Linda Holbeche, Contributor
In today’s disruptive times, employee engagement is essential for organizational resilience and success.
A growing mountain of research links engagement with positive business outcomes like productivity, customer care, strategic agility, and innovation, as well as good people outcomes such as health, well-being, and happiness. Engagement is often synonymous with people being willing to go the extra mile and “stay and strive.”
Engagement is in everyone’s interest in normal times but, in turbulent times, even more so. Yet many recent studies highlight how few employees are fully engaged, with alarming numbers of staff in the UK, US, and Australia reported as being actively disengaged.
While businesses have had plenty to deal with throughout the pandemic, “The Great Resignation” turnover epidemic is bringing fresh urgency to the challenge of building more employee-centric cultures.
Businesses want people to be not only highly motivated and productive but also to be flexible, adaptable, and willing to move around or move on when circumstances change.
In many ways the pandemic is proving to be a turning point in terms of employee relations. Employees have gained greater influence than before over their working environment. And people want more than simply pay and rations.
These raised expectations are redefining the conversation.
With economies regaining momentum, many industries are suffering high staff turnover, and talent is in short supply. In the era of stretched labor markets and recruitment firms aware of wide-scale, pent-up career frustration, people who are dissatisfied move on to other jobs.
Given that talent is in short supply, that relationship must be a win-win for both the organization and its employees.
In this article, I will explore the top seven ways to lead employee engagement initiatives and provide some insight into the kinds of changes we need to see in order to improve employee experience.
We will be going into detail on the seven steps below on how to lead employee engagement initiatives.
- Creating connection through purpose
- Serve as a role model (and model core values)
- Foster a supportive environment
- Give employees a voice
- Expand scope by encouraging growth
- Make well-being a priority
- Offer a good work-life balance
But let’s first consider what we mean by employee engagement and why engagement is so hard to achieve today.
What We Mean by Employee Engagement
A term coined in the late 1980s, some of the early definitions focused on what Wilmar Schaufeli called “work engagement,” central to which is the notion of meaningful work. A Ceridian study from 2020 confirms that engaging work is the most important factor that motivates and retains workers.
Meaningful work has concrete characteristics: people must feel there is procedural justice in work. When they do something right, they are rewarded, and if they are mistreated, there is some way in which they can find redress.
Another vital element includes being recognized for doing something distinctive and valuable. When people feel they can build a skill, it can help them get real satisfaction out of their work.
Despite the shifts that have occurred in employee needs, many organizations still rely on traditional carrot and stick approaches and extrinsic rewards to motivate people to do a great job.
Daniel Pink argues that, while such motivators can work, particularly among older employees who are accustomed to such tools, these are becoming outdated. They do not adequately address the needs of the creative and innovative workplaces of the 21st century.
However, intrinsic motivation, which is when people are self-motivated because they are given the freedom to do the work they enjoy, is not fully understood.
For Pink, intrinsic motivation is based on three key factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. William Kahn has argued that people are likely to be highly motivated and engaged when they have work that allows them to meet intellectual, social, and emotional needs, such as autonomy, interesting work, the chance to grow and fulfill themselves, being part of a team doing valuable work, and feeling personally valued.
The effects of engagement are positive when people are so pleasurably immersed in their work, they don’t notice time passing and do their best job.
If people are doing work that they are truly passionate about, they are likely to be highly motivated and productive, and innovation, creativity, and employee well-being are more likely to flourish.
Why Is Engagement At Risk Today?
The trouble is that however satisfying, people’s jobs can be easily disturbed by various external factors.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, a divisive geopolitical environment, and social unrest witnessed in protests against racial and gender injustice have provided a turbulent backdrop.
This is reflected within organizations as demands for greater agility, concerns for employee safety and well-being, and a desire to build a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Internal factors such as organizational change and a negative work climate tend to undermine the most basic levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—for safety and security.
Technology, in particular, is a double-edged sword, augmenting some jobs but hollowing out others, reducing job interest, autonomy, and satisfaction for many. Automation has eliminated many jobs, increasing the size of the precarious labor market.
With fewer “good” jobs to go around, there is usually increased work pressure and more stress for people in jobs. Technology has led not only to work intensification, but it has also enabled closer monitoring of the work of employees, what critics describe as Digital Taylorism.
The hidden cost of disengagement includes increased employee cynicism, difficulties attracting and retaining the best talent, and unsuccessful change initiatives. Employees who remain may no longer give their discretionary effort, with potentially damaging consequences for performance.
Survivors who keep their jobs may experience loss of status, role ambiguity, and chronic work pressure. And while most people like to work, they hate what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” and having no say about what happens.
Make Engagement Everyone’s Responsibility
When it comes to employee engagement, is it the duty of human resources, leaders, or line managers to ensure teams are engaged and running at full potential?
In my view, engagement is everyone’s responsibility—including employees. HR teams are traditionally expected to carry out surveys and strive to enhance the employee experience.
