Resource Management

Employee Engagement

August 1, 2012
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An engaged workforce provides multiple benefits.

Many of us have accepted the unfortunate reality that “work” is a four-letter word. We hear horrific accounts from friends and family members about their work lives, and we tend to believe that, more often than not, we are destined to hate our jobs. However, the fact of the matter is that employers have made great strides in terms of recognizing a need to care for employees in such a way that allows employees to actually enjoy their work. This is largely as a result of research that suggests a link between employee engagement and organizational performance.

The essence of employee engagement is productive energy. Engaged employees are those who go above and beyond the call of duty. They provide exceptional service to customers and produce a superior quality of work. In addition, they exercise initiative, take ownership of their work responsibilities and provide assistance to their coworkers.

According to research, important benefits can result from increasing employee engagement, including decreased absenteeism, decreased stress and increased productivity. Organization leaders are unable to deny the differences between engaged and disengaged employees and are finally making conscious efforts to create work environments that are conducive to maximizing engaged employees. The question is: Why are people still disengaged at work?

Identifying the Problem

Disengaged employees are still a considerable problem in organizations of all sizes. While many employers understand the benefits of ensuring that employees feel well-respected and valued, these same employers have still not fully implemented employee engagement efforts in the workplace. Moreover, it seems that certain industries are more likely to have problems with employee engagement when compared to others. Research results reveal the following:

  • Among all industries surveyed, employees in the manufacturing industry (except food, automotive and computer) consistently report some of the lowest engagement ratings of all industries.
  • When employees are asked whether they feel well-respected and valued, manufacturing employees report the lowest favorable ratings, with only 59% favorable scores. Compare this to 66% favorable globally and 72% favorable for education. The education industry consistently has one of the highest favorable ratings of engagement.
  • When manufacturing employees were asked whether they feel they were adequately recognized for completing good work, employees in technical and engineering capacities reported 54% favorability, while skilled laborers reported only 43% favorability.

Furthermore, the difference in favorability ratings between the manufacturing industry and the global aggregate (i.e., all industries combined) is striking. A noticeable difference in ratings exists between technical or engineering employees and skilled laborers with regard to perceptions of recognition. Since feeling recognized and valued is an essential component of employee engagement, these results illustrate that the level or department in which an employee works may have direct impact on their level of engagement.

While the findings reveal some interesting insights for the manufacturing industry, such analyses also present an opportunity for growth. Employee engagement is a construct that can be improved with careful planning and consideration, and a little financial investment. Since much of what composes employee engagement involves emphasizing employees’ perceived respect, value, and communication and deep involvement, some problems can be fixed by simply focusing on the basics.

Finding the Solution

Many different methods can be used to improve engagement within an organization, but careful thought and planning are necessary. Some experts try to use a “cookie-cutter” method for every organization; more effective results come from methods tailored toward each organization’s specific needs.

Employee engagement involves how people perceive the organization or job in which they work. These perceptions are naturally divided into levels of need; that is, some needs are more basic and essential than others. Figure 1 depicts a three-level action planning prioritization model that explains this concept.

Level 1, or the basic level, includes the most essential parts that make up job satisfaction and engagement, such as adequate training, appropriate feedback, and the environment itself. Level 2 includes items that are also important for organizational performance but contain more complex ideas, such as perceived opportunities for career development, teamwork and cooperation. Level 3 includes the most complex items, such as items of mutual acceptance and confidence in senior leadership.

While all of these areas are important to understanding the parts that make up employee engagement, it should be noted that those in the basic level are just that: the most basic and fundamental. These “block and tackle” issues can be controlled by a supervisor in the work setting.

This model was created to show that the areas in Level 1 must be addressed before concepts in Levels 2 and 3 because it would be difficult to tackle higher-level problems before the lower-level requirements have been addressed. For example, how would an individual effectively address confidence in senior leadership if an employee feels they have incompetent immediate supervisors? The key is to target basic areas before directing attention in intermediate and advanced areas.

