AT A GLANCE, the office appears to be working normally. The staff have their heads down in their cubicles and the gentle clicking of fingers on keyboards suggests productivity. However, a more careful examination tells a different story. A number of the computer screens show not emails, database information or presentations under design, but rather Taobao, Weibo and Youku. And the three people in the tea room seem to be moving as if stuck in glue. In short, for a great many of the staff, work is the last thing on their minds.
While this is a fictional scenario written for the benefit of the article, similar scenes are being played out all over the world. From Beijing to Birmingham and from Shanghai to Sydney, ‘disengaged’ employees are dragging down the efficiency of companies and senior managers are scrambling for ways to re-engage them.
The term ‘engagement’ is used in the workplace setting to describe the extent to which employees feel connected, involved, and valued. Engaged employees feel that the organisation has their interests in mind; they have a high level of commitment to the job and their team and they believe that they have a future with the organisation. This characteristic has a strong correlation with successful business outcomes. The employee who is engaged relates better with customers, focuses more fully and effectively on the task, and connects and collaborates well with co-workers.
Most people can relate to having a job, at one time or another, which left them feeling passionless and devoid of energy. When in that position, it is only natural to start casting around for better options. This is a situation which employers should strive to avoid. Your workforce is one of your most important assets, and you could be on the verge of losing valuable employees who have lost interest or focus on the job.
…just 47% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs.
According to research released in June 2012 by The Conference Board, just 47% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. There’s nothing especially shocking about the findings: The New York-based economic and business research group notes that the last time a majority of Americans (52%) were happy at work was in 2005.
Despite their apparent dissatisfaction, most employees aren’t planning to leave their jobs, according to a study by BlessingWhite, a global consultancy with North American headquarters in Skillman, New Jersey. The BlessingWhite survey conducted last spring asked 3,500 employed professionals if they plan to remain with their current employer for the next 12 months. Some 56% of respondents said “yes, definitely” and another 33% said “probably.” For employers, there is both good and bad news in those numbers.
The good news is that, at least for the near future, most companies are unlikely to be rocked by high levels of turnover. Turnover, as we know, can be costly. According to a 2008 ‘Society for Human Resource Management Foundation’ report, the cost to replace an employee is about 60% of his annual salary. The bad news is that some of those employees who are sticking around may be doing your company more harm than good. Recent Gallup research estimates that the cost of employee disengagement in the United States costs companies approximately $300 billion annually in lost productivity.
…the cost to replace an employee is about 60% of his annual salary.
In his book, The Employee Engagement Mindset, Timothy Clark states that, “For many people in many organizations, it still feels very much like the recession, even though technically we stepped out of it. Companies continue to hold off on hiring, requiring more and more from already-weary employees.” By being careful to avoid expanding again too soon, these companies are sucking the drive out of their existing workers.
“There’s a lot of burnout,” Clark says. “There’s a lot of disillusionment with the workplace and with the economy in general.” Disillusioned workers are disengaged workers.
Whether you call it burnout, dissatisfaction or disengagement, the real risk for employers is that, as the economy improves and new opportunities emerge, they will lose key employees.
Why do they stay?
So if employees are unhappy, why do they stay? Reasons vary, according to the BlessingWhite study. Among employees who were “most disengaged,” explanations included:
• Not feeling there are other job opportunities available (23%);
• No desire for change (17%); and
• Favourable job conditions, such as flexible hours or a good commute (15%).
Disengaged employees represent an area of obvious concern for employers because of their potential negative impact on overall productivity and customer service. Their more engaged colleagues represent a different challenge. These are the employees you hope will stick with you when employment opportunities begin to emerge in other companies. Their drivers are different, according to the study:
• They like the work they do (42%);
• They believe in their organisation’s mission (17%); and
• They feel they have significant career development or advancement opportunities (9%).
The feelings of these engaged workers provide some important clues for employers hoping to fend off an exodus as the economy improves. Now is the time to begin thinking about what your company can do to both increase the engagement of disenchanted employees and strengthen relationships with engaged employees, so they aren’t tempted to jump ship when other offers emerge.
How engaged are your employees?
