A simple Google search with the keyword "employee engagement" results in about '279,000,000 results'. This indicates how much has been already written about this concept. Employee engagement is the holy grail of Human Resource functions. Rightly so, because several decades of research has repeatedly shown that it is related to not only the 'soft' aspects of business, like organization citizenship behaviour, better mental health, lower level of absenteeism, etc., but also to the hardcore business elements, like profitability, greater productivity, and enhanced customer satisfaction. Gallup research conducted on 82,248 work units involving 1.9 million employees has confirmed that there is a strong connection between employee engagement and at least nine key performance outcomes viz. customer ratings, profitability, productivity, turnover, safety incidents, espionage, shrinkage, absenteeism, and quality.
This article aims at presenting a recipe for facilitating greater employee engagement by taking insights from the latest researches in behavioural science and management. We will first look at the need to create the recipe, then discuss the ingredients, and finally, present a series of steps to create the desired taste, i.e., greater employee engagement.
According to an Aon 2018 report on trends in global employee engagement, only 27% of employees were highly engaged, while 14% were actively disengaged, and another 21% were passive. As per Gallup daily tracking,employee engagement of US employees for the last six months has been in the range of 30% to 35%. According to a recent global survey by ADP Research Institute, only 22% of Indian employees are "fully engaged", and more than 70% of Indians are merely "coming to work". Many other surveys show similar trends.
The Employee Side
We're currently witnessing an interesting, never-before-seen mix of a workforce characterized by paradoxes. In a country like India, the situation is much more complex. The working population is ageing internationally, but in India it's getting younger. Globally, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, there is still a lot of homogeneity in terms of the education level, language, and socio-economic status among employees in a given job role/function. In India, however, the workforce is becoming increasingly heterogeneous. These changing demographics on the employee side pose unique challenges to employee engagement initiatives.
From a broader classification perspective, there are four prominent generations of the working population: Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Gen X (1965-80), Gen Y (1981-2000), and Gen Z (born after 2000). Each of these generations is characterized by different expectations and drive. Another level of complexity, especially in the Indian workforce, comes from the fact that at least two generations are coexisting in the same job/role.
While designing the employee engagement strategy and initiatives, one must bear in mind the nature of the workforce and their different needs, as well as drives.
The Employer Side
The structure and design of organizations are also changing rapidly. Earlier, each organization used to primarily have one kind of design. Today, most organizations are a mix of vertical, horizontal, network, virtual, boundary-less, and lean designs and structures. Employers are waking up to the realization that there is no universally best organizational design solution to meet the VUCA world challenges. Consequently, most organizational designs are a mix of delayering, multidimensionality, horizontal integration/lateral coordination, and open boundaries. Each of these changes necessitates new organizational forms and change processes entailing specific people management challenges.
Broader Socio-Cultural Context
The forms and content of contract, meanings of the work relationship, and expectations are changing. Some major trends of this changing relationship include:
(1) Short-term orientation is on the rise. While it was a matter for pride for employees and employers to have sustained longterm employment with a single organization, it is no longer viewed as desired on either side.
(2) Psychological contracts are far more important than the formal contract.
(3) Employees are increasingly identifying themselves with their job/profession rather than their organization, and they use the employer brand largely to enhance their attractiveness for new prospects rather than using it as a symbol of their affiliation with the organization.
Research-Backed Suggestions for Increasing Engagement
Understand the exact nature of your workforce, including their needs and drives:
Engaging those who were born before 1981 is an entirely different ball game than engaging those born after 2000. Study your employees their psychological attributes, needs, aspirations, and values. Bring your strategy and tactics in sync with what you have rather than comparing them with global best practices.
Focus on the local level:
Engagement takes place and develops in small one-to-one interactions and in small teams. Many employers get enticed by global benchmarks and start comparing their numbers with the global average. Since the designs of various organizations in the same industry are radically different from each other, it is highly unlikely for a copy-paste strategy or global best practice to work when it comes to employee engagement. Investing in developing the teams and creating a positive environment of trust, transparency, and collaboration is likely to yield better results than adopting international best practices.
Use measurement metrics relevant to your workforce:
Businesses often make this mistake of using the so-called 'standard' and 'worldwide known' survey questionnaires to measure the employee engagement level. It generally produces an assessment that is simply irrelevant to their organization's design and workforce. Have a critical look at your instrument and measure what matters in your context.
Invest in selecting/developing the right managers:
Gallup research has shown that immediate managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. If organizations focus on enabling leaders to be coach-managers and their teams to be self-directed cohorts, engagement scores could significantly increase.
Focus on creating small day to day positive experiences:
Rather than merely focusing on having a love affair with the organizational brand, use nudges to gently stimulate employee thinking and improve their relationships with colleagues, virtual team members, team leaders, and customers. Help your employees define and pursue their relationship objectives in a manner that gives meaning and builds team commitment. Engaged teams create engaged employees.
Allen, J., & McCarthy, M. (2017). How to Engage, Involve, and Motivate Employees: Building a Culture of Lean Leadership and Two-Way Communication. Productivity Press.
Albrech, S. L. (2011). Handbook of employee engagement: Perspectives, issues, research and practice. Human Resource Management International Digest, 19(7).
Reed, G. L. (2019). Leadership Strategies for Improving Employee Engagement in the Information Technology Industry.
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