However, the people who have the greatest impact on the daily employee experience of work, such as line managers and senior leadership, have the greatest responsibility for ensuring that good employees want to stay and strive.
How do you lead such initiatives in a way that meets the needs of both business and people?
Take a Systemic, Values-Based Approach
The notion of employee engagement has broadened beyond work engagement. In effect, it’s the weather gauge of the employment relationship between an organization and its workers.
In today’s tough times, mutual trust is especially important. When this relationship appears one-sided rather than mutual, such as when there is a squeeze on employee rewards or when jobs, or job quality, are at risk, leading to a sense of unfairness, trust is a casualty, and employee relations will deteriorate.
When jobs become insecure, people feel dispensable and unsettled. And when employees feel their organization is not being honest about the challenges faced by the business or is uneven in sharing out cutbacks, employees tend to withdraw their discretionary effort, and the employment relationship typically becomes more transactional.
Reactance theory suggests that when external threats arise, either from situational factors or by chance, that create a barrier to an individual’s sense of freedom (autonomy), people experience a threat to, or loss of, their free behaviors.
This unpleasant motivational arousal serves as a motivator to restore one’s freedom through actions such as withholding goodwill, changing jobs, resistance, working too hard until burnout, and so on.
That is why employee well-being is now conflated with engagement. And in the context of ever-greater demands, employee well-being is at risk.
What might be the consequences for employees who are unable to job-hop? Will they be induced to comply even more, to become “willing slaves” attempting to continuously go the extra mile in order to survive and thrive until they burn out?
Will people game the situation, professing to be engaged to keep their jobs? If people don’t trust their employer, how likely is it that they will admit their stress and diminished ability to cope?
Will employees continue to seek identity and self-actualization (in Maslowian terms) through work, or will more basic concerns such as safety and job security take precedence?
In such a context, the shadow side of engagement is evident, and notions of mutuality of interest in the employment relationship are exposed as a myth.
That is also why culture and values lie at the heart of the employment relationship and why taking a systemic and values-based approach to engagement is in both the employer’s and the employee’s interests.
HR might intend to show employer interest in the workforce by carrying out engagement surveys and promoting initiatives around the employee experience and employee journeys.
However, there is little point in launching a range of tools such as apps and mindfulness sessions, for instance, to improve employee well-being if staff members don’t have the time to use them or if accessing them is complicated.
To create a more sustainable basis for engagement means addressing some of the cultural blockages and behaviors that are the underlying causes of disengagement.
Understand What Employees Want
So, what do employees want? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in terms of what engages and motivates individuals, making the engagement challenge even trickier to manage.
Each generational talent cohort needs to be managed with an understanding of their specific needs and motivations, recognizing also that the needs of individuals within cohorts will differ, so the ability to personalize initiatives is needed.
Is it possible to generalize about what employees want from work?
For some years now, various studies have reported that most people want more flexibility in how, where, and when they work. During the pandemic, working patterns expanded to normalize remote or hybrid working for many people.
Portfolio careers are increasingly common, in which people combine a range of paid, self-employed, and non-paid activities at any one time and may progress between several careers during a working lifetime.
It seems that, for many people, but not all, flexibility may be at the heart of an emerging employment relationship. However, the shadow side of new working arrangements is reflected in the growing numbers of remote workers suffering mental health problems.
For some, the loss of informal social connections has resulted in an increased sense of isolation. Being less visible, many remote workers fear being forgotten or overlooked when promotions are being made. Procedural justice is at risk if managers favor only workers who show up at the office.
The Engaged Model
In researching for our book Engaged: Unleashing Your Organization’s Potential Through Employee Engagement, Geoff Matthews and I examined a wide variety of studies about what employees appear to want and need from work.
And while acknowledging the risk of generalization, in line with previous theory, we found that what most employees wanted was work with meaning and purpose that offers a degree of autonomy, control, task discretion, and strong workplace relationships.
This is closely associated with motivation and, ultimately, the commitment and effort workers are prepared to put in.
Employees want to be valued for their contributions and to be dealt with fairly and consistently. While pay remains important, other reward issues such as flexibility are also important.
Employees also want to be able to influence matters which affect their working lives and therefore want to be able to participate in decisions that affect them.
From our research, Geoff Matthews and I categorized these as employee desires for connection, support, voice, and scope:
Most employees want to work for organizations whose purposes and values they can embrace—we found this to be closely associated with motivation, commitment, and ultimately the energy and effort workers are prepared to put in.
Employees want job security, strong relationships, to be valued for their contribution, and to be dealt with fairly and consistently. So, do you identify, do you connect, and are you accepted?
Valuing employees is crucial. While pay remains important, development and other forms of recognition and reward, such as flexibility, are also important. So, do you feel you are set up for success, do you have an interesting job, and do you have the right tools to do your job?
Employees want to be able to influence matters which affect their working lives and therefore need to be informed and able to participate in decision-making. So, do you know what’s going on and have a say in the matter, or do things just happen?
