Trends in Employee Engagement: How Technologies Contribute to Positive Results
Employee engagement is a trending topic of conversation for organizations globally. Many of us have attended meetings to discuss increasing engagement with employees to promote productivity and improve their well-being. The data overwhelmingly backs the impetus to do so. Many studies indicate that low levels of engagement result in reduced productivity, innovation, and profit, negatively impacting a company’s bottom line. However, despite companies’ best intentions to embark on a path toward greater engagement, these initiatives often stall or fail. Here we explore why this gap exists and what companies can do to set their programs for success. What is employee engagement, and why is it critical? Employee engagement means far more than employee contentment. It reflects the emotional commitment an employee has to their role, their team, and the company. When employees are engaged, they feel connected to a larger mission. They also see opportunities for growth in their job, and they have clarity around what they bring to the table when they work with their colleagues. Unfortunately, this is not the state of affairs for the majority of companies. According to Gallup’s latest research, only 34% of U.S. workers are engaged. While this is up from years past, it still means that two-thirds of the workforce is not fully engaged. Equally stark is the 2018 Global Culture Report, which indicates that only 21% of employees believe their organizations consider them a priority and value to the organization. This lack of engagement has measurable effects. According to John Froiland, a psychology professor at Purdue University, organizations that fail to implement and increase employee engagement experience low profitability. Why? Because absenteeism increases, which directly affects productivity levels. Another comprehensive study from The Engagement Institute has calculated a dollar amount to disengagement, determining that it costs U.S. companies between $450 and $550 billion a year. Low levels of engagement also compromise the ability to attract and retain talent and create a culture that drives innovation; all key factors in a company’s success. When employees are just showing up or are actively disengaged, there’s a big opportunity cost that companies cannot afford in today’s competitive marketplace. On the flip side, when employees are engaged, there is higher productivity, innovation, and less turnover.
What are the Primary Drivers of Engagement?
Employee engagement is complex, and it involves the whole of the employee experience. In other words, salary and perks alone won’t move the needle on engagement, nor will disconnected strategies or annual surveys. As Gallup explains, “organizations have more success with engagement and improve business performance when they treat employees as stakeholders of their own future and the company’s future. This means focusing on concrete performance management activities, such as clarifying work expectations, getting people what they need to do their work, providing development, and promoting positive coworker relationships.” On paper, this all sounds great. Who wouldn’t want an organization where people know exactly what they need to do, get along, and receive tools and support to achieve success? Unfortunately, given the complexity of business and people, this is no easy feat. But it is essential to master because engagement lives in this space of clarity, connection, and evolution. To get a better sense of the ideal pathways to engagement, let’s look at four core areas that shape the employee’s experience – leadership, communication, recognition, and development. We’ll then explore how technology can help provide the traction needed to create meaningfully commitment within an organization.
Managers are trained to lead with insight.
Managers are the key drivers of engagement, and their leadership style shapes their ability to do so. Understanding this link is essential to building effective programs. Gallup’s research indicates that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units, explaining that “performance fluctuates widely and unnecessarily in most companies, in no small part from the lack of consistency in how people are managed.” Our qualitative research supports this understanding that engagement rests primarily with the manager from the employee’s perspective. When we sampled employees on their conception of engagement – asking “What does employee engagement mean to you?” – they overwhelmingly defined it with their manager:
- “It’s when my manager values me.”
- “It’s when my leader cares about me and listens to me.”
- “It’s when my manager gets in the trenches with us and knows how to do the work.”
They answered the question with ease and without hesitation. Leaders also understand their central role in their employees’ experiences and their effect on the overall organization. When we asked the same question of leaders – “What does employee engagement mean to you?” – they focused on strategies to “reach out to” and “take care of” the employee to “increase retention,” “increase engagement,” and “reduce turnover.” There is a strong business case to be made for ensuring managers are leading effectively. While there are many leadership models and programs that can be used to increase insight, the core idea is that all managers can benefit from training on how to lead and inspire. At every level, they should be continuously developing their communication, coaching, project management, performance management, and relationship-building skills along with their functional and industry-specific skills. Their emotional intelligence has to be high, and their ability to have courageous conversations and give and receive feedback effectively. Great managers are clear with employees on their expectations. They help them set priorities and goals and hold them accountable to those goals. Strong leadership pays big dividends. As Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, explains it: when people realize their leaders care about their well-being, listen to their feedback, value their feedback, and often incorporate their input into their processes and procedures, the organization succeeds.
