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Businesses with higher levels of employee engagement are 21 percent more profitable than those with disengaged employees, according to a 2016 Gallup report. Yet, a jaw-dropping 87 percent of employees report not feeling engaged at work.

The stats—and there are plenty to choose from (you'll find a comprehensive list here )—may vary in the percentages, but the message remains the same: Engaged employees are more productive, and companies are missing out on a large chunk of their workforce's productivity when people are unsatisfied.

Given that engagement is a perennial concern, it's surprising how little progress we seem to have made at re-engaging the workforce since the term "engagement" was first coined more than 25 years ago. Despite the considerable time, effort and money thrown at solving the employee engagement enigma, it has eluded employers. In 2013, Gallup found that 89 percent of workers were either actively disengaged or not engaged — and there's only been a 2 percent improvement since then.

So, what is wrong in the house of engagement, and more importantly, what can be done to put it right?

What We've Learned About Employee Engagement

Well, we've learned a few things about what doesn't work: We know, for example, that doing annual engagement surveys does not mean a company takes engagement seriously, and that "happy" employees are not the same as engaged and productive employees. We know that money does not unlock the door to engaged employees.

We also know a few things about what does work: Successful companies set clear expectations for people, give people tasks that suit their skill sets, develop those and other skills and ensure those people's opinions are heard and valued. Highly engaged employees believe in what they are doing and what their company is doing.

These are "basics," but of course they take time to put into place and may require a huge level of cultural change for a company. And change programs have a somewhat checkered history of their own. Throw the word "culture" into the mix, and changing engagement requires a transformation rather than change—and the complexities are magnified even further.

Engagement Requires a Transformation Not a Change

While the HR industry may be getting better at change management for distinct projects, such as introducing a new performance management system, we are far less adept at the wider idea of transformation. In fact, McKinsey experts estimate, 70 percent of transformation programs fail. And employee engagement definitely falls under the transformation category in many companies.

It's accepted wisdom that people hate change, and a major element of that loathing is to do with the loss of control people feel when something is "done" to them rather than "with" them. So, while it's essential for employee engagement to have backing from the highest level to set the agenda and strategy, it also needs buy-in from the lowest level.

Use Social Media to Listen to Your Employees Needs

If you want to be successful at employee engagement, don't spend too long sitting round the boardroom table discussing engagement strategy. Social media technologies provide an easy platform for people from all corners of the business to express their ideas, their gripes and their fears. Just ask your staff directly via social media what's important to them.

Better still, don't just ask them, but listen to what they are saying among themselves unprompted and act on it. They are the people with the first-hand knowledge of what's going on at ground-level: the glitches in processes that don't work, the opportunities missed and the ideas to make their workplace better. They are best placed to set the engagement agenda.

Of course, a company's ability to take advantage of the power of enterprise social platforms depends on their starting point and their company culture. For some, it will be a natural progression, for others it is a step into the unknown. Even though using social media channels is old hat for many, it has yet to penetrate some businesses.

The advantage for companies is that it doesn't require a huge ERP-level investment of time and money. It's relatively easy and cheap to try out different social media technology in pockets of the business to see what floats or flounders.

Technology alone, of course, is never the complete answer. But in the case of employee engagement, technology has huge potential as an enabler, simply because it can put employees in the driving seat.

Photo: Creative Commons