The Rules of Engagement

What happens at work, stays at work. If only that still held true for many of today’s workers.

In a BlackBerry-fueled, do-more-with-less workplace, the reality is the line between work and life is increasingly blurry. What engages and motivates employees at work is no longer just a matter of whether or not they like their boss or co-workers. Engagement and motivation are part of a complex set of factors linked to employee health and emotional well-being not just on the job, but also at home.

Those new realities pose challenges for employee engagement efforts and require talent managers to more effectively measure the relationship between employees’ discretionary effort, individual productivity and organizational performance. It also means educating leaders on their role and knowing when to get out of the way.

There are often conflicting definitions and measures of employee engagement, from psychological evaluations of employees’ beliefs about work to behavioral assessments of what they actually do on the job. Adding to the confusion, many organizations often conflate employee satisfaction with engagement.

For purposes of this report, engagement is a measure of how much discretionary effort an employee is willing to give on the job. And according to the numbers, that engagement level is dangerously low.

The Numbers Don’t Lie
According to a November analysis of its database of 5,700 employers representing 5 million employees, human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt reported that engagement levels indicate the workforce is by and large indifferent to organizational success or failure.

“Our analysis suggests that even at the height of the recession, employees felt a greater connection to their work and role in achieving success than they do now,” said Pete Sanborn, a consultant with Aon Hewitt.

A November report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) told a similar story. That analysis showed that employees were only moderately engaged at work, with an average score of 3.6 on a five-point scale.

Limited career advancement and development opportunities, along with lack of satisfaction with communication between employees and senior management, pulled down engagement scores, said S. Evren Esen, manager of SHRM’s Survey Research Center. Those problems were exacerbated by a lack of external and internal job opportunities.

“With more individuals staying in their jobs for a longer period of time, they’re starting to focus more on items where they’re able to improve or use their skills or feel like … even if they don’t love their job and they’re ready to move on that they’re at least able to use their skills and engage in work that is allowing them to reach a higher potential,” Esen said.

For high-potential employees, the numbers are more nuanced, but just as troubling. In general, workers’ intention to stay in their current job has remained high even as the level of discretionary effort has dropped. According to Brian Kropp, managing director of the Corporate Executive Board’s Human Resources Practice, only one in 10 workers were putting in high levels of discretionary effort in third quarter 2011.

Among high-potential workers, the opposite happened. Their engagement and discretionary effort remained high throughout the recession and subsequent slow recovery. “No matter what job they’re in, they’re going to work hard,” Kropp said. “That’s just who they are in their DNA.”

What has shifted is their intent to stay with their current employers. One in four are actively looking for a new job right now, Kropp said. That has important consequences not just for the future of an organization, but also for sustaining current performance.

“If they’re going to work every day knowing they won’t be there in the future, how much additional discretionary effort do you think they’re going to put in place in the near term?” said Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace engagement and well-being at Gallup.

Engagement: It’s Complicated
At the same time the numbers tell a nuanced story of employees’ engagement at work, what constitutes engagement is becoming increasingly complex. The factors employers measure vary from job satisfaction, confidence in the future and co-worker attitude to confidence in leaders, workplace safety and quality of recognition programs.

It’s true that engagement is still driven by well-recognized workplace factors such as an employee’s relationships with co-workers and the boss, opportunities for growth and development and a sense of belonging. But a number of less tangible and personal factors are playing a growing role. Kevin Kruse, co-author of We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement, called them the “why” of engagement.

“The real ‘why’ of engagement is not just about the company profits,” he said. “It’s about what you do on a day-to-day basis that is impacting the health of those who report to you. It’s impacting the relationships and the families of those who report to you.”

Following what psychologists call the spillover effect, workers often bring the stresses and emotions of work home to their families. If that emotion is negative, it can then cross over to their families.

“People who are unhappy at work are twice as likely to have a serious cardiovascular event, heart attack or stroke,” Kruse said. “People who are unhappy at work weigh more. People who are unhappy at work are more likely to have marital distress [and] their kids are more likely to act out.”

Even examining things such as workers’ moods indicates that engagement can make a difference. The biggest drop in happiness comes from Sunday to Monday as workers gear up for and head into their work week. That low level remains throughout the week until ticking back up on Friday.

