It seems that every communications professional I know, including myself, suddenly has “engagement” in their title. It sounds like another buzzword, right? So what exactly is it?
A common misperception is that engagement is the same as happiness, but it’s not. Someone can come to work every day and spend the entire time playing video games, which might make them pretty happy, but it certainly doesn’t make them engaged in their work. So to me, being engaged means not only liking what you do, but also being excited by your work and your organization. It’s pretty simple when you think about it. When people are engaged, they’re more likely to go above and beyond and put in the extra effort to help their organization succeed. That engagement translates into higher sales, increased revenue, better customer service, more innovation, or whatever your measure of success is. And engaged employees become advocates for your organization’s mission and message.
Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of data about employee engagement. Yes, that’s right, engagement can be measured. But sadly, the numbers tell a grim story. A well-known study of the American workforce from Gallup has consistently found that 70% of employees in the US are NOT engaged at work! This could have serious consequences for any organization. Imagine if a crane operator was consistently disengaged and doing the bare minimum just to get through the day. Or if your accountant was disengaged and not really putting in much effort in figuring out your tax returns. Today, managers across industries and sectors are taking note of the impact that employee engagement has on business results and working to improve it. They know that without a dedicated and engaged team, they’ll never be able to run an effective operation, retain talent, or tackle future challenges.
Among the things I enjoy most about my work is being able to meet different teams across different organizations and listening to their stories – what they love most about their work, the relationships they’ve built, and what keeps them up at night. I’ve conducted surveys and talked directly with new hires and those who have been in their organizations for decades, across industries and functions. Here are some of the themes I consistently hear from people about what engages them.
Making a contribution – Whether you’re a millennial, Gen Xer, Baby Boomer, or anywhere in between, people are engaged when they feel they’re contributing to something worthwhile. It could be working in public service, or for a nonprofit they believe in, or even developing the latest new technology that will revolutionize your life. People are engaged by knowing that their work has a purpose.
Flexibility – Flexibility means more than being able to work from home or having unlimited sick days. While everyone loves a summer Friday, nowadays flexibility is about more than work-life balance. It’s about being part of a team that is open to hearing different perspectives and to doing things in new ways. It’s also about having a level of autonomy to make decisions, with room to learn from your mistakes.
Appreciation – No matter what your job is, everyone wants to be appreciated for their work. Appreciation doesn’t have to come in the form of a bonus or an employee of the month award. It can be as simple as a “thank you” for a job well done. I’ve worked with organizations that throw lavish parties and offer amazing perks, and others that recognize their most junior employees by allowing them to present their own work to the CEO. Guess which ones have higher engagement? Even 15 years into my career, I still have the notes that my first manager sent me, thanking me for the hard work I put into planning an event, or for securing a high profile media story.
Feedback – Employees want to do a good job. Nobody inherently comes to work intending to underperform. But people need to receive feedback in an honest and constructive way about what they’re doing well and areas they can improve. While giving feedback should happen year-round, having an effective performance management process, with clear and actionable goals, regular performance reviews, and targeted development plans, is also a good way to foster a feedback culture.
It’s important to note that engagement is not a one-size-fits-all. And it’s not about big budgets and fancy technology. It’s about investing some time and energy into understanding what drives your employees and how you can support them. There are dozens of engagement drivers, so organizations need to determine what works best for them and what’s in line with their culture and priorities. I’m proud to have been part of several organizations that genuinely understand the power of engagement and that have worked to deliver across many of these areas.