70 percent of employed Americans are disengaged at work*. There’s more data than ever before available to leaders about the engagement of their staff, but the challenge is what to do with it?
We all know why engagement is so important. Attracting, developing and retaining a workforce are top issues for today’s leadership teams but low employee engagement can put all of this at risk. Disengagement soaks up a manager’s time and creates a distraction for the rest of the team, making it more difficult to focus on customer needs, innovation or solving problems. However, good managers should be able to coach disengaged teams to improve their employees’ wellbeing and performance. So, what can we do?
Start with the manager. Team leaders have the most influence over employee engagement. The bad news? Don’t believe the blogs, there’s no “one thing to transform employee engagement.” The good news? There are a series of things that, if done sequentially, really do transform engagement.
Step 1: Set clear and achievable goals
Engagement is about motivation. A great place to start is mastery - or progress. As Marcus Buckingham puts it, “Nothing makes a person feel better at work than being able to be highly successful.” So give employees clear and attainable goals and they’ll feel good every time they achieve the goal.
Provide feedback to help them achieve their goals.
According to data from Willis Towers Watson, 43% of engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week, compared to only 18% of employees with low engagement. Regular one-to-ones can help provide the time and space for feedback and, as a leader, it’s your job to make sure that your one to ones are valuable. Use this time to, yes, update on operational tasks, but it’s just as important to find out how they’re feeling, if there’s anything going on outside of work which might be impacting them and provide feedback on the soft side of work. It might be an awkward habit to get into, but it makes all the difference to an employee knowing they have your full support in helping them achieve their goals.
It’s also important to recognise that feedback is a two way thing; employees should be given the chance to add items to their one-to-one agenda as this provides an opportunity to bring up subjects that they might have struggled to find the right time or place to raise in the past. You might uncover a long-standing problem that you can help solve.
So, to recap, set clear and attainable goals. But be careful, there’s a difference between attainable and easy. Too easy and it risks becoming meaningless. Which is a good segue to...
Step 2: make the goals meaningful
Potentially the hardest of the three steps is connecting goals or day to day tasks to a meaningful purpose. Dan Pink describes purpose as the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. Pink argues that people intrinsically want to do things that matter.
For example, doctors or health workers often work long and unsociable hours under stressful conditions because they want to make a difference. They’re intrinsically motivated to help others rather than to just take home a pay check.
If setting a team purpose sounds a bit fluffy, a good example of the financial impact of your company’s purpose is the stock price of oil companies in the first month of 2020. As Jim Cramer put it on CNBC, “young people these days don’t want to own fossil fuel stocks”. Now, a meaningful purpose doesn’t need to be a moral or political point - it just needs to allow people to connect their work to something that’s larger than themselves. That could be in the service of others or in the pursuit of profit for themselves - it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it matters to your team.
Step 3: give people freedom
According to the CIPD, one of the most established influences on motivation is autonomy or self-determination – being empowered to shape one’s job makes it more meaningful and enjoyable. Your team want to learn, but they also want the freedom to decide how and when they learn. Research has shown that retention of course materials from off-site training is incredibly low, learning in the flow of work is much more effective because people can access new information at the point of need and put learning into practice straight away. On average, of the 6.5 hours people spend at a computer each day, 28% is spent on email, 14% on internal communications and just five minutes on learning. As Josh Bersin observed, the number one barrier to learning is time so, as a manager, it’s essential to help your team carve out time to learn. Encourage self-directed learning and then get out of the way.
Freedom isn’t just about the freedom to learn, it’s also about flexibility in how and where they work. While today’s workforce is more diverse than ever, they have a shared desire to work flexibly. 54% of office workers say they'd leave their job for one that offers flexible work time. Flexible working can improve wellbeing and satisfaction in and out of work thereby improving employee engagement. In fact, workers who are offered the option of flexible working take less leave and work more productively. Whether it’s offering flexibility in terms of hours or location or even in the way that they learn, if you already have a strong basis of trust in your team, you’re likely to see the benefits of flexible work very quickly.
Bonus step 1: building trust or psychological safety
As I mentioned earlier, regular one to ones will help identify any problems early and build a trusting relationship between the manager and their team members. However, it’s also important to establish trust between team members. Most of the work we do today is collaborative and high performing teams trust each other both personally and professionally.
A good place to start is encouraging the team to work collaboratively to create team norms or team behaviours. A set of agreed behaviours can provide control and security within relationships. Norms can also help establish accountability and responsibility, encouraging healthy conflict and making it safe for anyone in the team to flag behaviour that is outside of these norms.
Bonus step 2: embrace technology
80% of Gen Z students aspire to work with cutting-edge technology. As the demographic of the workforce changes so should business. In order to coach a team to learn in the flow of work organisations need to embrace technology. It’s no longer practical or possible to provide off site training to a flexible or remote workforce and to improve engagement it’s important that coaching is available to everyone in the organisation, not just senior teams. Technology like CoachBot is designed to help manager’s coach their team, accessible at any time with one-to-ones, interactive sessions and a library of learning resources.
When attracting, retaining and continuously growing the workforce, investing in modern learning technology is essential in order to compete. But we all know that the returns are there to be realised; companies with engaged employees routinely see much higher revenues than those where disengagement is rife.
*Gallup 2018 American Manager Report