Knowing the answer is critical, and Clark notes that many companies already conduct regular employee engagement or satisfaction surveys. Such surveys can point to areas where employee satisfaction is low or declining, as well as areas where employees feel more positive. While surveys can provide a useful quantitative perspective, Clark also recommends that companies take some time to gather qualitative perspectives through focus groups or one-on-one conversations with employees.
Your own internal employment data also can tell a story. Absenteeism, turnover rates, complaints and other factors can provide an indication of employee satisfaction relative to both a company’s own past performance and the performance of other companies in the same geographic area or industry.
The survey indicates that benefits are a big driver for employees, with 84% saying benefits were at least “somewhat” important in their decision to leave an employer.
Insights gleaned from broad industry reports and surveys can also provide benchmarks against which your company can be compared. The 2012 ‘Aflac WorkForces Report’ is based on an online survey of 1,900 compensation & benefits decision makers and more than 6,100 US workers conducted last winter. The survey indicates that benefits are a big driver for employees, with 84% saying benefits were at least “somewhat” important in their decision to leave an employer and 50% saying they were “very” or “extremely” influential in their decision. Other interesting findings from the Aflac survey include:
• More than one-third of workers who don’t believe their company has a reputation as a great place to work say they are “extremely” likely to leave in the next 12 months.
• One-third of workers who don’t believe retaining employees is an important priority for their employer say they are likely to leave.
• Workers who say they are stressed out are nearly twice as likely to leave their jobs as workers who aren’t stressed.
Employers are not powerless to change these feelings. They can listen to their employees, recognise their efforts and communicate regularly. Employees want to feel valued and know that their contributions make a difference. Really making a difference, though, requires a concerted focus on your culture and a partnership between you and your employees.
Finally, there are certain factors that might be called ‘reputational’, which can impact employees’ loyalty to a company. Building and sustaining a reputation for high performance makes your company very attractive to potential employees. In the same way it is natural for workers who feel that their company is performing poorly to become disengaged, it is also natural for people to want to work with and be associated with the best. Having a strong brand and a good reputation can encourage loyalty and pride in your employees. Pride in your work goes hand in hand with engagement.
For the final word on keeping your employees satisfied and on the job, we turn to Linda Henman, the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat. Her 10 guidelines for an engaged team are:
1. Commit to the long-term. Think process, not program. Avoid the ‘flavor of the month’ by sustaining what you start. Gain senior management support; get managers and supervisors on board, informed, and trained.
2. Establish a benchmark. Survey employees to understand their current levels of engagement; identifying factors that are helping (or not) enables you to assess progress.
3. Involve everyone. Work with teams of managers and employees to discuss ways of building engagement. Collaborate and involve; don’t impose a program.
4. Prepare and train managers. Ask this key group the questions, and seek their comments, assessments, and input. Build managerial support which will lead to building employee support.
5. Ask and listen. Encourage managers to become coaches, rather than instructors or directors.
6. Align other processes. If teamwork is important, deploy incentives that reward team behaviour rather than individual results. Ensure that information systems provide the data people need.
7. Show people a future. Employee turnover comes at a very high cost. Focus on career paths and development needs; map out an appealing and visible future.
8. Ingrain the culture change. When hiring and promoting, look for behaviours and values that align with the commitment to employee engagement.
9. Lead from the top. Ensure that senior leaders demonstrate their commitment to engagement-building by asking, listening, guiding, and supporting.
10. Assess and course-correct. Track results. Identify the best approaches and share the approaches that worked. Take time to resolve issues and problems. Never stop asking, enquiring, challenging, and improving.
It is almost inevitable that a percentage (hopefully a small one) of your staff will be disengaged. The key to running a successful and productive company is to have a majority (hopefully a large one) of your staff hungry for personal development, ambitious and proud of the work that they do.
Maintaining engagement levels is a continuous process. It certainly requires a lot from managers and leaders in terms of time and effort, but a company who pays attention to engagement levels will reap the benefits. Besides, if the management of the company cannot be seen trying to drive forward a culture of engagement, then why would staff be engaged?
Lead by example. Inspire your team and show them that you care about providing them with an environment in which they can excel. Never forget that ‘people join companies, but they leave managers.’