The Changing Face of Employee Engagement: 7 Trends

With so many organizations focusing on engaging their employees, why aren’t engagement levels across the world increasing? According to Gallup’s January 2016 article, The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis, with low engagement in the workforce, there are serious and potentially lasting repercussions for the global economy.

According to Gallup’s latest poll, employee engagement has been pretty stagnant. Only 32% of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2015, compared to 31.5% the previous year.

Defining Employee Engagement

Wikipedia defines an “engaged employee” as one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about his/her work and so takes positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests.

An organization with “high” employee engagement might therefore be expected to outperform those with “low” employee engagement, all else being equal. However, there isn’t always a shared meaning of what engagement means, nor is there a universally understood method of developing it.

In The Best of Gallup Management Journal 2001-2007, Jerry Krueger and Emily Killham describe three types of employees:

  • Engaged employees work with passion, and they feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
  • Not-Engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work.
  • Actively Disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

David Mizne of 15five.com defines employee engagement as “proactively and passionately adding value while aligning with the company mission.” In his opinion, this can be hard to quantify. “An engaged employee wears it on their face, demonstrates it in their work and in their workplace communication.”

Mizne feels that the exact definition of employee engagement remains elusive, and becomes even more problematic when one considers Gallup’s seemingly ambiguous subcategories (above) of “not engaged” and “actively disengaged.” He prefers to define employee engagement as “proactively and passionately adding value while aligning with the company mission.”

Companies and leaders worldwide certainly recognize the advantages of engaging employees, and many have instituted surveys to measure engagement. Yet, employee engagement has barely budged in well over a decade.

Faulty Engagement Surveys

Gallup sees a clear divide emerging within the engagement industry. On one end of the spectrum are scientifically and experientially validated approaches that lead to changes in individual and business performance, supported by strategic and tactical development and performance solutions that transform organizational cultures. These approaches require more intention and investment, and companies that use them are more likely to see increases in employee engagement.

At the other end of the spectrum are invalidated, unfocused annual surveys. Much like a traditional employee satisfaction survey, this type of survey usually measures a multitude of workplace dimensions that often have limited alignment with other business objectives and can be difficult to take action upon after receiving results.

Technology also makes it easy to create an “employee survey” and call it an engagement program, which allows a company to fulfill an apparent organizational need and “check a box.” But metrics on their own don’t drive change or increase performance. Many of these survey-only approaches measure employee perceptions and provide metrics instead of improving workplaces and business outcomes.

According to Gallup, when companies focus exclusively on measuring engagement rather than on improving engagement, they often fail to make necessary changes that will engage employees or meet employees’ workplace needs. These shortcomings include:

  • Viewing engagement as a survey or program instead of as an ongoing, disciplined method to achieve higher performance.
  • Focusing more heavily on survey data or reports than on developing managers and employees.
  • Defining engagement as a percentage of employees who are not dissatisfied or are merely content with their employer instead of a state of strong employee involvement, commitment and enthusiasm.
  • Relying on measures that tell leaders and managers what they want to hear—“We’re doing great!”— rather than research-based metrics that set a high bar and uncover organizational or management problems that are hindering engagement and performance.
  • “Feeding the bears,” or measuring workers’ satisfaction or happiness levels and catering to their wants, instead of treating employees as stakeholders of their future and their company’s future.

7 Future Trends in Engagement

In his blog, 7 Fascinating Employee Engagement Trends for 2016, Mizne lists the following engagement trends for the coming year, and writes about how to create a more engaged workforce:

  1. Engagement will go up (but just a little).

    According to Gallup’s latest poll, employee engagement has been pretty stagnant. Only 32% of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2015, compared to 31.5% the previous year. Given the other trends below, and the fact that engagement has risen from 29% in 2011, we can expect to see the needle move in 2016. But probably not more than a point or two.

  2. Millennials will (still) provide a challenge.

    In 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the US workforce. That number is expected to rise dramatically as more boomers retire and more graduates start their careers.

    Whatever the specific number, Millenials are now the majority. Businesses seeking to engage employees in their work will now have to tailor their approaches to this younger group. Research suggests that they are driven by open communication, a great company culture, involvement with causes, and achieving purpose and fulfillment.

  3. More compassionate leadership.

    People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. It turns out that the opposite is also true. An inspiring manager creates more engaged teams. According to research by leadership development experts Dr. Brad Shuck and Maryanne Honeycutt-Elliott, “higher levels of engagement come from employees who work for a compassionate leader—one who is authentic, present, has a sense of dignity, holds others accountable, leads with integrity and shows empathy.”

  4. More employee feedback more often.

    In 2014, Mizne conducted an employee engagement study and found that the vast majority of employees who received little or no feedback were actively disengaged. Engagement went up dramatically when employees received feedback about their weaknesses, and even more so when they received feedback about strengths.

  5. Work/Life Balance will become Work/Life Blend.

    The Society for Human Resource Management found that the best companies are embracing flexibility. For many job functions, it is no longer a necessity to require people to come into the office between 9am and 5pm. More companies will continue to provide job flex-time as long as the numbers prove it’s working.

  6. People analytics will grow.

    In his article The Two Sides of Employee Engagement, published in Harvard Business Review last month, Sean Graber argues that it’s important to look at employees’ perceptions and behaviors and their impact on performance. Managers can then decide how to shift things to increase engagement.

    Josh Bersin writes in The Geeks Arrive In HR: People Analytics Is Here, about the shift towards “big data in HR” which began in 2011 and exploded rapidly. He predicts that people analytics will be its own department that will look at productivity, turnover, and the people-issues that drive customer retention and satisfaction.

  7. Technology will focus on the employee.

    One of the biggest trends we are seeing is the arrival of a “new breed of pulse tools, feedback apps, and anonymous social networking tools.” These advanced methods for having regular check-ins with employees to understand where they are being challenged will eventually replace annual performance reviews.

Hope for the Future

In 2016, leadership has more tools at its disposal to predict and improve employee engagement. Perhaps in 2017, Gallup’s survey will report a positive radical shift in how people show up to work.

  • Jiordin Castle of Appirio writes that, in May of 2015, Fortune reported that a record 86% of employees were happy with their jobs — the highest percentage in over a decade.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reported that employees felt respected, trusted senior management, got along with their bosses, and felt motivated at work.
  • But in a survey by Monster.com that reported similar positive findings, 73% of employees polled also said that they were “thinking about another job”; 43% even said they were more likely to consider a new job than they were a year earlier.

Castle writes, “While there are several factors for the uptick in employee happiness and attrition, the following predictions about the year ahead shed light on 3 things: What employees want, why they leave, and what you can do to get them to stick around.” These predictions include:

  • Employee engagement will become a key HR objective.
  • Gamification will drive corporate goals and planning (at its core, gamification is the use of gaming components to accelerate learning).
  • The despised annual performance review will finally die.
  • Peer-to-peer recognition will increase.
  • A new attrition risk will emerge: low-commitment employees.

Gallup writers Annamarie Mann and Jim Harter sum up the employee engagement crises with this thought:

“Creating a culture of engagement requires more than completing an annual employee survey and then leaving managers on their own, hoping they will learn something from the survey results that will change their daily behavior. It requires a company to take a close look at the critical engagement elements that align with performance and with the organization’s human capital strategy. Managers and leaders should keep employee engagement top of mind — because every interaction with employees can have an impact on engagement and organizational performance.”

Overall, studies have shown that in just about every business, the more attention given to employee engagement and employee well-being, the better the business performance.

“Business is more about emotions than most businesspeople care to admit.”
~ Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D, Nobel Prize Laureate and Behavioral Economist

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