Experts Weigh in on 5 Alarming Employee Engagement Trends

Employee engagement. It’s probably always on your mind, whether in the front, back, or somewhere in the middle. If that’s true, rest assured you’re not alone. HR professionals and other business leaders everywhere wonder (sometimes obsessively) how to drive more engagement among their people.

As ethereal as the concept can sometimes feel, there are real insights HR professionals can gain today that, when applied, lead to increased engagement. In fact, our very own VP of Thought Leadership, Rusty Lindquist, loves sharing those insights. That’s why he recently participated in a webinar with Greg Harris, CEO at Quantum Workplace; Angela Hills, CRO at Cielo; and author and speaker, Joe Gerstandt.

Taking data based on Best Places to Work, together they discussed five troubling employee engagement trends and provided nugget after nugget that business leaders can apply to increase employee engagement in their organizations.

Here are our some of our favorite takeaways from their conversation:

Job Strengths

Since enjoying what you do is increasingly important to employees, job fit is essential to employee engagement.

Speaking of employee strengths and job fit, Lindquist claims we’re witnessing the “democratization of work”—that as power shifts from the employers to the workers, people aren’t just happy to have a job anymore. Rather, they need to be passionate (and, of course, competent) to succeed in their work.

Because of this shift, employers need to pay much more attention to engagement. As Lindquist puts it, “The amount of the emotional energy you can sustainably apply towards a task is the single biggest driving factor of how well you’ll do at that task.” Or in other words, the more passion you have for a project, the better it is likely to turn out.

Therefore, business leaders need to spend much more time creating systems designed to increase an employee’s energy (or ability to engage in a given project). And it begins by giving people meaningful work. If employers don’t provide meaningful work or help communicate how an employee’s work is meaningful, those people may just leave the organization.

As Harris points out, the more employee-centered the market becomes, the more companies must match the employee fit with their organizational needs. And the best way to do this is through frequent touch points in performance management programs (as opposed to the dreaded annual reviews). Employers need to touch base with their people often so that their people don’t lose sight of their purpose.

Otherwise, again: adios!

Pay and Benefits

The bad news: When it comes to pay and benefits, far too many employees are unsatisfied.

According to the survey (remember, of the “Best Places to Work”), there’s a gap in engagement between salaried (73.6 percent) and hourly employees (60 percent), and the gap is widening. This is significant since hourly work represents a huge portion of the U.S. population—especially younger populations (70 percent of hourly workers are under 30). As Hill explains, this might put some context around the growing “gig economy.” Perhaps employees today want to be paid for the quality of their work, not necessarily the time it took them to do it.

While it was still the least favorable of all other items on the survey, here’s the good news: Employees’ perception of benefits and pay is improving.

Salary and compensation packages are increasingly competitive, which makes sense of this increase. But, as Hill points out, employers need to think beyond the variables that are harder to measure. “Some people will need to pay above the average pay to compensate for experiences while some might go below with intent to provide more [fulfillment].”

As Lindquist puts it, “Compensation is not about money. It’s about an exchange of value.” Employers need to be better about communicating the employee value proposition. While employees want more and more for their employers to bring value, organizations are failing; they’re too prone to reduce everything down to money.

And if you rely entirely on money, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Somebody can always offer more of it.

The answer, as is often the case, is culture. HR and other leadership need to be more confident in their culture, place more emphasis on it, and communicate its values more clearly (and frequently) to their people. Doing all of this will help the culture grow, and then your ability to retain your best people won’t entirely depend on money.

Employee engagement on your mind? See what trends have caught the experts attention.

Managing Generations

According to the survey, baby boomers are still the most engaged, and the oldest millennials are the least engaged. But, as the panel discusses, this might have far less to do with generations and much more to do with age.

As Gerstandt pointed out, younger employees are more likely to be driven by growth and development opportunities simply because that’s the phase of their careers that they’re in. On the flipside, baby boomers are more concerned about an organization’s future success simply because they’re at a point in their lives where they desire more stability.

