Employee engagement: How to get it and keep it

Research on employee engagement often contains advice for employers on how to maximize engagement -- and the importance of sustaining such efforts long-term.

For example, even though 67 % of employees at nearly 5,000 Best Places to Work Survey organizations in the U.S. were engaged at the end of 2011, engagement has yet to return to pre-recession levels, the report noted.

The 2012 Employee Engagement Trends Report released March 9, 2012, by Quantum Workplace contained an analysis of 10 areas of engagement: teamwork, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, trust with co-workers, retention, alignment with goals, feeling valued, individual contribution, job satisfaction and benefits. Quantum found that the strongest overall engagement levels were associated with:

• Feeling valued;
• Teamwork; and
• Trust in senior leadership.

Quantum concluded that organizations that do very well in these three areas “will have a very high level of overall engagement.”

Globally, 58% of employees were engaged in 2011, up from 56% in 2010, according to a report released June 4, 2012, by Aon Hewitt, a global HR consultancy. The data gathered during the first quarter of 2012, from more than 3,100 of Aon Hewitt’s client organizations, represents 9.7 million employees around the world.

Aon Hewitt noted that employers in two areas of the world achieved engagement levels exceeding the global average: Latin America, at 71%, and North America, at 64%.

Employees in Europe were least engaged, at 52%.

Other findings give employers further issues to consider.

For example, Aon Hewitt found that, around the world, those from the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946 to 1964) were far more engaged than their younger colleagues. Millennial-aged workers (born after 1979) were the least engaged.

Similarly, across all geographic regions, executive and senior management level workers were far more engaged than employees at other levels. Notably, those working in professional level positions were least engaged, even when compared to those who often have the least autonomy and variety in their work: front-line employees.

By function, HR professionals around the world were far more engaged than those in finance, operations, IT and other functional areas reviewed by Aon Hewitt. HR professionals are often charged with administering engagement surveys.

Increasing Employee Engagement Levels

“As the economy improves, retaining top talent is going to be difficult. Now is the time for organizations to measure and gain insights on engagement drivers and to start doing the work necessary to improve engagement,” said Pete Sanborn, co-president of Global Compensation and Talent at Aon Hewitt, in a statement.

Thus, the Aon Hewitt report lists workplace activities and programs most likely to have a positive impact on engagement, based on research. These include:

• Career opportunities: For the fourth consecutive year, career opportunities remained the top way to impact overall engagement levels in a positive way. “Now, more than ever, organizations must communicate clear career paths, prepare employees for the next role and provide lateral growth opportunities for key employees,” noted Ken Oehler, global practice leader of engagement at Aon Hewitt.

• Recognition: Recognizing employees by providing feedback and positive reinforcement will pay dividends, according to the report, often at no cost to the organization.

• Organizational reputation: “Employees join organizations that have a reputation as a best employer. … This driver is about connecting employees to the company, the mission and the work, beyond financial business performance, and showing them how their work experience cannot easily be replicated elsewhere,” noted Oehler.

• Communication: Aon Hewitt’s analysis shows that effective and engaging communication resonates with the employee in rationally, emotionally and behaviorally relevant ways. Oehler added, “Corporate communications is the primary connection point between the majority of employees and executive leadership. … It is important for the leaders to continue to provide clear messages about business objectives, challenges and what is required of employees.”

Employee engagement is not something that organizations can simply manufacture; employees must be active participants in the engagement process.

According to The Employee Engagement Mindset (McGraw-Hill, 2012), highly engaged employees share six behavioral drivers:

• Connecting: They participate in activities that produce a high “return on connection.”

• Shaping: They seize opportunities to customize their professional experience.

• Learning: They become self-directed learners at or above the speed of change.

• Stretching: They move out of their comfort zone and move toward their outer limits.

• Achieving: They regenerate through the intrinsic rewards of meaningful achievement.

• Contributing: They direct their effort beyond themselves to create growth in others and value in the organization.

Engaged employee backlash

However, just because a high percentage of employees are deemed to be engaged at a particular organization doesn’t mean they will stay engaged, academic research finds. “Even model employees can ‘give up’ if they sense that they’re being asked to do more and more, and with fewer resources, while comparatively little is being asked of their less-engaged colleagues,” said Wayne Hochwarter, the Jim Moran Professor of Business Administration in the Florida State University College of Business, in a statement released May 31, 2012.

Hochwarter surveyed 1,000 people in blue- and white-collar occupations and concluded that engaged employees work harder and are more creative and committed than disengaged employees. Engaged respondents reported a:

• 50% higher rate of job satisfaction;

• 45% higher rate of job performance;

• 40% higher rate of life satisfaction;

• 33% lower rate of turnover intention; and

• 30% higher rate of commitment to their employer.

Yet, Hochwarter found that engaged workers might exhibit a number of undesirable attitudes and behaviors without appropriate company support and resources. Engagement often means taking on more tasks than one’s less-engaged co-workers and the expectation that the company will provide more of what is needed to assist along the way, he explained. Absent such resources, Hochwarter found, engaged employees began to display characteristics such as:

• Increased stress;

• Lower overall productivity;

• Reduced helpfulness; and

• Increased anger at supervisors.

“Getting employees engaged is like planting a tree,” Hochwarter noted. “If you walk away from it, it’s unlikely to grow.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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