Employees also want opportunities for personal and career growth and high-quality work that offers a degree of meaning, stretch, control, and task discretion.
Are you in a role with clear boundaries (no role confusion), and are you in a situation where you can achieve mastery and flow? Or are you working below your capabilities?
The blend and intensity of these different desires will differ according to individual preferences, career needs, and most particularly, organizational context and how what is happening affects individuals. In challenging times, people may need more support and voice.
They may (temporarily) prefer job security to career growth. Keeping alert to what people need at any given time is the essence of managing engagement.
Underpinning these elements are the key principles of trust and fairness. If people don’t trust or don’t believe they are treated fairly they can’t predict outcomes and are less likely to be engaged or give their best.
What Does This Look Like In Practice?
We looked at examples of management practice in organizations where employee engagement levels remain high despite the challenging context. Here are some examples of what we found:
1. Creating Connections Through Purpose
Since many younger employees value purpose above pay, employers with a strong purpose are able to attract and retain people.
A common cause is essential, with an aligned strategy that people can sign up to. Where once upon a time motivating people was all about pay and benefits, then flexibility, today as employees’ values change, we’ve moved to a place where it’s really about the culture, the values, and experience of working with a business that matters.
Most people want to make a difference and want to work for organizations that create a better world so that they individually find some meaning and purpose. They want employers to stand for certain values and will agitate when necessary.
This purpose-driven desire appears to have trickled down across all generations so that people have a different expectation of their contract with work.
As Simon Sinek points out, when communicating with employees, it’s important to “start with the why”—what’s the bigger goal we are working towards—before considering the what and the how.
However, the nature of the organization’s purpose may have a differentiating effect on levels of engagement.
Research by Nigel Springett and I into how people experience meaning at work found that an organizational purpose that focuses intensely on customers is more likely to engage staff than purposes focused on shareholders, profits, or a mix of stakeholder needs.
Today many employees (and investors) are increasingly calling for companies to embrace purposes that have environmental, social, and governance (ESG) aspirations.
The research of Professor Colin Mayer, Academic lead for The Future of the Corporation, proposes that profits do not equate to purpose. Instead, the purpose is about profitably solving the problems of people and the planet, and not profiting from creating problems.
Values that are truly lived and translated into meaningful experiences for customers and employees alike provide parameters for people’s actions and create trust.
What are the ESG credentials of the business? Is it sustainable and really supporting environmental issues? Is it influencing its suppliers on diversity, equality, and inclusiveness? Does it allow for personalization, for people to fulfill their purpose through their work?
Engaging leaders actively lead culture change, working to create shared purpose, flexibility, and a culture that engages people, gives them a positive sense of the future, and something to aim for that people can connect with.
There must be a clear story and vision and a clear line of sight to this purpose in people’s day jobs if the motivational effect is to be achieved. Any gap between these creates distrust and cynicism.
Deloitte has a “Chief People and Purpose Officer” to ensure this happens. Brand values must be well communicated, but the most powerfully engaging visions and values are not developed as a top-down exercise since two-way approaches are more likely to lead to effective engagement.
Employers that reaffirm that purpose through the prism of their policies and practices will likely reap the benefits in terms of building more inclusive and engaging organizational cultures.
Purpose should be part of onboarding or even pre-boarding so that individuals and employers can find out about each other’s values, purpose, and mission and why this all matters to you as a person.
This more personal connection to what the organization believes would help people feel they choose to be there for a reason.
2. Serve As a Role Model (and Model Core Values)
To respond to the engagement challenge in this new era, the importance of values-based leadership cannot be overstated.
Engaging leaders look beyond the current challenges, anticipate the big business issues, and plot a way through to recovery, making short-term decisions with the longer-term in mind.
Engaging leaders provide a clear strategic narrative about where the organization is going and why, and where it has come from, in a way that honors the past and gives employees information and insight into their job.
They set a clear direction and priorities so that employees know what is required and feel empowered to deliver the right outputs without the need for micro-management. Such leaders are strategic, anticipatory, proactive, and people-focused.
Engaging leaders focus on people and structure the organization and its tasks so that people can get on with what matters. They reshape the work environment and culture to enhance performance and match their unique basis of competitive advantage.
They understand that for real empowerment, leadership styles must evolve beyond command and control towards more collaborative, participative approaches as the basis of mutual trust and respect.
Bureaucracy, inconsistent behaviors, policies, and practices act as barriers and lead to cynicism and disengagement.
Engaging leaders deliberately adopt a collaborative decision-making style and set key principles and parameters that empower others. Leaders must leverage the power of shared values and aspirations, with less focus on rules and hierarchies.
For many leaders and managers, the flipside of their increased responsibilities for people and creating this human experience is that they may be feeling a little burned out.
Many have been trained in models that don’t work well anymore in a world of changing working patterns, for example, believing that someone can only be productive if I as the leader can see them in the office sitting in there all the time. And values that are not lived show up as bias.
