Let’s suppose you surveyed 10 people with the same job (but at different companies) and asked them how they feel about their work.
A handful of them might shrug and tell you that work is work and it pays the bills.
Another handful might rave about how much they love their job and the people they work with.
And a couple may say they actively dislike their job and wish they could do something else.
In essence, what these people are explaining is how engaged they are.
And their level of engagement has a meaningful impact on how successful their companies are – or will be.
In the past, it was easy to tell how much effort employees expended. If they were working in a factory, managers could easily measure how much work they accomplished.
Today, knowledge workers make measuring productivity a little more complicated.
Knowledge workers are employees whose main asset or value comes from the information they hold, not the physical labour they can do.
Examples of knowledge workers are developers, marketers, scientists, or project managers.
These individuals can honour their contract with their employer while doing the bare minimum.
But it means that if their organization is trying to get ahead in a competitive market, develop innovative new products, or solve complex problems, they’re not going to have their people operating at 100%.
This ability to give “more” than what’s expected – or what can even be measured – is known as discretionary effort.
Much like discretionary income, it’s a resource that can be used as the employee wishes.
They can plug that discretionary effort into their hobbies or their side gigs, or they can choose to invest it in their day job.
Often, when employee engagement is high, employees plug that discretionary effort into their day job, which amplifies that company’s ability to generate value.
There’s another important reason why employee engagement matters: it makes sure all employees are aligned with and working towards a common goal. Consider this popular employee engagement analogy.
Suppose you have a rowing team with 10 people on it.
Three of them are rowing with all their might, because they’ve got their eyes on the finish line.
Four of them are rowing, but they’re doing so at a leisurely pace because they’re lost in their thoughts or busy looking at the scenery.
Then you’ve got another three who are actually trying to sink the boat.
Suppose your competition is also a team of ten, and all ten of them are rowing with all of their might.
Which boat do you think is going to win?
Companies with low employee engagement are like that rowing team with a mixed bag of athletes. These companies may eventually reach their goal, but it may take too long, be too expensive, or lead to a lot of stops and repairs along the way. Or perhaps, by the time they reach the finish line, the race will be long over.
Sparkbay’s research shows that a typical company’s engagement levels align to this troubled rowing team. In most organizations, 30% of employees are highly engaged, 40% are moderately engaged, and 30% are disengaged.
So what does an engaged employee look like? Research from Gallup shows that they share the following traits:
- When problems arise, they don’t use this as an excuse to sit back, but instead rise to the occasion and work to find a solution
- They are always trying to figure out how to operate at their best, and focus on their strengths rather than obsessing over their weaknesses or things that are outside of their control
- They are self-motivated and look for ways to keep themselves engaged whether that’s through actively asking for opportunities, participating in professional development activities, or investing in continuous education
- They are accountable and take responsibility rather than trying to shift blame onto their colleagues or other people
Whose job is it to ensure employee engagement?
It may seem like employee engagement is HR’s responsibility.
But when you consider the fact that a typical company has 1 HR employee to every 100 employees, it’s easy to see that employee engagement is too big a job for HR alone.
In reality, employee engagement is the responsibility of managers as well.
Based on the profile of engaged employees described above, it may seem like engagement is the responsibility of employees.
After all, engaged employees are self-motivated individuals who look for solutions.
But Gallup’s research shows that employees can only step into these characteristics when they have the right managers. In other words, managers play a big role in determining how engaged employees are.
So how do managers foster an environment where employee engagement is high?
By transforming from bosses into coaches. Coaches do the following when it comes to their teams:
- They encourage them to recognize their strengths and use these strengths to take on new challenges
- They offer support and advice as employees attempt to meet their goals
- They give employees the tools to overcome roadblocks themselves
On the other hand, bosses train employees into “learned helplessness” where they feel like they can’t figure things out on their own without involving their boss.
While this may reaffirm hierarchical structures and command-and-control organizations, it doesn’t leave much room for innovation, creativity, and proactivity – all features that help companies stand out in a crowded marketplace.
And it’s important to notice that both types of manager – a boss and a coach – still have a hands-on relationship with their employees. The difference is the nature of this relationship.
Bosses focus on control, permission, and power.
Coaches focus on empowerment, proactivity, and resourcefulness.
Effective managers also take the time to figure out what each of their employees’ unique skills are and then match those skills to specific job duties.
Sure, there may be times when an employee has to do things they don’t enjoy, but generally speaking, they’re more likely to be more effective, creative, and empowered if the task they’ve been given suits their strengths and interests.
Reasons for poor employee engagement
So how do you go about actively improving employee engagement?
Well the first thing you need to do is understand your current state of affairs.
Does your organization have high, moderate, or low engagement?
If you have low engagement, what are the reasons? What would your employees like to see more of?
For larger organizations, it’s impossible to have one-on-one conversations with every employee.
Instead, an employee engagement survey can help.
An employee engagement survey helps you gather quantitative data about your employees’ engagement levels that you can use to structure more focused conversions and to develop targeted employee engagement initiatives.
