Newsflash: organisations with high levels of employee engagement do better than those that don’t. They typically exhibit higher performance, lower employee churn and greater customer advocacy.  You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to appreciate that a happy workforce is more likely to be a productive workforce.  But I was shocked to learn from Dr Linda Holbeche in SuccessFactors’ recent 20 Minute Master Class that in the UK, 62% of employees are not fully engaged.  That means almost two thirds of the workforce is not firing on all cylinders.

Of course, there are some macro factors contributing to the malaise.  We’re undergoing a period of prolonged economic uncertainty, with employers’ need for a flexible labour force making job security a thing of the past. Some roles have been effectively commoditised by technology, making them inherently less satisfying.  Workers in most sectors are under pressure to do more with less, with rewards being squeezed and change as the only constant.  The net result?  An unsettled and one-sided employment relationship that is stressing out the UK workforce.

Employee satisfaction surveys don’t tell the whole story. For a start, they’re a periodic rather than continuous measurement, so they only represent a snapshot in time.  But more importantly, satisfaction and engagement are not one and the same thing.  In fact, an employee who is “satisfied” may self-limit their output, reluctant to try harder or indeed try anything new. En masse, this culture of complacency stifles productivity and innovation.

Employee engagement is a more complex construct: it’s an active and animated state that encompasses intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivations. People need to feel an intellectual, social and emotional connection with their work and their organisation, which forms a significant part of their personal identity.  But this demands trust and fairness as part of the psychological contract between employee and employer.

To nurture an engaged workforce, organisations need to communicate clearly and regularly, while also giving employees a voice to express concerns or criticism. Management must avoid the trap of paying lip service to employee initiatives, by providing the support required to encourage their staff to invest greater effort – whether that’s training, mentoring or practical considerations.  And it means giving people sufficient autonomy to find meaning and flow in their work, while providing sufficient scope and incentive in their role to stretch themselves.

I went into HR because I’m a people-person.  But it’s not “soft” to say that we all seek a sense of belonging when it comes to the context in which we all typically spend eight or more hours a day.  There are tangible benefits to the bottom line for employers that recognise the value of engagement and promote the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole.  

There is also an interesting debate currently taking place in the LinkedIn group that accompanies the series: http://linkd.in/ITH6WA

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