Across the world, employee engagement has flatlined. In many developed countries, productivity is stagnating. But the answer to one could be the answer to the other as long as we think about engagement in the right way and with the right tech, writes Stuart Hearn, CEO of Clear Review.Â
The UK isn’t alone in having a productivity problem. A brief look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the US has its challenges, too, particularly in some sectorsOpens a new window . But the UK is racing to find a new place in world trade before its regulatory exit from the European Union at the end of 2020. The stakes are high, and the rhetoric is persuasive. Only a couple of years ago, the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane was widely quoted as saying that the average French worker accomplishes by Thursday lunchtime what it takes a British worker all week to do. It was a dramatic â€“ perhaps even hyperbolic â€“ pronouncement, but it raised an important issue.Â
Why are so many developed economies struggling with productivityOpens a new window ? We work fewer hours now, on average, but gradually decreasing hours is a global trend. The key may lie in a value that has remained consistent (and consistently stagnant) for years: employee engagement. The UK has one of the lowest rankings for employee engagement in the world: just 11% of employees claim to be highly engaged at work. Engagement, in truth, is an issue throughout western Europe and Asia. Even the US and Canada, who typically come at or near the top of engagement measures, report that only around 30% of employees are highly engaged. In the most engaged countries in the world, 70% of employees are actively disengaged from (or indifferent to) their jobs.Â
Why is this important? Because analysts from Gallup to Gartner draw a clear line between engagement, productivity, and profitability. Organizations with highly engaged employees make more money, have happier customers, and deliver more profit. A Gallup reportOpens a new window from 2013 estimated that disengaged US employees cost the economy between $450 billion and $550 billion a year in lost productivityOpens a new window . Should we just accept that these numbers are difficult to move? Should we continue to apply the patchwork quilt of solutions that have served us so poorly in the past: more remote working, more wellbeing initiatives, a friendlier working environment? All of these things are good in and of themselves, but do they move the needle?Â Â
A Tested Measure of Work Engagement
Most references to employee engagement start and end with the annual engagement survey. Whether they’re a brief dozen questions or an indigestible barium meal of 50 or more, they tend to suffer from the same problem: action. In a recent Forbes poll, 58% of HR directors admitted that they took no meaningful response from engagement data. And this has a vital bearing on our productivity issue. In a meta-analysis of 90 engagement studies by Wilmar Schaufeli at the University of Utrecht, work engagement has proved to be a more reliable predictor of both task and team performance than any other single factor. It’s more important than loyalty. It’s more important, even than inspirational leadership.Â
Schaufeli and his colleagues are the creators of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale â€“ the most widely used and tested model for work engagement. Their thinking is to measure engagement in a way that refers directly to the person’s work. This is crucial. eNPS, for example, measures loyalty. Loyalty is important, but it doesn’t have as secure a connection with performance. Why? Because our experience of our working lives is grounded in the work we do, not the trappings of being at work. If you want to make someone more engaged, you need to make their actual work better, not book them a massage, or buy a bean-to-cup coffee machine.Â
How Engagement Can Influence Performance
Astute readers will have spotted a missing piece here. If genuine engagement can only be found in the experience of doing work, the insights from engagement surveys need to be tied back into work outcomes. This is where engagement needs to work in concert with performance management. Historically, these disciplines have been measured separately. There are anonymity issues to overcome â€“ engagement surveys can only really guarantee candor by offering anonymity â€“ which makes it challenging to feed specific results back into the system and create key actions for individuals.Â
The solution is to reflect an employee’s answers at them in real-time. Ask the employee the right questions with the right cadence, then use those answers to give the employee a springboard for a discussion with their manager. This has two key advantages. Firstly, it guarantees anonymity at an individual level; and secondly, it places the responsibility for engagement where it belongs â€“ within the employee-manager relationshipOpens a new window . HR should not be held responsible for the engagement of the team. Their role should be to gather the insight at a macro-level for discussion with senior leaders and managers. The actual process of boosting engagement â€“ the details of resources, relationships, and means that employees need to do their jobs better â€“ sits within the team.
A Continuous Approach to Engagement
There is a final piece to the puzzle. The frequency with which you measure people’s engagement is crucial. Just like proper performance management, engagement needs to be done continuously.
To take an example: if your engagement surveys are conducted annually, you risk your results being skewed by the challenges of everyday life. You don’t want your engagement results to be affected by a sick child or a terrible morning commute. But you very much do want to understand problems in a timely way, so you have the chance to take action. One of the main reasons organizations are dispensing with annual appraisals is because performance management needs to be grounded in what’s happening now, not what happened nine months ago. If you take a regular view of engagement by measuring it every month rather than every year, you can feed those results into a performance conversation before an issue has a chance to fester.Â
You can’t inflict a hundred-question survey on your people every month, so this approach has implications for the format of the study itself. Once again, the principles of proper performance management apply here. Just as a check-in conversation slims down the appraisal format â€“ breaking an hour- or days-long process into bite-size chunks that happen throughout the year â€“ so it’s entirely possible to create a lighter, more straightforward engagement check that doesn’t pull people out of the flow of work.
The Path to High Performance
The aim of all this is to create a meaningful dialogue between manager and employee. It’s a facet of performance managementOpens a new window . We need to help employees to be more aware of their energy, their motivations, and their sense of purpose so that this information can fuel their development. Yes, someone can be upset for a few days because their car was stolen. But that shouldn’t affect their work engagement. What does affect their work engagement is a complicated professional relationship, or persistently buggy software or an outdated process. And these are things we can fix. These are the things managersOpens a new window can move the needle on. We can resolve those challenges or find those opportunities to upskillOpens a new window . If we can create that virtuous circle â€“ and the technology already exists to capture this information and automate the prompts we need to take action â€“ then we’ll begin to see those engagement numbers change. And the bottom line will change along with them.Â