Team leaders in particular need to ditch the unhelpful old assumptions about how, when, and where work might happen to focus on what team members are trying to get done and think about how I, as a leader, can create equitable opportunities for each of my team members to hit their goals and succeed.
Effective managers nurture tomorrow’s leaders and encourage leadership at every level, using language that is less about “I” and more about “we.” Thus, people can confidently use their initiative to deliver what is required without the need for micro-management.
With many people working from home, the most effective leaders are those who can connect in a meaningful way remotely as well as face-to-face. They strive to model the values; they use and act on multi-rater reviews and other feedback to show commitment.
They are the leaders who dare to be vulnerable and to say “Hey, I don’t have all the answers. I’m also struggling.” It’s about socializing the concept of psychological safety since vulnerability and authenticity are all part of the same game plan.
By being authentic, leaders permit others to be authentic. It’s about giving yourself and others permission to be human at work.
Leaders need to start with themselves and take the time to understand themselves. Once you know who you are, you can lead more effectively and care more proactively for your employees.
Leaders need to show empathy and take the time to understand what their team members need, putting themselves in the employee’s shoes to understand what people are feeling. Often, it’s basic human needs, such as belonging.
It all starts with challenging assumptions and checking in with ourselves and our emotions.
In tough times
Executives need to show very visible leadership, build trust, and create energy around mission and vision. They must take the long view, keep faith with employees, and make sure employees know they are trying hard to keep them.
Leaders should balance current reality and optimism, providing a longer-term perspective, giving people confidence about the future, and creating a climate for change.
The Qualtrics 2021 Employee Experience Trends Report found that, during the pandemic, having a sense of belonging to an organization was emerging as the most important driver of engagement.
With working patterns evolving, employers need to pay special attention to wellness, especially mental health, by for instance digitalizing access to an ecosystem of providers so that people can be well wherever they work.
If people feel valued and cared for, they are more likely to be engaged and will create a great culture.
And the good news is that many staff in various sectors say their leaders have responded well to the coronavirus pandemic and to resolving problems of social justice, according to a 2020 poll by Weber Shandwick.
This both underlines the level of trust placed in employers and serves as a potential source of criticism if companies fall short.
3. Foster a Supportive Environment
As well as feeling connected to the organization and their team, people want to feel they are supported in the workplace and have work that offers a degree of autonomy and the opportunity to stretch and grow.
Line managers shoulder the day-to-day challenge of supporting people and maintaining or boosting employee morale, even though they may themselves be under pressure from every angle, juggling both business-as-usual and managing change.
Support can take many forms.
Managers’ roles are being transformed as the principles of agility and teamwork gradually filter through organizations, shifting to supporting teams, building capability, and enabling diversity, employee well-being, and organizational learning.
Managers therefore must keep sight of the importance of teamwork, flexibility, and agility, working actively to achieve local optimization and prevent silos. They too may need support from top management and should be developed as coaches, giving them access to new tools, techniques, and ideas.
Engaging managers are approachable and able to create an open and fulfilling working environment. They build, facilitate, and empower teams and also treat people as individuals, with fairness, respect, and concern for employees’ well-being.
Engaging managers engage their staff on the three levels identified by Kahn:
- Intelligence – knowing what the organization does and employees’ part in it
- Social – being part of a team
- Emotion – caring about what they are doing and feeling cared for
Engaging managers strive to deliver on the employer’s brand promise and ensure employees get a fair deal. In Standard Chartered Retail Bank, the task of managers in engaging employees is summarized as “Know me, focus me, value me.”
Engaging line managers manage performance and execute tasks in an enabling way, aiming to keep staff motivated and develop people’s performance potential.
They offer clarity about what is expected from individual members of staff through feedback, coaching, and training. They design interesting and worthwhile tasks with clear end goals that often involve collaborative work.
To build empowerment they involve staff in setting clear objectives so that people know what is required but allow staff to work out how to deliver them. They ensure employees have the skills, authority, and resources they need to deliver results that matter.
This helps to promote confidence and a sense of purpose.
The counterbalance of autonomy is being more goal-based, with people having greater responsibility for being focused on key performance metrics and, as a result, better organizational outcomes can be expected.
However, as a point of caution, a Yale University study found that some hard-working, highly engaged academics gradually were becoming exhausted and burnt out, even with all the resources and support they needed to do the job. These workers felt that the demands made of them were too high.
In contrast, the optimally engaged colleagues reported having high resources, such as supervisor support, rewards and recognition, and self-efficacy at work, but lower demands such as low workload, low cumbersome bureaucracy, and low-to-moderate demands on concentration and attention.
Similarly, a report for the UK NHS’s Point of Care Foundation (2014) found that “Far too many healthcare professionals feel overworked, disempowered, and unappreciated. Healthcare professionals generally suffer higher rates of stress, depression, and burnout than their counterparts in other areas of the public sector.”