Gerstandt believes that since workplaces are getting increasingly diverse, there is no one way to cater to employees based on their “generation” or any other shared attributes. Rather, he believes organizations need to deliver a diverse set of values. And these values—shared through the employee value proposition—need to come in the most personalized messages as possible. So, rather than trying to speak to every baby boomer as one being, a manager could tailor the employee value proposition specifically to Allen (based on Allen’s unique situation) in their next one-on-one conversation.

Regardless of age or generation, both Hill and Lindquist propose that employers need to ensure their people are striving to be “lifelong learners.” If an employee isn’t enjoying their work, or if the organization isn’t providing forward movement for them, they’re much more likely to look for those things elsewhere.

As Lindquist put it, “We have to be more thoughtful and ask employees what their goals are, and then tailor career paths to each individual.”

Diversity and Inclusion

There are gaps to be filled when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Men are slightly more engaged than women, which is troubling. But the gap between men and women (74.9 percent and 70.5 percent) isn’t nearly as concerning as the gap between both men and women and people who report having a different identity (42.2 percent). And while transgender engagement levels are increasing, employers should look for ways to speed up that growth and level the playing field across genders.

There’s also an unsettling gap in engagement levels between black employees and other races. For some reason, black employees are far less engaged (67.3 percent) than their counterparts (Hispanic/Latino: 73.5 percent; white: 73.2 percent; Asian: 72.3 percent).

Both Gerstandt and Lindquist say that these gaps might have to do with communication. Perhaps we aren’t talking with our people enough to understand their diverse employee experiences. Are we listening to everybody and applying what we learn as we get to them and their struggles?

HR leaders know and understand the importance of diversity, but as Lindquist observes, we often struggle in storytelling. People need to understand the story of their organization, and they need to understand their role in that story.

As he explains, this is an issue now, and it will be increasingly relevant in the future: “Long-term market success isn’t about differentiating based on features or functions, but rather based on differentiating your ability to provide value at speed. This comes down to people and culture.”

An organization’s most important assets are its people. And a diversity of people is crucial to prolonged and future success.

Retention Struggle

For various reasons, employee loyalty is continuing to fall.

This is, as almost everybody in the business world knows by now, not news (if you know somebody who is unaware of this, do them a favor and tell them). There are a few factors that play into this, but as we’ve seen in previous sections, the solutions probably have something to do with communication.

For example, recognition drives employee engagement, but it’s not happening at the level that it should. Recognizing an employee’s value is a simple way to help provide meaning to their work, but far too often employers fail to do this.

Also, employees are uncertain about organizational changes. This uneasiness can often lead to unnecessary departures. When an organization fails to communicate what its plans are, employees may not be confident in the company’s future stability; some would rather play it safe and find another landing spot (just in case the ship is sinking).

Hill explains this failure: “There’s a tug between high tech (automation) and high touch (personal contact). The best way to encourage people to feel valued and know their organization’s trajectory is to have the right kind of dialogue and conversations going on between leaders and employees.”

Gerstandt attributes antiquated models of leadership to this failure, and explains that there simply needs to be more interactions between employees and employers: “Employees don’t trust their managers and institutions, and a lot of this has to do with how we lead.”

Again, we need to improve how we communicate with our people.

Engagement in 2022

So, what do the next five years of engagement hold? Gerstandt, Lindquist, and Hill each offered predictions.

Gerstandt believes the conversations around employee value propositions will be much more individual and tailored than they are today. He expects organizations to design different types of employee experiences that feature expanded flexibility.

With regards to how HR technology will look like in 2022, Lindquist predicts a continued shift in HR technology’s role to meet the business need for a more human approach. He anticipates that software, for example, will focus less on employee data management (which is already a cinch) and more on diagnosing disengagement and prescribing activities to drive increased engagement (the next step).

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Speaking of technology, Hill predicts that in five years we’ll be discussing how much of our employees’ work lives have been replaced by robots. The decreased need for people to handle tasks that technology can handle on its own will drive them to look for more fulfillment in work. This transition will force HR to focus their efforts on providing the optimal environment for employees to give their best every day.

Whatever will come in the next few years in engagement, this much seems to be clear: It’s time for HR everywhere to improve the way they communicate with employees. Very soon, our ability to drive employee engagement and communicate the value proposition to employees may be our single most important job function.