Every organization will receive different responses, but there are some common reasons for low engagement that you might find interesting to explore.
The work is not interesting or stimulating enough
Boredom in the workplace can lead to errors, low productivity, and low engagement.
People start to lose interest in an activity when they’re either become so good at it that there’s nothing stimulating left or when they can’t see the meaning in completing the task.
Let’s look at both of these reasons more carefully.
An employee that’s bored and slacking off because they’ve become too good at their task is the type of employee that organizations should pay careful attention to.
These individuals hold valuable business knowledge and they know how to do their job well.
Rather than keep this competent person in a mind-numbing task that will lead to decreased performance – and a loss of institutional knowledge should they choose to quit – it would be better to find a way to re-engage them.
Methods of re-engagement include giving them a more senior role or introducing more interesting tasks or increased responsibility to their role with an appropriate bump in compensation.
Then there are employees who have routine operational tasks but who don’t take much pride in those tasks, because they don’t believe there’s much meaning in their work.
Not every job can be exciting, but that doesn’t mean it has to be meaningless.
For routine jobs, it’s important to introduce a sense of purpose.
For instance, working a customer service role may seem repetitive and frustrating, but there is an opportunity for an internal marketing campaign that communicates how these employees have a positive impact on the company’s customers.
There’s also an opportunity to spotlight or reward employees who are doing a good job, so that there is some sense of accomplishment or incentive around the role.
Employees have weak relationships with their colleagues
Having a “work friend” makes a huge difference in how engaged employees feel.
People are more likely to forge a friendship at work than anywhere else. This includes places of worship, school, or even mutual friends.
In other words, some of our most significant life relationships happen at work and as a result, people are more likely to stick around companies where they feel like they have a community.
Despite this, employers spend very little time and money investing in employees’ social wellbeing.
While their programs promote things like fitness, employee appreciation, mental health, and more, there is very little thought put into developing and maintaining stronger bonds between employees.
One study found that only 1 out of every 3 employees around the world say they have a friend at work.
What’s interesting is the impact that employee friendships have on productivity.
When employees are friends, they’re more likely to communicate more effectively, support each other, and look out for each other.
This creates the kind of collaboration and conscientiousness that leads to successful cooperation and stronger teams.
People who have friends at work are also more likely to stick around longer and refer others in their network, decreasing employee turnover as well as recruitment costs.
Employees lack open communication with their managers
One-on-one (or 1:1) meetings are an important way for managers to build relationships with their employees.
Sure, it’s a way for managers to get to know their team members on a more personal level. But it’s also a way for employees to share their triumphs and challenges and ask for advice in a more casual setting.
The trouble is that managers have a tendency to cancel or re-schedule these check-ins and as a result, there are very few opportunities for their employees to get feedback or guidance.
Other reasons that 1:1 meetings are important include:
- Overcoming obstacles and addressing small issues before they become big problems
- Encouraging professional development or continuous education that can benefit the team’s overall work
- Building trust, transparency, and open communication, which can reduce turnover that occurs because an employee didn’t feel comfortable asking for what they want out of their career
That said, it’s important for managers to do 1:1 meetings properly by avoiding frequent cancellations, listening carefully, and providing enough time for feedback.
Missing any of these things can create the impression that these 1:1 meetings are not important.
Your employees aren’t given the correct training to do their work
Research shows that new employees no longer receive thorough on-the-job training.
In an effort to cut costs, companies are simply looking for people who can do the job on day one.
This rarely works out. For starters, finding experienced employees for entry-level roles is difficult since these seasoned workers will expect roles with higher seniority and greater pay.
So the reality turns out differently. Companies wind up hiring employees who have a lot of potential and skills, but who don’t know how to be most effective in their roles.
This lack of training or direction leads to unnecessary stress which leads to disengagement and which leads to turnover.
This has led to a generation of job hoppers and a $30 billion turnover price tag.
It gets worse. Lack of training doesn’t just lead to disengagement among new, inexperienced workers. It leads to disengagement among experienced workers as well.
The world is changing at a rapid pace, and technology is changing how businesses make money, how consumers spend money, and how employees get work done.
There are two potential future scenarios: A world of unemployed, unskilled workers or a world in which technology helps everyone level up.
The latter requires re-skilling and re-training.
Highly motivated workers are aware of these industry trends and will take stock of whether their current company is helping them stay ahead of the curve. If they feel they’re not getting the training they need to prepare for the future world of work, they’ll look for those opportunities elsewhere.
Your employees don’t have enough autonomy
What exactly do employees mean when they say they seek flexibility?
For some, it’s the ability to leave and pick up their kids at 3 and continue working later in the evening.
For others, it means the choice to only go into the office a couple of days a week.
And for others, it means the ability to work 100% remotely.
But as Holger Reisinger and Dane Fetterer write, when employees say they’re looking for flexibility what they’re actually talking about is autonomy. They want to be trusted to decide where and when their work gets done.
Employees do not like company-wide mandates. Instead, they seek companies that give each team the power to decide what their working arrangement will be. An arrangement that works for the customer success team may not necessarily work for the development team or the sales team.