So even when people have a strong sense of purpose, overloading people with too many demands can lead to serious harm.
Effective managers are willing to address difficult situations. This involves carrying out regular workload reviews and rebalancing who does what, ensuring that engaged employees do not end up having to pick up the workload of those who are less engaged.
Managers can also try to increase the resources available to employees, not only material resources such as time and money, but intangible resources such as empathy and friendship in the workplace.
HR can help managers and leaders reduce the demands they’re placing on people.
They can do this by ensuring that employee goals are realistic, decluttering jobs of unnecessary bureaucracy so that people have a clear line of sight through their job to the purpose, mission, and goals of the organization, and by letting employees disengage from work when they’re not working.
HR can help managers build a positive work climate, understand what motivates their employees, and support them in designing challenging jobs through which people can experience meaning, purpose, and enjoyment.
HR can also co-create and help line managers implement simple and effective performance management processes which are relationship-based rather than system-led.
To stay motivated and in control, people also want to know that their work has purpose and meaning and want feedback that their contributions and progress have been recognized.
Rather than simply relying on feedback via an annual performance appraisal process, effective managers provide clear and regular feedback and recognition that is values-based and ties back to the company’s core values and mission.
HR can build effective reward and recognition systems that differentiate and reinforce good performance and also offer a degree of individual choice in how performance is rewarded.
Effective managers create a climate for development and celebrate successes with their teams. They coach their teams and ensure people have the chance to develop new skills and capabilities and then put those new skills into practice to develop mastery.
They promote cross-skilling or up-skilling by encouraging people to share their skills and collaborate with others using practices such as peer feedback and check-ins as aids to successful performance. They encourage learning from failure, sharing good ideas and practice as part of a wider learning culture.
Since people grow through variety, effective managers also encourage staff to spend 10% of their time on other projects that fall outside of their day-to-day work but offer benefits to the business.
Some managers may need coaching around their leadership style or help with standard-setting, providing clarity of goals and targets, managing team dynamics, and developing team members. HR can coach managers who are struggling to navigate their change journey or who find managing the people side of change daunting.
The best organizations focus their training and development programs on building local managers’ and teams’ capability to solve issues themselves. Training should be strengths-based so that managers learn how to identify, utilize, and build the strengths of team members to achieve better outcomes.
HR can develop competent employees through relevant training, job rotation, and developmental assignments. After all, when people are valued and have opportunities to grow, they are likely to perform well.
HR should rethink its processes to make sure they optimize the user experience in the virtual world, including shifting from output-based metrics to employee engagement and experience.
In tough times
Engaging managers are especially vigilant about the risk of burgeoning workloads and make clear what should be deprioritized or stopped altogether so that people can put their energies into what matters most.
Effective managers are versatile, able to judge when to involve employees, and know when to direct them.
While no organization can guarantee job security, engaging managers help employees adapt to change and cope with stress and anxiety. Since some of the human reactions to change can be anticipated, simply giving people opportunities to talk—in one-on-ones and groups—can be enough.
Keeping a positive outlook, offering encouragement, and maintaining active team communication are all the more important when the team is dispersed to help people feel connected and able to make sense of what is happening.
Managers should encourage teams working at home to build in some buffer time between activities so they can take a break.
Providing meaningful support not only shows employees that they are valued, even though their job may be at risk, but it can also help survivor employees (those whose jobs remain after downsizing) remain productively focused on their work.
To prepare people for new roles, managers need more of a coaching style and be willing and able to involve staff in implementing change. When creating change becomes part of every employee’s job, it can spur innovation and improvement.
Being a manager is incredibly demanding, yet effective managers make a huge difference to the success of the organization.
Even if the organization as a whole is a rather hostile environment to work in, having a great relationship with a good manager can keep people happy and motivated and helps create a more dynamic culture. Their team will be the one everyone wants to work for.
4. Give Employees a Voice
Employee Voice, which is about employees being informed, heard, and involved, is a key driver of engagement. It is about how people communicate their views to their employer and influence matters that affect them at work.
Today’s multi-generational workforces may have different needs from one another, yet many employees share some common expectations—for self-management of data, fair pay, development opportunities, and more accessible styles of management and leadership.
These expectations are ill-matched to traditional long-term employee value propositions and command and control styles of leadership. With smartphones being more powerful than the supercomputers of the past, people now have access to information and knowledge that would have been impossible to access before.
Just as today’s customers expect more choice, better communication from firms, and the opportunity for co-creation, so do workers; today’s increasingly multi-generational workforce expects a say.
Consequently, there is a growing demand for the democratization of access to information, increased and meaningful communication, participation, and involvement in decision-making at all levels.
Voice can be formally expressed, for example, through suggestion schemes and attitude surveys, as well as informally, such as in team meetings or huddles, rapid cascades, Q&As, or social media.
Conventional ways of informing or consulting with staff via bulletins, newsletters, briefing packs, e-mail, electronic newsletters, intranet, video/ TV, large-scale (town hall) gatherings, roadshows, helplines, focus groups, and line managers briefing individuals and groups can be complemented by employee surveys for upward feedback.
