Leaders need to get the most out of every asset they have in today's business environment with tight budgets and tough competition. For almost every organization, the most significant opportunity for improvement is to increase employee engagement.
What is Employee Engagement?
There are many ways to define employee engagement. Gallup says that engaged employees are "involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace." Quantum Workplace defines engagement as "the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work." Towers Watson defines it as "employees' willingness and ability to contribute to company success."
The common theme is an emotional commitment to the organization and the willingness to work toward its success.
You'll notice that none of these definitions mention "happiness" or "satisfaction." That's because an employee can be happy with their salary and benefits and content to keep doing what they are doing without actively working to further the organization's mission. Happiness and satisfaction are important, but engagement is a force multiplier.
Why Employee Engagement Matters
According to Gallup, an organization that has been doing research on employee engagement for more than 75 years, in 2021, employee engagement in the US experienced its first annual decline in more than ten years, dropping from 36% engaged employees in 2020 to 34% in 2021. Unfortunately, it hasn't improved this year, with the number of engaged employees now sitting at just 32%. What's worse is that 17% of employees are actively disengaged.
Notably, healthcare workers experienced the most significant engagement decline (nine points) from early 2021 to early 2022. Healthcare managers had a seven-point decrease from early to late 2021 but have since rebounded by three points in early 2022.
The engagement factors that declined the most were employees' level of agreement that they have:
- clear expectations,
- suitable materials and equipment,
- the opportunity to do their best work every day,
- and a solid connection to the mission or purpose of their organization.
Gallup also found a staggering eight-point decline in the percentage of employees who are extremely satisfied with their organization as a place to work.
Why does it matter? Because organizations with engaged employees are 21% more profitable than those that lack engagement. Companies with high turnover experience 59% less turnover if employees are engaged. Engagement leads to 41% less absenteeism and 10% better customer satisfaction.
In dollar terms, the cost of disengaged employees at work is staggering. For companies in the US, the collective cost is about $350 billion every year. In addition, research by Deloitte found that a single disengaged employee costs the company up to 34% of their salary.
Clearly, organizations that invest in engagement see significant rewards. But how do you foster engagement if satisfaction metrics like salary and benefits aren't enough? Here are five strategies for creating an emotional connection with employees.
Instead of blaming employees for being disengaged, leaders need to take action so we can create a culture that welcomes and rewards higher levels of engagement. Employee engagement is the proven end result of certain key behaviors.
Strategy #1: Alignment
Modern workers, especially Millennials, care about the organization's purpose and culture. They want to be part of something more meaningful than just a paycheck. That's why it is essential that leaders create alignment between the day-to-day responsibilities of each individual and the reason the organization exists. Creating a clear path between each person's role and the overall strategic plan helps people connect their activities with the bigger picture. When their goals are aligned with strategic objectives through a process called strategy deployment, the importance of their work and their ability to make a difference are highlighted, especially so when we look at their improvement work.
Strategy #2: Ownership
It isn't easy to invest emotional capital if you are just doing a job that someone has told you to do in the way they told you to do it. When leaders shift from top-down decision-making to a culture that embraces continuous improvement at every level, they create an environment in which employees can thrive. After all, front-line employees are most closely connected to the processes they operate and the internal and external customers they serve. Who better to recognize and implement opportunities for improvement? When workers implement their own ideas for positive change, they are far more invested in the outcome and likely to expend extra effort to achieve success, and this strengthens their connection to the company more broadly.
Strategy #3: Cross-Functional Collaboration
In many organizations, there are literal and figurative walls between various departments, teams, and functions. This isolates people from the bigger picture and makes it difficult to connect daily activities with the overall strategy. Cross-functional collaboration helps by allowing people to see things from a different perspective and understand challenges that they might not otherwise see. As an added benefit, it helps with personal career development by providing a glimpse at other potential paths of growth within the organization. Keep in mind that according to an SHRM study, 30% of employees considered career development opportunities for personal growth and learning (in general) to be very important, yet only 30% were happy with their current situation.
Of course, cross-functional collaboration isn't always easy. Different groups may have other tools, vocabulary, and norms. Improvement management technology is an excellent way to overcome these challenges.
Strategy #4: Feedback and Recognition
Many people try to minimize the impact of "feelings" in the workplace. That's a shame because people are powerfully motivated by how they feel. We're all human. We all have feelings.
In fact, survey after survey shows that what employees want most from their managers is more feedback. The "you're doing great unless I tell you otherwise" school of management is not an effective employee engagement strategy. Instead, it's crucial for managers to spend time with each employee to discuss their progress and goals and to connect their efforts to the strategic plan.
Leaders in a culture of continuous improvement also provide recognition when employee ideas for change lead to positive results — tapping into feelings. For example, one report found that 84% of highly engaged employees were recognized the last time they extended extra effort at work compared to only 25% of actively disengaged employees.
The best improvement management software solutions include improvement broadcasting to make acknowledgment a built-in part of the process. This has the benefit of recognizing the individual employee, and it also helps spread a culture of engagement. Perhaps another department can implement the same idea, or maybe an employee who has been reluctant to share their thoughts will be encouraged to speak up.
Strategy #5: Measurement
How do you measure employee engagement? For most leaders, the answer is not at all. Employee satisfaction surveys give you a glimpse into how folks are doing, but they don't measure the engagement and are usually anonymous, giving managers no insight into who could use additional care and coaching.
A better approach is to leverage a continuous improvement platform to track employee ideas and activities. You'll get a clear view of which teams and people are investing effort in improvement and success. Then, rather than passively monitoring satisfaction, you'll be able to manage engagement actively. The level of participation in an improvement program is a real-time measure of active engagement and that's way better than bi-annual surveys.
Additional, more systemic, ongoing measurements of employee engagement include turnover rates, customer satisfaction scores, employee referrals, attendance, and company-related social media posts by employees.
By creating a work environment that emphasizes employee connection and well-being, leaders create conditions in which employees can do their best work. As a result, people feel a sense of community and, therefore, responsibility. A fully engaged workforce is any leader's superpower.
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