The Company Provides Channels for Regular Communication and Feedback.
It’s a new day in communicating, and when managed effectively, the by-product is increased retention and productivity. Too often, there is a communication gap between senior leadership and employees within an organization. According to a recent Global Strategy Group study, only 3 in 10 employees say their employer is very effective at communicating with them. Also, 2 in 5 employees say their organization’s communication approach is outdated or behind the times. The study notes that employees – particularly from the younger generations – want to hear more from leadership about the company’s key issues. Regular communication helps employees understand the organization’s business objectives and goals – and their part in achieving them. Companies also have to tap into new ways and styles of communicating to reach people where they are. But with the ever-changing technology and new ways to communicate being developed every day, businesses must ensure that they are reaching their employees in a way that suits them. The platform matters, the generational mix of the company matters, and the content itself – it has to be engaging and authentic. Keeping employees well-informed about what’s happening in the organization is only part of the equation. To be fully engaged, employees need to feel they have a voice, and that voice leads to action. A powerful sense of ownership emerges when people feel they have been heard. Companies should use a combination of formal and informal channels to spur conversation and get invaluable information flowing from all levels of the organization. Perhaps the most critical type of information exchange involves feedback. As leadership development expert Liz Bentley explains, without feedback, we are working in the dark, “not knowing what we need to do to move ourselves to the next level of our career and personal development.” Feedback can be positive (e.g., the things we are doing well, the strengths we should be continuing to leverage) or constructive (e.g., what’s holding us back, what we need to the shift to overcome roadblocks). Liz Bentley cautions that constructive feedback is tough for people to hear, which is why most managers shy away from delivering it. People have psychological mechanisms to discount it, such as anger, denial, or rationalization, and it can create chaos if the right culture and approach are not in place. Creating a culture where employee feedback is given regularly to help everyone grow is an essential foundation. Trust is an integral part of this process; otherwise, valid feedback will not be given nor received effectively. Companies also have to set up multiple systems to keep information flowing between managers and their reports, within and between departments, and back up to the organization’s top leadership. Formal reviews at regular intervals are helpful, but informal tools and exchanges can bridge the gap and deliver essential day-to-day information that people can use to course-correct and grow.
Employees feel recognized and rewarded.
If the goal of engagement is to help people feel committed to their work, understanding how they perceive other people’s reactions to their efforts and results is essential. Here’s some food for thought: only a third of workers claim to have received recognition the last time they went the extra mile at work and just a quarter feel highly valued at work, according to a recent TINYpulse survey. On the flip side, a survey commissioned for OGO notes that 40% of workers say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often. As David Novak, OGO’s founder, explains, “Recognition isn’t just about implementing employee programs to check them off a list; it’s about bringing out the best in people and improving your company’s bottom line.” As an integral part of an engagement strategy, recognition should be aligned with a company’s values and goals. Employees want to know why their work matters and what impact they are making. Here it would be best if you thought both inside and outside of the box.
A Deloitte report uncovered that a simple “thank you” goes a long way toward making them feel appreciated at work for a majority of workers. And when recognizing more substantial accomplishments, 47% of workers want to be recognized with a new growth opportunity, rather than a salary increase or high-performance rating. Many companies are also building on Millennials’ and Gen Z’s high interest in purpose-driven activities, rewarding them by supporting their causes, either through donations or paid time off to volunteer. Recognition in any form is a good thing. A study by Globoforce found that employees who receive regular small rewards, in the form of money, points, or thanks, are eight times more engaged than those who receive compensation and bonus increases once a year.
Employees are provided with development opportunities.