Employees can use individual and collective channels to speak directly to management or indirectly through representatives. In companies that do this well, there is a constant free flow of ideas up, down, and across the organization.
However, communication should not be just top-down. It should involve genuine dialogue at the team level.
Engaging leaders take a participative approach, building consensus between different groups and individuals within the business. Useful communications translate high-level business information to the local level and make it relevant to individuals.
Effective communicators use a mix of metaphor, stories, jokes, and pictures, as well as business language to engage their audience.
Whether dealing with business problems or developing new ideas for growth, leaders can make sure that people see clear signs of progress by marking milestones, celebrating successes, stabilizing what works, and sharing the benefits of change.
A study by Forbes Insights (2017), found that employees who felt their voices were being heard were 4.6 times more likely to do their best work. Knowing your manager is willing to listen to any problems you’re experiencing makes it much easier to get behind their vision for the company.
Managers must be willing to listen to people, be open to new ideas, and be unafraid of relinquishing control. In high-performance workplaces a joint approach to solving business problems is usual.
When employees are genuinely involved in decision-making, they are usually motivated to implement what has been decided.
Organizational Development methods such as Real-Time Strategic Change where people have a real chance to understand the issues and together work out potential solutions are a powerful means of engaging people.
These can help establish a dialog between different groups and individuals within the business, build mutual understanding and respect, and commit to working together constructively to achieve business success.
Since many companies are implementing a hybrid or fully remote working setup, it is necessary to promote a more inclusive digital workspace. Indeed, workplace diversity is not only integral to the success of the organization, but it also produces a positive employee experience and enriches modern business.
When working in an inclusive environment employees feel a sense of belonging, despite the differences.
The Forbes Insights Report claims that companies with greater gender and ethnic diversity consistently outperform the competition since they more accurately reflect the diversity of society and reach more potential customers.
They also incorporate a broader range of perspectives into their decision-making. Inviting more people to the table, and ensuring their voices are heard, is a win-win for everyone. Teamwork and team building are key elements of voice.
To break down unhelpful silos, one major hospital set up 23 self-managing teams, each with under-trained team coordinators.
The teams receive ongoing HR, clinical, and budgetary support from three senior managers. Weekly support meetings promote inter-team communication and collaboration. Evaluation of the team working initiative revealed various benefits such as greater ownership of issues and reduced absenteeism.
A climate of cooperation has facilitated better inter-departmental and multi-agency communication and practices. Communication with agencies such as social services has improved. Patients are receiving more integrated care, and quicker discharge times, so hospital beds are available more quickly.
It has led to a higher quality of working life. Individuals reported that they felt involved in decision-making processes, they benefited from the professional and emotional support they gained as part of a team, and they experienced greater job satisfaction.
In tough times
Frequent and honest communication is vital for (re)building employee trust, resilience, and engagement. Every meeting or contact sends a message too, for good or ill.
Engaging leaders and managers are visible, accessible, and approachable; they communicate authentically and consistently about the bigger picture, strategy, and direction. They are also willing to listen and act on what they hear.
Engagement and empathy are inextricably linked, and showing empathy is an important way to connect with and retain employees according to trust determination theory: “When people are upset, they want to know that you care before they care what you know.”
During the pandemic, there were numerous examples of CEOs using technology to communicate with their remote workforces in empathetic and informal ways that kept people connected in challenging circumstances.
A vital component of the best communication was honesty—leaders telling staff what was really happening, demonstrating vulnerability by admitting they didn’t have all the answers, being open to dialog and exploration, which builds trust, as well as creating energy around the organization’s mission and values.
Concentrating on the positives achieved during the first wave of change can influence and motivate people for the next wave of change. This is about creating a climate for change.
When tough decisions must be made, people need to feel confident that these are the right decisions and that all concerned have been treated fairly. Transparency is the basis of trust.
And as hybrid workplaces perhaps become the norm, technology can help with the challenge of engaging people face-to-face and working remotely, with software services enabling asynchronous online meetings that allow people working in different time zones to join in.
People can be engaged before, during, and after the event itself.
For instance, Selina Millstam, who heads talent management and culture change at the Swedish communications technology company Ericsson, wanted to have a company-wide conversation that would encourage people to share and coordinate their beliefs about which values and behaviors would be crucial to the long-term success of the business.
The moderated conversation took place over 72 hours, with more than 95,000 employees across 180 counties invited to participate.
The shared time allowed people in different time zones to connect, with each participant encouraged to re-engage with the exchange asynchronously over the three days, thus building a strong sense of community across the global workforce.
HR teams should re-evaluate communications tools for how well they serve community building and encourage more frequent, regular check-ins. A question could be posed before the chat to encourage discussion.
Meetings should ideally start with space to discuss how people are feeling that day, at that moment, so that people can open up about their concerns.
