Employee Engagement – What is it Good for? Absolutely Everything!

The economic turmoil that has occurred since 2007 has left its indelible mark on individuals, families, companies and entire industries. Do you know anyone who has not seen a family member, friend, neighbor or former colleague impacted by a job loss or even several jobs over the course of the past five years?

Initially, surviving a downsizing in a massive company restructuring was enough to keep employees from jumping ship and feeling lucky they still had a job. Most employees were in a constant state of apprehension and uncertainty and it didn’t appear to be “safe” in any industry even if an employee seriously considered making a change amid mounting layoffs and company closings. However, feeling safe after learning you aren’t losing your job does not equal a fully engaged employee.

Fast forward to 2012 and a less volatile economic situation. As the economy slowly improves, are the rules of engagement changing? In a 2012 Global Workforce Study by Towers Watson, only about one third (35%) of more than 32,000 full-time workers participating in the study reported being highly engaged.

According to Towers Watson, most employees have been doing more with a lot less. They also suggest that companies are at a “critical tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time”, what they refer to as “sustainable engagement.” Key themes emerging from the study:
• Retaining employees depends a lot on the quality of their work experience including factors seemingly always in the mix regardless of the economic situation. These factors include career opportunities within the organization, the relationship with the immediate supervisor, and overall work/life balance.
• Leadership and the level of interest and support coming from this group of executives are critical. The leader behaviors and actions most important to employees are: “being able to grow the business, showing sincere interest in the employee’s well-being, behaving consistently with the organization’s core values and earning the employees’ trust and confidence.”
• Job security is taking precedence over almost everything else and stress and anxiety about the future are prevalent.

No real surprises! However, one overlooked element in the engagement dialogue is the engagement of executives themselves. So much has been theorized, researched and written about what executives can do to engage employees but much less has focused on executive engagement itself. If a key concept in this dialogue is sustainable engagement, then one focus should be the engagement of executives who, in turn, can have a dramatic effect on the engagement (or lack thereof) of large numbers of employees. I’m not talking about executive compensation. Surely, many people will say that executives are already being paid or incented too generously. However, ensuring executives are fully engaged in the business and in providing opportunities for growth and development of their staff represents at least one lever to pull in the overall engagement process. Addressing executive engagement may include developing a formal leadership competency model that defines behaviors appropriate for building engagement. It might also involve, as many companies have seen, executive coaching and on-boarding programs to set the right stage and provide focused individual development to ensure executive level retention and engagement.

Employee engagement hasn’t really changed over the course of the past decade. While it is certainly influenced by the prevailing economic conditions, in the long run, it’s what a company chooses to do or not do with employee engagement issues that will potentially leave them in a bigger hole than the economic situation itself. Having or creating a comprehensive engagement strategy requires also looking at executive engagement and the compounding effects it can have on employee engagement in general.