We are in an age of constant evolution, and people realize they need to keep building and expanding their skills or risk being left behind. According to John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, authors of A New Culture of Learning, the half-life a learned skill is now 5 years, which means that much of what you learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what you learned 5 years ago is irrelevant. Millennials overwhelmingly embrace this reality, with 87% of them viewing development as important in their jobs. In fact, these younger workers often evaluate a company based on the career development opportunities they will provide, weighing this factor along with compensation and benefits. Learning and development programs not only benefit the recipients, but they also benefit the entire organization on multiple fronts. They serve to attract and retain talent, and they also re-skill and up-skill employees, thereby keeping a company’s most important asset – it’s people – evolving with the times. LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning Report identifies creativity, persuasion, and collaboration as the most sought soft skills. For hard skills, it includes cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and analytical reasoning. What role can technology play in engagement? Technology is revolutionizing the way we work on every level. So engagement initiatives should look to piggyback on these changing dynamics and meet employees where they already are. Here we share some of the trending methodologies and software utilized to augment leadership, communication, development, and recognition within companies. When integrated into an engagement strategy, they can be powerful tools that support a consistent environment of connection and collaboration. Gamification Digital motivation through gaming is a growing trend in employee engagement. By drawing on human beings’ psychological impulses to compete and get instantly rewarded, gamification helps motivate employees to get involved, work toward goals, and learn new skills. It also delivers instant feedback and relays a sense of fairness because everyone can see where they fall. Gamification can be embedded in many platforms and tools. The games themselves can be utilized to reward output (e.g., number of complaints resolved, sales made, etc.), encourage training, and motivate teams to share information and learn from one other. Well designed gamification has the end-user in mind (understanding their needs, goals, behaviors, etc.) and is built with a clear business case. Executive leadership and managers need to be a key part of the roll-out to ensure participation.
LMS (Learning Management System)
A Learning Management System provides a continuous education culture and delivers the knowledge employees want and need to succeed. It can cover the spectrum of on-the-job employee training in a self-paced environment, including tailored programs, trade programs, leadership and management training, soft skill development, software training, and emotional intelligence training. With LMS, companies can overcome the traditional pain points of training (e.g., time, cost, relevance, etc.) and utilize technology to offer courses and certifications that people are interested in or required by law. The platform also enables companies to deliver information in multiple formats (video, podcasts, presentations, exercises) to engage learners. Social Feeds Increasingly, companies are moving away from one-way communication (e.g., emails, newsletters, etc.) to increase participation and employee engagement at work. These companywide social feeds are transforming internal communications. The platform allows for both company and employee created content to be distributed in a rolling feed. Employees can interact with company posts (by adding likes and comments)and create their own. This encourages employees and teams to share ideas and knowledge, which helps foster relationships and support transparency.
Pulse surveys are a tool utilized by companies to measure their operating climate and overall performance. Conducted periodically (in between annual engagement surveys), they are shorter and more focused. As an integral reading of employees and teams, they serve as a snapshot for executive decision making in real-time. The software behind these surveys often provides pre-set questions as well as the ability to create custom ones. Pulse surveys help support a culture of feedback; they give employees the voice they desire, and they can be a powerful way for leadership to validate decisions or course-correct where needed. Feedback ToolsGetting real-time feedback helps people identify their strengths and weaknesses to learn from them and grow. By embedding a feedback function within an integrated platform, employees can easily provide or request others’ feedback. They can also use it to provide positive feedback, giving public acknowledgment and thanks for a job well done.
