Employee engagement in the U.S. recently saw its first annual decline in a decade, according to a Gallup report. After rising for several years, the proportion of engaged employees dropped from 36% to 34% between 2020 and 2021. The pattern continued into 2022, when 32% of full- and part-time employees reported being engaged.
That’s unwelcome news for employers because disengagement can lead to quiet quitting, decreased performance and voluntary employee departures, among other headaches.
But all is not lost. There are still opportunities for employers to reengage their workforces.
From Productivity to Disengagement
Although productivity surged during the pandemic and engagement increased initially, disengagement began to take root as the months and years wore on.
Kevin Eikenberry is a leadership consultant and co-author (with Wayne Turmel) of “The Long-Distance Team,” which focuses on building successful remote work teams. His view is that workplace changes introduced during the lockdown era had a bigger impact on employee engagement than most leaders realized.
“When people were forced to work from home, the engagement level went up,” Eikenberry said. “People cared, they tried to figure out this sudden new normal, they came together, and productivity also went up. But I think engagement went down over time as the challenges and uncertainties of remote work piled up.”
At the same time, remote workers aren’t the only ones struggling with engagement.
Gallup found the largest decrease in employee engagement among those in remote-ready jobs who are currently working fully on site. This group saw a decline of five points in engagement and an increase of seven points in active disengagement between 2019 and 2022. (Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace, and actively disengaged employees as disgruntled and disloyal because most of their workplace needs are unmet.)
According to Jim Harter, chief scientist for Gallup’s workplace management practice, organizations looking to increase engagement should embrace hybrid work for remote-ready employees if they haven’t already done so — although he noted that having parameters in place can be helpful.
“Coordination and cadence for in-office days are important to maximize in-person collaboration time,” he said.
Harter also noted that active disengagement is high among younger workers (those under age 35). Notably, people in this demographic are increasingly less likely to say they feel extremely proud of the quality of products and services customers receive.
“This is the case for younger workers who are on site, hybrid or fully remote,” he said. “It is also the case for older, fully remote employees.”
“Only managers are in positions to know the individual situations of each of their employees.”
The Power of Employee Development
It is true that a new normal has emerged in terms of where and when most knowledge work is performed. At the same time, a more empowered workforce has grown used to signing bonuses, higher wages, and employers’ willingness to train people who might lack traditional qualifications or degrees.
According to the Gallup research, emphasizing employee development is key to increasing engagement — not to mention organizational performance.
When Gallup asked employees if there was someone at work who encouraged their development, 3 in 10 global respondents strongly agreed that there was. Gallup analysts said that by moving that ratio to 6 in 10, organizations could realize a 6% improvement in customer engagement scores, an 11% improvement in profitability and a 28% reduction in absenteeism.
Meanwhile, 1 in 3 employees strongly agreed that they have opportunities at work to learn and grow. By doubling that ratio, Gallup said, organizations could realize 39% less absenteeism, 36% fewer safety incidents and 14% higher productivity.
So, it seems employees who are putting forth minimum effort and quietly quitting may be motivated by an opportunity to acquire new skills.
Another way for employers to boost engagement, according to Harter, is to make sure managers know how to develop employees through coaching.
Managers need to have a meaningful conversation with each direct report at least once per week, he said. These conversations can last 15 to 30 minutes, if held at regular intervals, and should focus on topics such as recognition, team collaboration, goals and priorities, strengths, and well-being.
The role of manager is more difficult — and more important — than ever, Harter said.
“A manager’s job needs to be redefined as coaches who are upskilled to know their own strengths, the strengths of each employee they manage and how to engage a team to achieve high performance,” he said. “Only managers are in positions to know the individual situations of each of their employees.”
Changing Perspectives, Changing Culture
An employee’s work environment has a major impact on their perspective, Eikenberry said. Going into an office building, and acknowledging the sights and energies of colleagues, cubicles, computer terminals, breakrooms and boardrooms, speaks to an employee in a unique way.
“But if I’m working from a dining room table or my bedroom, those things are lost and I become more narrowly focused,” Eikenberry said. “I need more help from leaders, more help from my team, or things will go downhill after a while.”
In other words, employees thrive when workplace culture evolves in a manner that supports engagement.
“The goal with a team’s culture is to have it morph along the lines you aspire to, not take on a life of its own,” Eikenberry and Turmel wrote in their book. “For this to happen, both the leader and individual teammates have to pay attention to what’s happening and choose to act in ways that support that vision. They need to believe in the aspirational goals.”
That aspirational morphing of culture may be hard to engineer, Eikenberry admitted, but leaders and managers can look and listen more closely for signs of employee disconnection in remote and hybrid teams.
For example, have people stopped responding to emails and in group chats? Are once-active participants suddenly silent during meetings? Are they missing deadlines or delivering lower-quality work? Have they stopped volunteering for tasks or projects that would promote development and growth?
If so, it may be time to provide more coaching, feedback and heightened attention, as suggested by the Gallup report, and for leaders to be more deliberate in modeling engagement themselves.
Clear evidence that leadership itself is engaged — by expressing care for people and projects, for example, and going above and beyond in taking on work challenges — can help inspire employees and generate the aspiration that underpins engagement.
Harter said Gallup has studied organizations that have either maintained high levels of employee engagement or increased those levels over the past two years.
“These organizations focus on their strategy and leadership philosophy — they make sure their culture matches their organizational values — through their managers,” he said. “Contrary to the average organization where 1 in 3 managers are engaged, these organizations have highly engaged managers...with high levels of accountability.”
Accountability goes hand in hand with employee engagement, according to Serenity Gibbons, a consultant and the local unit lead for the NAACP in Northern California. So does employee empowerment.
Writing for Forbes, Gibbons said there are many ways for managers to empower their staff, from standardized communication to deliberate delegation to honest accountability.
“This has the important side effect of inviting them into your team’s activities and fostering a better sense of engagement — not through some trending program or initiative, but through a genuine sense of trust and interdependence on one another as a team of like-minded professionals working toward the same goals,” she wrote.
At the same time, Eikenberry said, improving engagement doesn’t fall solely on leaders’ shoulders. Workers bear some responsibility, too.
“It isn’t a program; it’s a choice individuals make,” he said. “So, if I’m engaged, that means I care. If I’m engaged, I’m willing to provide discretionary effort. And as a leader, I need to know how to help people make that choice, keeping in mind that while the working context has changed, human nature has not changed.”
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