Creating and maintaining an engaged workforce

Study of U.S. employees shows lack of engagement even though most are pitching in to help their companies in a tough economic climate
||Last Updated: 01/12/2004


mployees south of the border have stepped up to the plate in the tough U.S. economic climate, doing what’s needed to keep themselves and their companies afloat.

But a new U.S. study of 35,000 employees shows that while employees are working hard, their level of engagement is relatively low and that could have serious long-term implications for companies trying to retain top talent as the economy improves and the job market opens up.

“Employees are getting the job done, which we think has a lot to do with a sense of enlightened self-interest on their part. But their surprising resiliency and mood of rational endurance doesn’t equate with true engagement,” said Charlie Watts of Towers Perrin, authors of the study. “Engagement, which we define as employees’ willingness and ability to contribute to company success, ultimately comes down to people’s desire to give discretionary effort in their jobs. That effort can make a huge difference in performance which is why engagement is the ultimate prize for employers today.”

The study,

Working Today: Understanding What Drives Employee Engagement, the Towers Perrin 2003 Talent Report

, found that the bulk of employees surveyed were only moderately engaged.

“In fact, only a relatively small slice are highly engaged, meaning they are both willing and able to invest that extra level of discretionary effort that separates outstanding performers from the rest of the pack,” said Watts. “What companies should be concerned about, of course, is the risk that all those moderately engaged employees could easily slide toward the wrong end of the scale with serious consequences on productivity and morale.”

Engagement factors: Money isn’t the key

The study identified a list of workplace elements that are critical in building engagement among employees and underscored the fact that building it is a never-ending process.

The list of elements includes:

•strong leadership;

•personal accountability;


•a sense of control over one’s environment;

•a sense of shared destiny; and

•opportunities for development and advancement.

The study found that engagement rests on a foundation of a meaningful and emotionally enriching work experience. It is not about making people happy or even necessarily paying them more money. Important as pay and benefits are in attracting and retaining people, they play a less important role in engaging people and their work.

Defining engagement: rational and emotional factors

Engagement involves both rational and emotional factors relating to work and the overall work experience. The rational factors involve the relationship between the individual and the broader corporation, including the extent to which employees understand their role, and their unit’s role, relative to company objectives.

The emotional factors tie to personal satisfaction, such as a strong sense of personal accomplishment and the sense of inspiration and affirmation they get from their work and from being part of the organization.

The study found positive perceptions on a number of the core measures of engagement, which accounts for the resiliency and strong work ethic found in the workplace. Within the overall sample:

•77 per cent really care about the future of their company;

•70 per cent are proud to work for their company;

•66 per cent have a sense of personal accomplishment from their job;

•61 per cent say their company is a good place to work;

•50 per cent say their company inspires them to do their best work;

•89 per cent understand how their department contributes to company success;

•81 per cent understand how their role relates to company goals and objectives;

•78 per cent are personally motivated to help their company succeed; and

•78 per cent are willing to put in a great deal of effort beyond what is normally expected.

But only 17 per cent of the respondents agreed with all of these statements strongly enough to be defined as highly engaged by Towers Perrin. And another 19 per cent disagreed, or were too mixed in their responses to qualify as truly disengaged, meaning they likely are just marking time on their jobs.

The results of the last four elements in the list above (the rational factors) indicate that companies have made progress in creating more of a line of sight between individual actions on the job and broader company objectives. But the lower scores for elements of emotional engagement, such as having a sense of inspiration, also pose some risk for employers.

In this period of rational endurance, engagement based largely or only on rational factors may be adequate, Towers Perrin said. But as the economy rebounds and choices open up for people, many are likely to consider moving to another employer. At that point, emotional engagement may be the only thing helping retain those people most critical to the business.

“Employees are reminding us that heart is a tougher battleground than the mind,” said Watts. “Employers have better tools and approaches for supporting employees in their daily work, and that shows in levels of agreement around some of the rational engagement factors. But companies are still behind where they need to be in inspiring people and providing the personal sense of passion and mission that count so heavily in a rich and meaningful work experience.”

The study also noted that a highly engaged workforce is a more stable one. About 66 per cent of highly engaged employees had no plans to leave their current jobs versus 36 per cent of the moderately engaged and 12 per cent of the disengaged. Therefore, moving employees from a state of moderate to high engagement makes them almost twice as likely to want to stay with the company and invest more effort.

Driving engagement

The study also looked at what factors drive the sense of engagement among staff. Here is a list of the elements critical to building engagement in descending order of importance, with the scores employees gave their current employers on each element:

•42 per cent said senior management has a sincere interest in employees’ well-being;

•53 per cent said their company provides challenging work;

•61 per cent said they have appropriate decision-making authority;

•75 per cent said their company cares a great deal about customer satisfaction;

•34 per cent said they have excellent career opportunities;

•55 per cent said their company has a reputation as a good employer;

•67 per cent said they work well in teams;

•58 per cent said they have the resources needed to perform their jobs in a high-quality way;

•64 per cent said they have appropriate decision-making input; and

•45 per cent said senior management communicates clear vision for long-term success.

“While engagement doesn’t guarantee retention — 25 per cent of the highly engaged group remains open to an interesting opportunity — it does increase the chances of retaining the very people who are going to be most attractive in a competitive marketplace,” said Watts. “On the flip side of the coin, the study also showed that half of the disengaged people are not actively looking for other jobs. This suggests a company could have a large number of people who are not performing and could be having a negative impact on customers and colleagues.”

The study of 35,000 employees in the U.S. was completed in April 2003.

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