The 360 Performance tool is another powerful assessment that technology has made it cost-effective and more easily implemented. It has a multi-rater function so that a person can receive feedback from all levels (e.g. managers, peers, direct reports, clients). Ratings are anonymous so everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts candidly. Talent Management Tool The 9-box grid is an assessment tool that evaluates employees’ current and potential levels of contribution to the organization. The x-axis represents employee performance (low to high); the y-axis represents the potential (low to high). When employees are placed within the boxes, the organization creates a visual representation of their talent pool. This can be used for identifying potential leaders or uncovering areas where there are gaps. It’s a diagnostic tool that can lead to important insights. For instance, if a group of high performing employees seems to have plateaued in their potential, the company may opt to invest in leadership training. Conversely, if employees have high potential but lack the performance to match, the next steps could involve a focused development plan. Goal Management Tools Technology can be an immense help in setting and tracking goals across every level of the organization. Within an integrated system, employees are able to set their own goals while monitoring company goals that are cascaded down to the team. By having goals in a centralized place, people are empowered to organize, manage, and reassess goals frequently and create action plans for larger goals. Transparency and accountability take center stage in this environment, and employees can clearly see how their work matters to the organization.
Employee engagement comes down to employee commitment. When people feel challenged and inspired by their work and support from their managers, peers, and organization, they will work diligently and innovatively for the company. Leadership, communication, recognition, and development are key factors in employee engagement, and they all can be supported by technology. When strategically selected and implemented, engagement technologies and LMS can influence employee behavior, roles, relations, and how company culture manifests itself and meets its company objectives. The influence of these technologies is co-determined by social and interactive contexts, so company leadership needs to regularly evaluate them and assuring their role in shaping the company’s values and ideals.
Employees want to know you care about their well-being and value their input.
Servant Leadership: A Positive Method of Leadership
Servant leadership (SL) consists of concepts, and the practice of SL produces specific positive behaviors and characteristics in leaders, providing an expected outcome on followers. Social scientists who studied SL considered a mediating role of high-quality Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) and the dependent variable of Job Satisfaction (JS). The LMX theory produced positive SL results on JS supporting the H1, “SL significantly and positively affected an increase in JS.” Akdol and Arikboga studied the effects of a servant leader on job satisfaction. According to Creswell, the concepts, ideas, and notions about servant leadership’s positive effects on job satisfaction remained unsupported until the theoretical framework was applied, and the topic was studied. Akdol and Arikboga provided quantitative evidence supporting the increased positive effects of SL on JS. The grey area between the two variables contained thousands of factors affecting the outcome. The researchers based their study on the Multidimensional Measure introduced by Dierendonck and Nuijten and researched three comparison leadership styles for the investigation linking the framework together and eliminating less important variables.
The theoretical framework linked the most impactful variables to exclude the less valuable variables and propelled the study toward the more important variables affecting an outcome. The researchers first considered the background of the independent variable, Servant Leadership. They discussed the characteristics of servant leaders, as indicated by previous researchers. Next, the researchers cross-examined Servant Leadership with Autocratic, Paternalistic, Transformational leadership styles, and the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory and built the Comparison of Leadership Styles. In doing so, the researchers found data supporting the positive effects of servant leadership styles on job satisfaction. The study results provided specific positive outcomes for employees, such as trust, empathy, acceptance, and many others.
HOW DO YOU EXPRESS VALUE TOWARD YOUR FOLLOWERS?
The research supported the theory that employees internalized the servant leader’s beliefs and values. In turn, employees sought praise and recognition from the leaders providing increased levels of intrinsic rewards. The study named job satisfaction as the reaction of the LMX data, causing a positive emotional experience. The framework consisted of one dependent variable, Servant Leadership, which positively affected Job Satisfaction, the dependent variable. A servant leader’s actions to manage in an ethical and supportive manager made the workplace a pleasant place, promoting job satisfaction for the employee. To learn more about Servant Leadership, Leader-Member Exchange, and increased, positive effects of Employee Job Satisfaction, turn to the references included in this article.
Akdol, B., & Arikboga, F. S. (2017). Leader-member exchange as a mediator of the relationship between servant leadership and job satisfaction: A research on turkish ICT companies. International Journal of Organizational Leadership, 6(4), 525-535. doi:10.19236/IJOL.2017.04.09
Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Los Angeles: Sage.
Van Dierendonck, D., &Nuijten, I. (2011). The servant survey (SLS): Development and validation of a multidimensional measure. Journal of Business Psychology, 26(3), 249–267.