“But when you look at people who have an engaging workplace, that drop from Sunday to Monday is cut in half,” Harter said. “It’s not nearly the dramatic fall in terms of mood, and there’s plenty of data [showing] when people experience those moods during the course of the day, it does correlate to the stress hormone cortisol. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that what happens in the workplace relates to health.”

Further, it’s not just whether employees like their co-workers and the boss that drives engagement. Gallup studies indicate employees are looking for trust, compassion, stability and hope.

“When someone comes into the organization, will they have overall higher well-being because of the organization they work for? That’s an important question,” Harter said. “We find the percentages overall are pretty low on that right now. Workers don’t necessarily expect it, but some of the best organizations [and] managers are already focused on it.”

Back to Basics
Looking at that management perspective, employee engagement drivers haven’t changed much over time. While there are different models and definitions, in general employees are looking for a clearly defined role, clarity of purpose and opportunities to advance and grow. They also want recognition, whether formal or informal, for the work they do. In good times, many employees are willing to forgive an organization that neglects those basics, but when times are tight, such as through the recent recession and subsequent slow recovery, the story is different.

“When major changes happen, the emphasis needs to be even more focused on those more basic elements that are oftentimes overlooked,” Harter said. “If you take care of those basics, then you have really strong social connections, then you turn that into innovation.”

However, many organizations’ response is the opposite as they cut budgets for programs such as training and employee development. In doing so, they may turn an acute, short-term engagement problem into a chronic, long-term workforce problem.

“Sometimes it’s necessary, but what you’re really doing is not allowing people to grow,” said Chris Dustin, senior vice president of organization development for Avatar HR Solutions, a consultancy focused on employee engagement. “You actually should be investing in that area instead of removing the dollars.”

Employee engagement surveys can play an important role by helping employers better understand what motivates and drives their workers as well as identifying programs and opportunities to help people grow. Skills assessments and inventories also can help, giving talent managers a more complete picture of the skills and interests a particular employee may have. “Many employees bring skills to the workplace that may not directly relate to their job but could still be of use and value to the organization, it’s just that the organization may not know about their wide array of skills,” SHRM’s Esen said.

Employees want opportunities to flex their skills in different ways, potentially through a cross-functional team or project, even if it may not be a direct line to a promotion or career advancement, Esen said.

“Employers tend to look at employees by their job and what they’re doing and not necessarily looking at the person in that job and thinking of them as being capable of doing more than that job,” she said.

Distilling engagement data down to the individual team and manager level provides specific actions to boost engagement, provided managers have the education and tools to do something with the information. It also creates a cascade effect that demonstrates engagement is important from the top levels on down.

“When executives are more engaged, middle management is more engaged and the front line is more engaged,” Harter said. “Engagement is part of the expectation they have around management and leadership.”

HR: Get Out of the Way
Failure to make that connection to overall business management and leadership is a common factor in sputtering employee engagement efforts. Rather than trying to take ownership of engagement as an HR initiative, talent managers should focus on getting buy-in from senior leadership. It might seem obvious but it doesn’t happen as often as expected, Harter said.

“When it stays within HR, I don’t see it having nearly as much effect as when it’s owned by leadership, and I mean all the way to the CEO,” Harter said.

Employees need to see that an engagement program isn’t just a flavor of the month, but rather is based on and aligned to fundamental organizational outcomes managed by the CEO and executive team.

“When you see that happen, things start changing,” Harter said. “If it stays in HR, it’s much more of an uphill battle.”

Executives need to see the importance of engagement to their goals, said Dustin from Avatar HR Solutions. That’s where talent managers can play a critical role by making the connection between engagement programs, employee productivity and organizational performance. He suggested setting up committees of employees from across the organization to gather ideas and provide a from-the-trenches perspective.

“The talent manager becomes the coordinator and the one that’s facilitating the process from both sides, utilizing senior leadership and these committee members to really hone a model that positively impacts the entire organization,” Dustin said.

Given demographic shifts in the workplace and the rapid evolution of technology, few things are predictable when it comes to the workforce and what engages them. Staying ahead of the pack comes down to connecting each worker to the culture and goals of the organization, Dustin said.

“Are they being constantly challenged? Do they have a part of the decision-making process? Are they making an impact and being directly linked to the strategy and mission?” he said. “People are going to be looking for that. People are doing it today but it’s going to be even greater in the next 10 years.”