To explain employee engagement to someone who has never heard of the term, I often like to tell the story of JFK and the janitor: The year is 1961 and John F. Kennedy is on a government visit at NASA headquarters. He goes up to a man in overalls and asks him what his role at NASA is, to which the man, a janitor, answers:
“I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr. President”
This story tells us two things. Firstly, the concept of employee engagement has been around for quite a while, and secondly, NASA was already doing it before it was cool.
But What is Employee Engagement Exactly?
Introduced as a management theory in the 1990s, employee engagement gained popularity in the 2000s, became an established practice around the same time and is now one of the most popular concepts in the area of HR and People Operations. A clear definition still doesn’t exist though, mainly because employee engagement, much like the area of HR, is a constantly evolving concept. What we think of today as employee engagement is, on the one hand, often based on many earlier concepts such as work morale or job satisfaction, but on the other hand, also incorporates many modern elements such as work-life-integration or employee experience. And as if that weren’t enough, employee engagement is also surrounded by many common misconceptions or “myths” as we like to call them, making implementation very difficult at times.
So what exactly is employee engagement in 2019? Are there any characteristics that keep recurring and can help us put a finger on the content of this concept?
Indeed, many companies and websites have written on this topic and there are quite a few factors that always seem to pop up when you research the term. A thin red line describing employee engagement in 2019, if you so will. Here’s what we found:
1. Benefits are More Important Than Salary
Rather than looking for a job to pay the bills, employees in 2019 are now looking for a job that also offers an experience. There are many reasons for this, but the most apparent one is that digitalisation has blurred the lines between time we spend at work and our leisure time. In many areas of work, there is no clean cut anymore that distinguishes when work starts and ends. Many employees often take their laptop home with them in order to check a few mails after dinner, but they will naturally also demand to be able to browse the internet during working hours to find a birthday present for their spouse or kid. It is not so much about a work-life balance anymore, but rather a work-life symbiosis or integration. The fact that this differentiation between work hours and leisure time is not so clear anymore, makes employees want to feel as unconstrained and free as possible when they are at work. This endeavour of making employees “feel like they can be themselves” at work is not achieved through higher salary, it is achieved through perks and benefits. Having recognized this trend, many companies are pushing ahead in this and offer flexible working hours, home office, or yoga courses in the office. Some companies like Patagonia even pay for your bail when you get arrested for peaceful protesting, which, in my personal opinion, is the most rock ‘n roll company benefit I’ve ever heard of.
2. Managers and Modern Employee Engagement
A study by Glint shows that around 80% of the employees interviewed believe that engagement is closely linked to trust in leadership and the relationship with the direct supervisor. However, it is also very important to keep in mind that other factors like a sense of purpose and organisational culture also play a big role. For more info on company purpose and what it can do for you, click here.
The study further shows that it is also the top level managers that carry a lot of weight when it comes to company culture. It is not enough that employees want to feel that they themselves are making progress in the company, they also need to feel that their CEOs are leading their company in the right direction as a whole.
Culture starts at the top and as much as one may disagree with a top down approach in general, it makes a lot of sense in this particular case. Once employees see their superiors live their company culture on a daily basis, they will feel more motivated to live it themselves.
3. Agility is the new Stability
With customer-centricity, customer experience, adaptability, and innovation having become top strategic priorities, the subject of agility has been put on the agenda of many companies. Agile working requires high interaction and collaboration with the customers throughout the process of product development, enabling the delivery of work results early and continually, instead of presenting one final result at the end. This of course means that the development itself has to progress in small steps, instead of following one big plan. The benefit for the employees? Agile working empowers employees through various factors such as self-organization, working in multidisciplinary teams and regular feedback on performance. Popular practices of implementation include stand-up meetings, open office spaces and hot desks. Does it work though? That depends. Like every process, the concept of agile working cannot work without a receptive audience. Major drawbacks that are often mentioned when talking about agile working are managers who fail to adapt to their new, passive leadership style and disgruntled employees who have (justifiable) difficulties adapting to this new working style.
4. From Measurement to Motivation
At Honestly, we like to say “If it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved” and we’re not the only ones that think this way. A study by Deloitte from 2018 shows us that 84% of the respondents viewed people analytics as important or very important. What is meant by “people analytics” is basically any data that shows how your employees feel at work. There are many ways that you can gather this data, the most efficient one beingemployee surveys. The real problem of course cannot be fixed with recurring employee surveys, but by taking concrete measures to combat the problems you have identified thanks to those surveys.
This process is different for every company and often revolves around factors such as good mentoring or psychological safety. In sum, employee surveys will only help identify what’s wrong, how to deal with them is up to you.