenured workers are resigning in droves, it's critical to remember that everyone is adjusting to a new normal — leaders and workers alike.
More than ever, leaders must take the time to understand how business decisions impact employees, and create a new normal that's better than what we left behind.
Related: Five Ways To Improve Company Culture