Managers should demonstrate a growth mindset and show empathy, putting themselves in other people’s shoes and humanizing communication at every point.
The benefits of Voice are multiple. For employers, an effective Voice contributes to innovation, productivity, and organizational improvement as well as keeping the organization inclusive and honest, assuming whistleblowing is not discouraged.
For employees, it often results in increased job satisfaction, greater influence, and better development opportunities. CIPD research (McCartney and Willmott, 2010) suggests that employees’ satisfaction with their involvement in decision-making is significantly and positively linked to their overall job satisfaction.
This suggests that voice is an important part of employee well-being.
5. Expand Scope by Encouraging Growth
The most successful businesses empower their employees to do their best work by encouraging learning, reskilling, and growth.
Scope is about people feeling they can pursue their sense of purpose through the work they do and have the possibility of growth and fulfillment. This is where individual motivation is at its highest.
Engaging managers design rich and rewarding roles, coach and develop individuals and teams, and help people develop the skills and competencies they need, focusing on people in new roles.
Career development matters to most people. HR can work with managers to develop career tracks so that people can grow their careers.
In the John Lewis Partnership, employees are vocal advocates of the company, developed on the job, and have opportunities to expand their experience by moving around the organization.
This is about creating a foundation of trust on which a new, more mutual employment relationship can be built.
For all its challenges, change can also open up opportunities for autonomy, development, better work-life balance, and growth as people gain new skills, new networks, and new responsibilities.
Engaging managers spot opportunities for employee development and actively coach their teams, involving them in working on real business issues, enabling job shadowing, providing mentoring, and championing employee interests.
They deliberately encourage people to change roles/re-energize themselves by moving between domestic and international divisions or from one country to another.
This allows people to gain new experiences and helps develop different parts of the business and is also a great motivator. After all, when people feel valued and have opportunities to grow, they are likely to perform well and grow.
Scope is also about people taking the initiative, managing their contribution and development, and embracing the philosophy of lifelong learning. In a context where the organization values the individual and the feeling is mutual, there is the possibility of a grown-up employment relationship.
6. Make Well-Being a Priority
Another key part of the engagement picture, well-being, is “… a state …in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Research by Willis Towers Watson suggests that a growing number of employers are defining workplace health as a central part of company culture and strategy. Research suggests the picture today is far from rosy.
The CIPD Good Work Index shows a significant level of work-related poor health among UK workers. About one in four workers report that their job has a negative impact on their mental or physical health.
One in five say that they always or often feel exhausted at work, a similar proportion say they are under excessive pressure, and one in ten say they are miserable.
The CIPD reports that the UK ranks 24th out of 25 for work-life balance compared with other “comparator economies”. Three in five UK employees are working longer hours than they would like, even when considering their need to make a living, and 32% also report being given excessive workloads.
Similarly, Gartner’s 2019 Modern Employee Experience survey found that only 21% of highly engaged respondents reported having a “high-quality work-life experience.”
According to Deloitte’s 2020 report, poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion per year, a rise of 6% since 2016.
In CareerBuilder’s survey on stress in the workplace, 31% of respondents reported extremely high levels of stress at work, and 61% of employees reported being burned out on the job.
Those high-stress levels were manifested in poor physical health (fatigue, aches and pains, weight gain) and compromised mental health (depression, anxiety, anger). These findings emphasize the links between wellness and engagement and how stress undermines both.
Where a combination of lack of recognition, increased workloads, poor management, and lack of career opportunities exists, some people opt to voluntarily downshift—step off the career ladder in order to focus on their personal lives.
Where the pressures on employees undermine their performance, the real impact of such stresses will be felt on business results.
Reconciling an organization’s demands for agility with individual employee well-being demands effort by leaders, managers, and HR.
Well-being includes physical, emotional, moral, and financial factors so it is important to take a multi-faceted approach to employee well-being that leads to health, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity, without the burnout.
Companies should promote well-being and ensure psychological safety so that employees are balanced, healthy, can do their job well, feel good about their work, and feel equipped to do their best work.
Indeed, the focus appears to be shifting away from a piecemeal approach to stress issues, towards a holistic, proactive approach to employee well-being, which means that wellness must permeate every aspect of an organization.
7. Offer a Good Work-Life Balance
A Glassdoor survey reports that employees are also looking for help and support in achieving a balance between work and the non-work areas of their life.
Many people work long hours in order to make career progress. Extra work pressures require employees to make sacrifices, particularly in their home lives.
HR has a significant role to play in ensuring that their employees can have some form of balance. Many HR teams, knowing employees are feeling stressed, offer wellness programs designed to improve work-life balance and stress management, usually through healthy eating, exercise, or mindfulness.
Some of the more interesting practices on this front come from the US. For instance, years ago, stressed-out employees of the Boston City Council had an automated phone system that screened calls for depression.
