Too many companies are investing in the wrong systems to engage their people.
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The focus on employee engagement has been around for at least 20 years, and with the amount of money being spent in this area by thousands of organisations across the world, one would expect some fantastic examples of transformational engagement, leading to great insights about how others can improve productivity, through better engaging employees.
The topic seems to have evolved now to focus on employee experience as opposed to engagement, but let us be clear, changing the name hasn’t changed the challenge which isn’t being addressed by many organisations, and this explains why we haven’t seen huge leaps forward in this area.
Employee engagement was always meant to be a measure of the ‘day job’, not an industry on top of it, yet this is exactly what it has become.
The main tool used to understand how employees feel/ what they experience is the survey, the tried and tested format that provides organisations with a simple way of reaching as many people as possible and receiving data in a way that can be easily analysed and benchmarked.
Two things are already a challenge here: firstly, by calling this an employee engagement survey, we are assuming this is measuring how well engaged employees are to the organisation because that’s where the problem is.
We are therefore left to conclude that the employer is as committed as it can possibly be to employees. Disengagement is a result of what we do to people at work, rarely does anyone join an organisation in a state of disengagement, so shouldn’t we be measuring how committed the organisation is to employees through an employer engagement survey?
This might seem like a subtle difference, but it’s an important one, as although you are still asking employees the questions, it shifts the focus on assessing the environment the employer is creating, rather than passing judgement on how well engaged employees might be.
The second challenge, is that the focus of the organisation is on finding the easiest way to assess, analyse and benchmark the findings, not the best way to understand how employees really feel. If we really want to know how people feel and what they experience, we would probably go and talk to them.
But as a survey is often used as the first and only tool for measuring engagement, organisations begin to test their theories about what’s important to employees about certain aspects of their work, whether relevant to the actual experience of employees or not.
What’s been described is the backdrop for why employee engagement isn’t improving across the vast majority of organisations, and for those that say it is, what they mean is, the areas they are measuring are improving in their survey scores.
But how do they know that the questions being asked, are the biggest issues on the minds of employees? Once the survey results come in, the employee engagement team are left to make sense of why people have scored the way they have.
Limited to a 5-point or 7-point scale doesn’t provide any details of why people may have, for example, scored ‘neutral’ to certain questions – neutral being ‘I neither agree nor disagree’. What does this mean? Why would they say that?
The team are left to scour the data until they find something they can make sense of no matter how significant. Eventually, the survey findings are shared with leaders and managers across the organisation, with an expectation that actions will be taken to improve engagement.
Some organisations go to great lengths to collate these local action plans with expectations of receiving regular updates to demonstrate how committed the organisation is to its employees.
All of this acts to distract people from the actual work that needs to be done – their day job, and with this extra piece of work, boxes are ticked, and people brought together to talk about what has been agreed. Phew, they can all rest until the next cycle, which in some organisations might be the next month!
What has been described here might sound like an exaggeration, but this is still the reality in the vast majority of organisations. The challenge with employee engagement, firstly, is that the focus is on measuring the degree of engagement as opposed to being used as a measure of the organisation’s commitment to employees – a small shift in focus which can make a huge difference to the way we make improvements.
Secondly, we need to really understand the issues on the minds of employees prior to any survey and take steps to address this first. This can be done through focus groups and forums where people can share how they feel openly, without fear.
To start this off, you might want to encourage some brutally honest feedback. Once employees can see there are no repercussions to being honest, feedback will flow. We have all heard of the old adage, what gets measured, gets done.
Through a few simple steps, themes from the feedback can be quantified, e.g. how often the issue of a lack of resources was mentioned. The key impact areas (the most commonly mentioned topics) can be identified and reviewed to see how improvements can be made – but getting employees involved is important, as they often know what needs improving and more importantly, how.
Once actions have been taken in areas identified as being significant to employees, it’s important to understand how to monitor improvements and progress – now is the time to introduce the employer engagement survey, focusing on the topics identified as being important to your employees.
When it comes to work, people want to be well lead and well managed. Often this means helping employees understand why what the organisation does, is so important, and their role in it. Then they need to know what you expect of them, and provided they have the skills to deliver this, they need to be given the tools, environment, time and space to achieve this.
Finally, employees expect regular communication, feedback and praise to understand they are on track. Commitment means seeking their views when it comes to big decisions across an organisation; employees want a level of involvement, as they can often see things senior decision-makers cannot.
What hinders employee engagement is the way we view it (employer engagement as opposed to employee engagement), and how we act upon it - what is actually going on and how we measure this going forward (understanding the areas of concern as opposed to asking survey questions which make assumptions about areas of concern).
It is of little surprise then, that despite the vast number of hours dedicated to action planning following surveys across the world, little value is seen if any, distracting people from already busy workloads. Afterall, asking the wrong questions, no matter how well researched and benchmarked, will provide you with the wrong actions.
If the survey results are not highlighting the issues on the minds of employees, constrained by survey providers telling organisations the best questions they should be asking (relevant or not to the organisation), and the need by organisations to benchmark the scores, the outputs will inevitably provide confusing and often ambiguous feedback.
We then somehow expect leaders and managers to wade through this confusion and take action, wasting a huge amount of time, money and effort of already over stretched departments. Is it any wonder then that within most organisations there is one question that scores notoriously low: expectations that my employer will take meaningful action as a result of the survey…