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How to Keep Employees Engaged

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 08:14

Perhaps the oddest aspect of employee disengagement is that it can start at the very beginning, with the recruitment process and actual engagement, and grow insidiously from there. Deborah Tarrant reports.

Employee disengagement is triggered by something as simple as an organisation's culture being misrepresented in a job interview, or an inadequate job description. The wrong person is hired for the job - square peg, round hole - and there's a disconnect before the new recruit puts a coffee mug on the desk and greets co-workers.

Margaret Kirby, a recruiter of some 20 years experience, has seen the scenario repeatedly and is emphatic that much of what ails disengaged workers in Australia happens in the thrill of the recruitment chase. Managers and business owners sell potential employees a picture, she says, and the candidates buy in.

"Rarely are expectations met on both sides," says Kirby of boutique recruiter The i Group.

Within 12-18 months, Kirby estimates many new recruits are actively disengaged from the job: mind wandering, checking online job boards, talking down the organisation to colleagues and others, and leaving customers dissatisfied. They are physically there, but psychologically absent.

"When you consider it takes six to eight months for a new recruit to become productive, that's a frightening thought, and a big cost to business," she says.

Indeed it is. A recent study conducted by The Gallup Organization in Australia has found that 20 per cent of employees are actively disengaged at work with an estimated cost to the economy of $31.5 billion per year. In contrast, only 18 per cent of Australian workers are engaged at work, while 62 per cent are in the bland no-man's-land of being just "not engaged".

Actively disengaged employees are less productive, less profitable, less loyal, less likely to provide excellent customer service, and are often disruptive on the job. They can be an all-pervading destructive force. Unhappy with their work situation, these employees insist on sharing the misery with colleagues, often being vocal in showing their negative attitudes.

The malaise afflicts not only the workers, but managers who accept that at some point they will lose staff, insists Kirby.

Beyond the screamingly obvious signs - resignation, absenteeism and loud voices of dissent - experts identify the typical disengaged worker as the one who does only the barest minimum of work; just enough to avoid being fired.

Other indicators may be deceptive. For example, those who bolt for the door at 4.59pm may not be psychologically unplugged from the workplace, but efficient workers with family obligations.

People have bad days. "The reality is that it's simply not possible for all employees to be engaged all of the time," points out Debra Eckersley, a partner in the Performance Improvement Division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, who works with clients on the issue of employee engagement.

Equally, disengagement levels vary within organisations.

"Even 'employers of choice' have disengaged workers due to varying manager effectiveness," says Anita Pugliese, Managing Consultant at Gallup Australia.

Causes of disengagement are diffuse. Headlining the list are poor managers and leaders. As the old saying goes: people join organisations, but leave poor managers.

Recent research of local government workers by Robyn Morris of West Australian based Corporate and Regional Enterprise (CARE) Consulting confirms this. Responses from workers on why they had switched off on the job included lack of recognition, support and feedback.

"They felt they were not respected and, in some cases, were spoken to negatively," Morris reports.

Other common causes are poor job fit, bullying, unfairness, job design (are employees able to see how they can make a valuable contribution?) and stress.

Eckersley says although there are many drivers of engagement, survey results show that common problem areas for organisations include:

  • The quality of working relationships. Good relationships with colleagues are important, but a manager who is comfortable in career development conversations is vital.
  • The way they are rewarded and recognised. This is not all about salary (which Eckersley describes as a hygiene issue), but performance management as well.
  • The organisational structure. Employees need to feel empowered and accountable, and understand the expectations for their role.
  • Work/life balance. Regardless of size, organisations should treat their employees as individuals, acknowledging their different priorities and needs; smart companies allow them to work accordingly.

Recognising the needs of individuals within the broader workplace context is the popular theme among those grappling with the engagement/disengagement conundrum. Within this are two essentials: the need for employees to have a voice in the organisation; and the need to be promoted on merit, rather than skills or experience. Training managers to identify and meet those needs is crucial.

Professor Evan Douglas, Head of the Brisbane Graduate School of Business at Queensland's University of Technology, makes it sound simple: "Engaged people want to work because it makes them happy. Workplace conditions are a major source of job satisfaction."

All sorts of things impinge on workplace happiness, according to Douglas and Morris who have co-authored a paper, Work Motivation: A New Approach, neatly defining the positives and negatives of engagement neatly into perks, irks, shirks and lurks.

The successful formula plays up the perks (the official benefits of the job) and tolerates the lurks (the unofficial benefits; which might be anything from free use of the photocopier to borrowing the company truck on the weekend). It's irks and shirks that must be minimised. Not surprisingly, irks are off-putting and include bad leadership, noisy co-workers or even the nature of the job, while shirkers don't do the extra things that make the working environment more harmonious - like answering the incessantly ringing phone that isn't theirs.