Callers listened to recorded descriptions of how they felt ranging from “I get tired for no reason” to “I feel others would be better off if I were dead.” They punched the appropriate number and could hear a recorded diagnosis that urged severe cases to seek counseling.
Looking beyond well-being initiatives to possible root causes, it appears that management style and the chance for personal development are two factors that relate closely to whether people perceive the work pressures they experience to be positive or negative.
The extent to which people feel able to grow and empowered to do their jobs appears to be closely linked to job satisfaction and resilience to extra pressure.
HR should work with front-line managers to monitor the demands they’re placing on people and encourage a better balance between demands and resources, particularly during high-pressure periods, so that people can recover from the demands they experience through work.
They can encourage managers to be clear about what can be deprioritized, increase the resources available to employees by building in some slack in the form of time, as well as introducing protocols such as avoiding emailing people after hours and setting a norm that evenings, weekends, and holidays are work-free.
Mental health tools, such as virtual yoga sessions, mental health support websites, or expanded options for counseling through the company employee assistance programs (EAP) have become more common.
Many organizations implement initiatives/standards to reduce stress, develop health and well-being strategies, run health fairs, and offer staff access to personal financial advice.
Some employers have reshaped the physical environment to encourage healthy behavior by adding healthy foods to break rooms, ergonomic workstations, appropriate lighting, and subsidized gym membership.
Developing employee-friendly policies is part of the solution, but such policies need to be owned by employees and senior managers if they are to become a reality. A holistic approach to combating stress is needed, with well-being acting as a golden thread throughout the support on offer.
For instance, with respect to bullying, harassment or other forms of moral injury, people should feel free to speak up and have a formal mechanism to do so.
Companies need to signpost people where to report and reassure people via communications that if they do raise a complaint, it will be taken seriously. When an incident is reported, HR teams or senior leaders must ensure they have a clear plan in place for what happens next.
While workshops on stress management and resilience can contribute to a workforce that is healthier, more engaged, and more productive if the workplace remains a largely stressful environment, standalone wellness programs tend to produce limited returns.
In many surveys, employees report that truly flexible working is the main enabler of work-life balance.
It has been argued that high psychological well-being leads to positive individual outcomes, such as commitment, morale, and health, which in turn lead to improvements in organizational performance in areas such as productivity, customer satisfaction, attractiveness to recruits, lower turnover, and fewer absences.
Offering people the chance to balance work and personal life, therefore, makes good business sense.
In tough times
Employee well-being should be championed from the top. The need for inclusive leadership and an authentic focus on employee experience and well-being has never been more pressing.
One group of National Health Service (NHS) hospitals has a “Well-being Guardian” at the board level that provides active sponsorship of staff well-being. One trust sets up small-scale think tanks involving over 250 staff, each tasked with solving problems in specific areas, including sickness, use of data, retention, and well-being.
Since many NHS frontline staff are worn out caring for the pandemic’s victims, HR teams are training mental health first-aiders, offering rest-rooms and “oasis spaces,” setting up well-being hubs, offering virtual well-being sessions and sleep hygiene resources, and introducing psychological services for staff that provide one-to-one and team support on dealing with grief, stress, anxiety, and depression.
The NHS also provides mental health training for managers as part of their onboarding process. They are also offering trauma-informed leadership training to help teams going through tough times.
The Saint-Gobain company believes there are clear links between staff engagement, well-being, and business performance. The firm developed a program called “Fit to Lead” that was aimed at senior leaders, some of whom were becoming burnt out.
The program integrates leadership development with mental and physical well-being, the idea being that to inculcate a culture of well-being across the organization it was important to start at the top.
Some organizations are teaming up to provide peer-to-peer reciprocal mentoring at all levels with a special focus on well-being, equality, diversity, inclusion, and minimizing the negative impact of change on people.
Employee engagement is a multi-faceted phenomenon. Rather than addressing employee well-being and engagement as silo initiatives, a holistic approach is more likely to bear fruit.
A well-crafted employee well-being and engagement strategy that offers immediate support and opportunities for employees while simultaneously delivering longer-term improvement will deliver stability and wellbeing over time.
This is not about promoting a new paternalism. Leading engagement initiatives should be seen as everyone’s responsibility.
Leaders and line managers have a big part to play in creating a context for engagement and HR should keep the finger on the pulse of employee morale and lead in coordinating the identification and delivery of initiatives for the greatest impact.
At the end of the day, individuals engage or disengage themselves, so employees must take responsibility for managing their own engagement and for negotiating improvements to their context. It’s about aiming for a win: win outcomes for both the organization and its employees.
Striking a better balance should deliver happier and healthier working lives, enhanced productivity, employer reputation, and the ability to attract and retain key staff—a goal worth aiming for!
Dr Linda Holbeche is an independent coach, developer, consultant, researcher and author in the fields of HR, strategy, organization design and development and leadership. She works with UK and international clients in many sectors. A recognized thought and practice leader and voted one of the UK’s HR Most Influential, Linda was previously CIPD’s Director of Research and Policy.