Averbook: Employee engagement is hard; how to overcome that

What does the workforce expect and need in order to feel engaged, and have these expectations changed in 2020?
By: | September 21, 2020

By Jason Averbook, a leading analyst, thought leader and consultant in the area of HR, the future of work and the impact technology have on that future.  The article was first published on Human Resource Executive.

Are people engaged, or are they enraged? How do you drive engagement and foster a sense of connection and relationship with work when we do not have old crutches on which to rely; when we are asking people to manage and thrive in chaos out of necessity; when it is easier to keep people connected than it is to create a meaningful sense of connection?

We are asked constantly to talk about engagement. That is because it is hard.

The problem with employee engagement is that we generally step into it assuming everyone has the same definition and understanding of what it means. Employees should not need to think about what “engaged” means. 

Jason Lauritsen, the world’s foremost expert on employee engagement and an HRE Top 100 HR Tech Influencer, joined us recently in our weekly Now of Work Digital Meetup. He defines engagement as “the degree to which an employee is willing and able to perform up to their potential”; it is not about a choice they make. It is about an experience of work that helps them be their best.

What do I need to be my best?

Organisations should want to serve that.

Happy employees make happy customers. If you serve your workforce as your No. 1 customer, you will put their needs and expectations first, you will design an experience that allows them to do their best work easily, and you willl reward engagement and loyalty.

So, what does the workforce expect and need in order to feel engaged? Have those expectations changed like everything else in 2020? Or did we just get back to basics?

The way we function as a society is also the way we do business; the way we behave as a culture shapes our expectations for the workplace. We still, as we did before, expect work to feel inclusive and inspired, transformational and empowering, fully prepared to activate the best each of us has to offer.

“Our expectations from our workplace and how we view our jobs has changed. We want purpose and meaning in our work—to be in an environment where we feel respected, appreciated and able to bring the best of ourselves.” Those words from Eric Mosley, CEO of Workhuman, have never been more true than they are today.

If there has ever been a time for us, for humans designing work and building engagement, it is now. So, HR, you are kind of a big deal.

The challenge and opportunity of employee engagement

The biggest challenge to engaging employees is focus. We have thousands of ways to “engage,” but HR is structured around centres of excellence, so different teams are responsible for engaging at moments that matter. But that creates a diluted overall focus because people do not know where and how to engage. 

They need to understand where they want to deliver true engagement and focus based on the organisation’s business strategy. 

Anything we define and design in this environment needs to consider digital first. Digital, not technology. But does technology hurt or help the cause? Technology alone cannot drive employee engagement. Technology does not create a safe space for culture. It does other things, like support connection, communication and collaboration.

If we are pushing out HR tools to people with the expectation that we are building connection (beyond purely connecting us), we are expecting more than technology will ever deliver.

Tools require intention, and they need to be applied to the right problem or opportunity. When used with intention and designed correctly, it can fuel the intended outcome. Most organisations, however, rely on technology as the solution. They expect technology to do the work.

I suggest we go back to the drawing board and ask “why?” before we get to “how?” That will help us design intentionally and with purpose, and we will be more likely to produce the desired results.

To create a more engaged, worker-focused organisation, you need to align around a common, unified vision that clearly explains the problem and the way you want to solve it.

“I want to take this part of the workforce and get them here. I want to address this kind of worker and get them here.” No more scattering. Be more specific, get alignment and focus around one problem, and execute.