"Entrepreneurial enterprises and cultures are better at making people happy because they empower the individual which is how you get that extra mile out of the worker," argues Douglas.

Flexibility - that well-worn human resources buzz word - is just one possible answer. The care factor is also important.

A recent survey of 4000 HR managers by Corporate HealthWorks, a Sydney-based consultancy focused on organisational wellness, asked respondents to rate the care demonstrated by their companies for different stakeholders. Customers scored highly with 86 per cent, ahead of the community with 70 per cent, and employees with a lowly 60 per cent.

Little wonder, says Corporate HealthWorks founder Ken Buckley, that employees disengage.

Sometimes the stress that causes disengagement is not related to the employer or the workload but life, hence the reason managers need to be in touch with their employees. "When people go to work they don't park their lives at the front door," he says.

Evidence of this is in the rise of wellness and employee assistance programs offering confidential counselling, reports Buckley.

To understand how to respond effectively to a growing problem like employee disengagement in the workplace, it is important to acknowledge that this might not be just an organisational phenomenon, says Martina Sheehan, Co-Founder and Director of reinvention®, a team of organisational philosophers.

"We believe it is important for leaders to understand broader trends and reasons for the behaviour that appears in our organisations, thereby ensuring they implement solutions that address the real needs," Sheehan says.

"Our work with both large and small companies in recent years reveals that leaders are recognising how critical a clear purpose is, not only for engaging staff with something meaningful, but also to help navigate through change and uncertainty with some confidence and clarity of direction," Sheehan says.

According to Stephen Manallack, a communication consultant, professional speaker and trainer, managers in Australia are "under the gun" for results.

"Everyone around them is demanding 'better, faster and cheaper'. And as leaders turn to their employees, they find that loyalty has been replaced by a free market where employees perform conditionally - Am I acknowledged? What do I know? Will I be rewarded? Is it worth it? - rather than as a matter of course," says Manallack, who is also the author of You Can Communicate (Pearson 2002).

"Everyday, these employees make the choice to either engage or not engage their talents in serving customers and the organisation. Yet many managers still regard employees as interchangeable units of cost. The challenge is to inform and motivate, and many in management are not up to it," he says.

According to best-selling author and business trainer/success coach, Shelley Taylor-Smith, Director, Champion Mindset® Consulting: "When you build trust in your team and value your staff for their contribution, disengagement does not exist.

"If managers and team leaders had clear indicators of what motivates their staff and drives them to perform at optimal level, the end result is a happier and more productive environment," says Taylor-Smith.

The risk of not stemming the epidemic is that it's contagious, insists Robyn Morris who points to 2004 Gallup research showing it takes four fully engaged employees to counteract the impact of one disengaged person.

While it's possible to re-engage a worker, experts suggest it's easier to get it right from the start. Organisations that have great relationships with their employees have cultures that are aligned with their external brand in the market, observes Eckersley, and they use those brand values to their advantage internally.

Hewlett-Packard engages its employees

In the online business age, it's no small irony that one of the giants of the computer industry, Hewlett-Packard (HP), is now focusing on the need for face-to-face contact to engage its 3500 Australian employees.

"Email, SMS, PowerPoint, virtual training and e-learning; all these things have increased the value of the face-to-face encounter," argues John Hannelly, HP's Human Resources Director.

Where larger companies in a global environment often depend heavily on email to communicate with employees - earning a cursory two-second glance - HP is acknowledging the need for human contact to gain traction in the employee-employer relationship. To this end, Paul Brandling, the company's South Pacific Managing Director, has been hitting the road for coffee chats with employees in the Australian operations.

"No slides, just dialogue," explains Hannelly who also insists employees hear the news - good and bad - from their own managers in monthly meetings.

The face-to-face approach is so important because questions must be answered, he says, and the outcome is an enormous feeling of goodwill which shows up annually in the results of HP's Voice of the Workforce survey.

From the start, managers are trained in the basics of good communication; and yes, some of it occurs online. Electronic communication is particularly useful for preliminary, follow-up and refresher work, Hannelly believes. Inevitably some of the company's efforts to engage workers must be delivered by email, but the emphasis is on localising content and competitions in the weekly newsgram emanating from corporate headquarters in the US .

"We track who is reading what to make sure it's working locally," Hannelly says.

Community involvement, including a program for mentoring people with disabilities, and an Australian effort for donations to the tsunami appeal, also provide engagement hooks.