Implementing New Ideas

The survey results of top and bottom work groups at three global service and manufacturing organizations (182,000 employees across the three organizations) were analyzed to determine if a difference could be found between engagement scores among the groups, and if the difference in engagement scores correlated to overall performance. The research indicated that work groups with higher results on the basic engagement factors had a more flexible workforce, fewer excuses toward change, greater willingness to take on new challenges, enthusiasm to improve processes and higher service/product quality. On the other hand, work groups with lower results on the basic engagement factors had increased vulnerability to union activity and increased problems with product/service quality and improvement initiatives.

The goal of improving employee engagement based on an organization’s individual needs or current situation may be the first step in a customized approach to focus on the basics. Employee engagement should be assessed based on the following steps:

  • Step 1—Assess employee engagement levels
  • Step 2—Be realistic
  • Step 3—Form a plan that targets basic engagement factors
  • Step 4—Implement the action plan with open communication
  • Step 5—Assess the changes in engagement and organizational performance
  • Step 6—Develop a plan for maintenance or reevaluate unsuccessful efforts

In Step 1, the organization’s needs should be assessed in the most effective and efficient way. If the company must obtain a lot of information quickly, it should consider conducting an employee survey that assesses attitudes and engagement levels. Many organizations opt to hire a third party to conduct this survey for them, as it can be an extremely time-consuming process. In addition, this helps ensure employees that their responses are confidential. However, smaller organizations sometimes find it easiest to create and validate their own survey instrument.

Step 2 may seem somewhat trivial, but it is extremely important to keep in mind. Leaders often create lofty goals for making organizational changes and experience difficulty keeping everything in perspective. Being realistic about your expectations can not only save you time and energy, it will likely save you money by taking on only what can feasibly be done with the resources available.

Step 3 refers to the simple task of choosing to focus on basic engagement problems (or, if there is no apparent problem, general engagement improvement). Based on the information gathered in Step 1, you can decide what factors you really want to concentrate on. Perhaps you have discovered that the employees’ general attitude toward the competence of supervisors is quite favorable but that your employees feel that they do not have the training needed to perform their job as well as they would like. This knowledge will help you leverage your strengths and focus on your opportunities
for improvement.

Step 4 is to implement your action plan. Perhaps it was decided to create a better training program for your employees so that they felt more confident in their own ability and therefore in the organization itself. While this plan will probably be quite effective on its own, the most important factor to remember is to always communicate changes to your employees. It is never a good idea to try to make drastic changes within an organization without the understanding and endorsement of the employees. Working to improve employee engagement is no different. Given that engagement relies on the perceived respect and dignity of the employees, it would be in the best interest of everyone to involve all employees that will be affected by the change. Not only does it keep everyone informed, but it also communicates to employees that they are a valued part of the organization.

Step 5 involves assessing the changes that you’ve made. What, if any, improvements took place as a result of your action plan? Making a plan to improve employee engagement is less than helpful if you never take the time to find out whether it made any difference. If it did, great! Now all you need to do is maintain the improvement. If the changes were not implemented as planned, it is important to capitalize on the opportunity to rethink your plan and try something new.

Finally, Step 6 involves all of the things that happen once your original plan and assessments have been executed. It is remarkable when a clear improvement in engagement is apparent through a follow-up survey, but it is an absolute requirement to develop a plan to maintain the improvements. Without constant and consistent effort to maintain employee engagement, particularly if something drastic was done to accomplish this, the old ways will surely come back to haunt the organization and your hard work will go to waste. It is very easy for an organization to backslide into old habits, so it is imperative to ensure that the improvement efforts permeate the corporation’s walls.

Following Up

With any planned change for improvement within an organization, not everything will go exactly as intended. Patience is essential when trying to make any organizational changes, especially those that target employee perceptions and beliefs.

Gaining employee buy-in and trust takes time. Especially in the manufacturing industry, employees may not be entirely ready to divulge their opinions and feelings to supervisors who they may not completely trust. However, a general tip for smoothing out this obstacle is to communicate, communicate, and communicate. Employees should never be left in the dark on organization-wide changes, and they will appreciate any effort to include them in the betterment of the organization. When employees feel that they have some ownership, voice, value and respect in their place of work, they are already that much more engaged.

For more information, contact TNS Employee Insights at 65 Oakwood Dr., Lake Zurich, IL 60047; phone (847) 726-4040, ext. 242; email ken.pfligler@tnsglobal.com; or visit www.tnsei.com.

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