Study Explores Mysteries of Employee Engagement

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Oct 26, 2011
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Why are some employees so devoted while others seem to have “checked out”? This is a question the Accenture Institute for High Performance sought to answer in What Executives Really Need to Know About Employee Engagement, a study published in June 2011.

Accenture surveyed 1,367 employees at various large, U.S.-based organizations to define four levels of engagement:

  • Devoted workers are the most engaged employees, those who put their heart and soul into their work each day and strive for continuous improvement.
  • “Plugged in” employees are usually, but not always, willing to go the extra mile to do their jobs well; they tend to contribute consistently and accomplish goals.
  • Those who fall into the “cruise control” category might show up for work but put forth their full effort only occasionally.
  • Lastly, employees who are “checked out” do just what’s needed to get by.

“Executives must deepen their understanding of what really drives engagement as well as what sustains it,” the report begins.

By delving deeper into what it takes to drive and sustain engagement, Accenture discovered a marked difference among the responses they received from workers at each of the four levels of engagement. For example, more than 95 percent of “devoted” workers said they are always willing to go the extra mile, are enthusiastic about providing high quality products and services and are determined to complete all job duties, whereas only about half of “plugged in” employees said the same.

Regardless of how devoted such highly engaged workers might seem to be, Accenture found that more than 43 percent "had weak, or at best lukewarm, intentions to stay with their company." Figuring out how to retain them is the tricky part.

"Financial rewards are important, but they're not what matter most when it comes to holding onto employees, and they certainly aren't what engages them," the report explains. Instead, Accenture found that employees must hold three core beliefs about their employment for sustained engagement:

  • I'm making a difference.
  • My company has my back.
  • We're in this together.

Making a Difference

Employees with jobs that offer variety and the opportunity to exert influence are more likely to feel they are making a difference at work than others. Those characteristics, combined with strong collegial relationships and the opportunity to grow one's career, are powerful catalysts, Accenture found. "Employees who apply a wide range of their talents to a diversity of tasks are 10 times more likely to be highly engaged than people whose work lacks variety," the report noted.

Similarly, "employees who believe that they can sway strategic, administrative or operating outcomes are more than twice as likely to be highly engaged than those who do not exert influence at work."

This means that companies must communicate their mission and recognize efforts that contribute to goals while eliminating work tasks that don't create value for the organization.

Yet Accenture found that there is considerable room for improvement in co-worker relationships, another key element of engagement. Less than half of "devoted" workers agreed strongly that their co-workers value their input, listen to what they have to say and appreciate who they are. And just 31 percent of such workers said they trust their co-workers. Still, that's far more than the 14 percent of "plugged in" workers who said they trust their colleagues.

According to Accenture, the third element that helps employees feel that they are making a difference is evidence of a compelling future. "When people feel that their own skills and goals match what the organization needs and wants, they are likely to envision a future with the company," the report noted. And the data back this up. Those who feel that their organization is a good fit for them are 17 times more likely to be highly engaged than workers who do not feel like they belong with their companies.

Yet fewer than 40 percent of devoted employees surveyed and just 14 percent of plugged-in employees believe that their career goals can be met at their company.

That doesn't mean that devoted workers aren't challenged, however. More than 71 percent said their job does provide them with challenges, though just 41 percent said they have the opportunity to use all of their skills and knowledge or can gain new skills and knowledge on the job.

My Company Has My Back

A safe environment and dependable colleagues are key elements for building a culture of trust and respect, according to Accenture. Employees are four times more likely to express high intentions to stay with their employer and are five times more likely to be highly engaged when they work in a trusting and respectful environment.

What such an environment looks like will vary from company to company, but it could be characterized by transparent financial records, the ability of managers to hold difficult conversations, and support for risk-taking. "Employees at all levels need to know that it's safe to raise difficult issues—that they won't just get slapped down for it," the report noted.

But it's not just business leaders who set the tone for an organization's culture, the report explained: "Workers who feel they can depend on their colleagues are nearly seven times more likely to be highly engaged and to have high intentions to stay with their organization as employees who do not establish such trusting relationships."

For example, employees want to look around them and see colleagues with the right knowledge, skills and abilities who value honor and hold each other accountable for doing the right thing.

We're in This Together

The last key element employees need to experience in their workplace for sustained engagement is a combination of reasonable expectations and opportunities to "recharge their batteries" after completing difficult assignments or going through busy periods at work.

"The amount of physical, mental and emotional energy people have available to bring to their work role is far and away the most powerful predictor of their level of engagement at work," according to Accenture. Unreasonable expectations, such as an excessive workload, significant time pressures and conflicting demands, are "powerful predictors of low engagement," the report noted.

Also important are the right training, tools and information as well as sufficient people resources to get the job done.

What's a CEO to Do?

Accenture's research revealed a few nuggets of advice for CEOs and other top leaders:

  • Make sure that employees can see that they are making a difference, no matter what they do.
  • Paint a compelling picture of the future.
  • Make sure it's safe to speak up and take risks, and make sure that colleagues back each other up.
  • Push people, to a point, but provide ample support along the way.

“Most employees feel overworked and underappreciated,” according to Mike Ryan, senior vice president of marketing and client strategy for Madison Performance Group, a consultancy specializing in employee engagement. “They are productive now because they have to be, not because they want to be, and they are planning to leave their present employers when the opportunity presents itself," he said in a statement. "The surge of productivity companies have enjoyed will not go on forever. Businesses that ignore this reality, and that do not take proactive steps to reconnect with their workforce, run the risk of being the big losers when hiring heats up again.”

Organizations can take a few important steps to improve their work environment, according to Ryan:

  • Repair the culture. A positive culture aligns corporate strategy with behavioral expectations, gives employees clarity and purpose, and provides a framework for worker contributions. In a positive environment, workers are more likely to trust their managers and co-workers, share information and ideas without hesitation, and contribute discretionary effort freely.
  • Set the stage for continuous innovation. Smart companies know that innovations occur when complex thinking is applied to problems or opportunities by individuals who are committed intellectually to finding more effective outcomes.
  • Involve front-line managers. Employees are much more likely to be engaged when they feel that their manager understands what they do well, encourages them to use their skills as much as possible, and recognizes and rewards their achievements.
  • Don’t neglect virtual workers. This group of employees tends to toil alone, far from physical interactions with others—and the reassurance they bring. Distance adds to their need to bond and feel connected. Companies that have incorporated social media-type tools report increased employee engagement, expanded opportunities for knowledge sharing, higher levels of innovation, superior customer focus and lower communication costs.
  • Think like marketers. HR teams need to be better at generating the type of emotional connections that drive long-term value and loyalty.

“Without taking action now, employers will be left with a recession-damaged workplace culture populated by disenfranchised employees who will leave for new pastures at the first opportunity," concluded Ryan.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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