Organizations continue to pour resources into employee engagement — and for good reason. It drives productivity, retention and other positive outcomes that, in turn, drive organizational performance.
However, not all organizations are reaping a return on that investment. For each top employer, there are many struggling. And scores are generally low. Only 27 per cent of the ratings in a sample by the Conference Board of Canada were highly engaged. In fact, scores have plateaued in recent years and are even dipping a bit.
A challenging business environment is a factor — engagement does tend to rise in good times. But even in a tough business environment, there are organizations that are thriving and vital with high engagement. For the rest, it is important to better understand what engagement is, why it is important in the business context, and what strategies and practices can be put in place to “nudge” it higher.
A model and prototype survey by the Conference Board of Canada identified the key factors that influence engagement. It’s designed to help organizations better understand what employee engagement is, how that is measured and how that relates to the typical survey process.
There are seven factors that explain close to 80 per cent of what engagement is. These will look familiar to any student of engagement and include, in order of degree of influence:
• confidence in senior leadership
• relationships with managers
• interesting and challenging work
• professional and personal growth
•acknowledgement and recognition
• relationships with co-workers
The study primarily focuses on good workplace practices associated with the seven factors. After mining a 10-year longitudinal succession of surveys and cases, in partnership with TalentMap, the study identified a number of organizations that had either sustained high engagement through the period or were able to boost scores significantly from mediocre to great. The leaders of these organizations were then interviewed to learn about specific practices associated with different factors.
No one-size-fits-all solutions
What may not be well-understood is a) the context and detail is much more important than an overall organizational score and b) just how critical a role senior leadership plays.
Engagement is a multidimensional construct that essentially reflects an individual’s state of mind, from moment to moment, as he interacts with colleagues, experiences his work environment, and performs his roles. In other words, there are different targets of engagement, including the people with whom we interact, from leaders to peers.
We may also be engaged with our work, our profession or job role, and with the organization itself. Not surprisingly, these different influences lead to different types of engagement and different outcomes. For instance, what influences someone to say great things about an organization (confidence in senior leadership) is not the same thing that influences retention (the work itself and opportunities for development).
Demographics play a role, as do tenure and occupational area. Two red flags revealed themselves in this context. First, tenure. The most highly engaged, not surprisingly, are top executives, other leaders and employees with less than one year of service. Engagement drops at three years’ tenure and is lowest for those in the 20- to 25-year tenure group.
Since the average retirement age is rising, and this last group will continue to make up a sizeable component of the workforce, organizations must pay more attention to the perspective and concerns of “mature” workers — especially those not in management. Employers must also do more to prevent millennial talent from tuning out as they move beyond entry-level roles and are ready to spread their wings.
There are differences among industry sectors as well. For example, having interesting and challenging work tends to have a more positive impact on engagement for employees in not-for-profit organizations, and provincial government departments and agencies. An employee’s relationship with her immediate manager, on the other hand, has a far more positive impact for newer employees (those with tenures of less than three years) and longer-tenured employees (those with 25 years and longer service).
The second red flag is with regard to technical people. This includes technical professionals, tradespeople and the semi-skilled. Not only are they a disengaged group, the things that matter for this group are often different than, for instance, those for non-technical professionals and managers. When we compare the two groups, the biggest gap is within the “interesting and challenging work” factor where just under half of technical professionals report a favourable rating versus 77 per cent of non-technical professionals.
The findings suggest employers need to pay attention to different employee segments, including key job families, when designing engagement strategies. For instance, job design that incorporates more task variety or even better communications to employees about the value of what they do for the overall enterprise can make a difference. Access to learning about the newest technologies is highly valued by a technical group. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to solutions.
Critical role of leaders
The central and critical role of top leaders is perhaps the most challenging aspect of engaging employees for a strategist who may have to manage from the middle. In the Conference Board model, the “confidence in senior leadership” factor makes up for 20 per cent of what explains engagement. That is slightly higher than the “relationship with your manager” factor.
But approval ratings for items that cluster within the senior leadership factor are much lower than those within the relationship-with-manager factor. The lowest-rated item in the senior leadership factor, and indeed the prototype questionnaire, was “senior leaders set ambitious but realistic goals,” at 38 per cent. “Trust in senior leaders” is among the strongest drivers of overall engagement and at a 39 per cent favourable rating, it was the third lowest rated item across the model.
This lends a sense of urgency to the matter. Managers, while much more highly rated, still have some work to do. Employees did, however, rate them more highly than senior leaders regarding follow-through on commitments. Managers received a 65 per cent favourable rating on “values my opinions and ideas.”
Are surveys really necessary?
The truth is we know enough about what drives employee engagement today to calibrate people practices. A survey is not required to implement practices that will both create great work environments and boost scores. But a benchmark is useful. How can an employer really know what most irks employees unless it asks them directly? Subsequent surveys let us know if we have responded effectively to expressed concerns.
It is also important to understand how surveys are constructed in order to evaluate vendor instruments. The seven factors and the items that cluster around them provide a checklist against which organizations can assess the content of the questionnaire. For instance, are items or measures related to all the key drivers present?
The quality of the questionnaire design and technical construction of the questions is the second key consideration. Are questions asked in such a way that responses will be valid, reliable and repeatable? Ensure that someone with experience in survey research and questionnaire design reviews the questionnaire. They don’t have to be an expert in employee engagement.
Engagement has remained relatively low and stagnant for the past five or so years. The economy does play a role. But whether it’s the economy or the fact organizations have made all of the easy fixes, many organizations are in a situation of re-think. Some have stopped doing big formal surveys, some may be rethinking vendors or asking for more support from vendors (because it is difficult to switch). Overall, organizations need to become more educated about engagement and become better-informed consumers.
Engagement is a messy, complex and multidimensional concept that attempts to capture an employee’s perceptions of different characteristics and relationships in the workplace. There are different attachments and different drivers that affect different types of desired outcomes. Organizations that are successful with engagement take a multidimensional approach.
They are also clear about the kinds of behaviours they most want to influence.
Ultimately, top leaders are vitally important, as are managers. But the task of educating top leaders about how their behaviours affect overall engagement is a little more challenging. Your task is to somehow ensure they “get” it.
Ruth Wright is director of strategic human resources management research at the Conference Board of Canada. The report, Employee Engagement: Leveraging the Science to Inspire Great Performance, can be downloaded at www.conferenceboard.ca.
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