Giving your employees more autonomy as a way to increase employee engagement lines up with the self-determination theory developed by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci.
When humans are given autonomy, competence, and relevance, they’re more likely to feel an internal motivation.
This is why autonomy alone is not enough. Employees also need to be given the correct training and they need to feel that their work means something and contributes to the organization’s larger goals.
You have a bad company culture
A company’s culture is the sum total of attitudes and behaviour.
It’s the unspoken rules and norms that inform people what will get rewarded and what’s acceptable.
For instance, a sales-driven organization will have a different culture than an engineering-driven company.
While the former may be all about competitiveness, over-confidence, and an “ask forgiveness, not permission” attitude, the latter may be more focused on collaboration, precision, and cautiousness.
These are both generalizations – there can be sales cultures that operate with a strong sense of collaboration and camaraderie and engineering cultures with a “move fast and break things” approach – but generally speaking, your employees can tell the difference.
What this demonstrates is that there’s no such thing as one type of “good culture.”
Instead, it’s about identifying what your goals are, and whether the prevailing attitudes and incentives help meet those goals. It’s also about recognizing whether your culture is contributing to negative results such as low productivity, burnout, and disengagement.
A few signs of a poor company culture include:
- Chronic burnout: Burnout is often misdiagnosed as an individual problem, when in reality it’s a systemic problem. It’s important for employers to focus on addressing the causes of burnout rather than the symptoms. Common causes of burnout include unfairness, feeling like one’s always on call, a heavy workload, lack of support, and little autonomy.
- Bad employee reviews: If your company consistently receives poor employee reviews and has a bad reputation, it’s a clear sign that you’re the problem, not your former workers. Use this as an opportunity to start conducting more thorough exit interviews with departing employees or engagement surveys with existing employees.
- Destructive criticism: Feedback helps people improve, but there are times when it can be destructive instead of constructive. Tell-tale signs of destructive criticism include making the feedback about the person rather than their work, shaming people for a mistake in a public forum, or is delivered aggressively with shouting and insults.
- Limited recognition: Companies where employees are not recognized for their work often have a poor company cultures. This may be because employees are not appreciated or because only a few superstars are publicly acknowledged, even if their accomplishments are the result of a team effort.
How to improve employee engagement
So now that we’ve discussed possible causes of low employee engagement, let’s get into problem solving mode and talk about potential ways to improve employee engagement.
Conduct a survey
Avoid making assumptions at all costs.
You may assume you have high employee engagement levels when in reality your employees are one foot out the door.
Or you may be aware that you have an engagement problem and think the issue is related to pay when in reality you’ve got a slightly toxic company culture.
Your employee engagement survey can help you get an objective temperature check of your company’s culture. Using an employee engagement survey can help you:
- Ask a wide range of questions
- Initiate data-driven decision making
- Act on feedback instead of making surface-level changes
- Measure the impact of your employee engagement initiatives and your engagement rates
Analyze and operationalize your employee engagement survey data
Once your employee engagement survey is completed, it’s important to do something with it.
Here are a few tips for how you can analyze your employee engagement survey results:
- Remind yourself of what your original questions were before the survey, so you can verify if the data backs up your initial assumptions
- Filter your data into different subgroups of your organization so you can compare and contrast different teams, departments, etc.
- If this isn’t your first year conducting an employee engagement survey, benchmark your data against previous years, so you can pick up on trends (e.g., The number of employees who feel very satisfied in their current role increased by 12%.)
- Write out a list of key insights and rank them in priority order
- Create an action plan based on your prioritized list of items
- Communicate the results of the survey and your plans to act on them
Organize employee engagement initiatives and measure their impact through pulse surveys
It’ll be difficult to act on every single insight in your employee engagement survey, but you can organize events based on your top priority areas. Your insights might lead to initiatives such as:
- An overhaul of your existing employee benefits and wellness program
- Purchase of a new learning management system that can deliver continuous education and professional development modules for your employees
- Launch of an employee recognition program, annual awards, and an accompanying platform
Once you’ve organized your employee engagement initiatives, use follow-up pulse surveys to measure their impact. Did these programs meet employees expectations or were they looking for something different?
Extend responsibility for the employee engagement action plan beyond HR
Remember that employee engagement is not the sole responsibility of your human resources team. It’s also up to your managers to put these initiatives in practice at the team level.
Once you’ve gathered insights from your employee engagement survey and created an employee engagement action plan, share both of these assets with managers and keep them accountable for helping to improve employee engagement.
This “HR-only” approach to employee engagement is often why employee engagement initiatives don’t work.
They’re viewed as a PR exercise with little impact on employees’ day-to-day lives.
And since employees don’t interact with HR on a daily basis, any announcements or messages coming from that department can feel distant or irrelevant to their work lives.
Incorporating managers into employee engagement initiatives can give your program more impact.
Develop an employee engagement program that can scale
Sparkbay offers an employee engagement platform that makes it easy for companies to understand and measure their organization’s employee engagement. It also gives them a way to communicate with employees at scale. Click here for a demo.