When it comes to employee engagement, America is in a slump. In 2021, employees reported feeling less engaged in the workplace than in previous years. Coupled with the continuing exodus of the Great Resignation, human resource professionals have their work cut out for them as they try to retain employees, according to a recent report.
Last year, only 34 percent of the 57,022 full- and part-time employees surveyed by analytics and consulting firm Gallup reported feeling engaged at work, while 16 percent said they were actively disengaged in their work and workplace. The numbers weren't much better in 2020—36 percent of employees were engaged and 14 percent were actively disengaged—but 2021 is the first time in a decade that engagement dropped year-over-year, according to the firm.
There are 12 elements of engagement that Gallup asks about in its surveys, including whether employees receive recognition or praise for doing good work, have a best friend in the workplace, or feel like their opinions count.
"We looked at the elements [of the list] that changed the most this year and it came down to more basic elements that dropped significantly, like clarity of expectations, having the right materials and equipment to do work, having an opportunity to do what I do best at work," said Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace. "When there's a lot of disruption around us, we have to go back to the foundational basic elements and just make sure everybody knows what their job is, what their role is, and make sure they have what they need to do it."
Not surprisingly, Gallup found that managers—along with health care professionals—reported the most disengagement in 2021. This is significant because managers are often the key to helping boost employee engagement. In fact, in most Gallup studies, increases in employee engagement typically are linked to one common denominator.
"When you see a group go from highly disengaged and then go to the [top of the scale] as engaged, more times than not there's a manager change that affected that," Harter said. "The manager came in and just approached their job in a very different way."
Finding the Right Tools for Engagement
The best managers—those who help employees feel engaged—will lead their teams to top performances. They know the strengths of their team members, recognize their desire to make a difference and help them set priorities to do so. They also give plenty of constructive feedback, having at least one meaningful conversation per week with each employee, Harter said.
However, with people working remotely and many feeling burned out, this simply isn't happening as often as it should—or even at all, in some cases. Going into the third year of the pandemic, HR should consider streamlining managers' roles and upskilling them so they can behave more like a coach than a boss, he said.
Erika McGrath, vice president of people and culture at The Channel Company, a provider of business and marketing services, said her company is already doing just that. She and her team tackled the issue of disengagement head-on during the second half of 2021.
To start with, The Channel Company made a "pretty significant" investment in a new engagement, feedback and communications tool so managers could communicate better and more frequently with employees, no matter where they work. The offering, which launched at the end of 2021, includes an employee engagement survey as well as a recognition feature that lets managers directly praise employees. This year, the company is introducing a leadership boot camp, as well. Both moves should help them increase overall employee engagement, she said.
"How do you ensure that your leaders have the right tools in place where they feel … they do have the ability to check in on their employees? That they do have the ability to do a pulse check on how their employees are feeling, have effective one-on-ones, can understand and listen from a work perspective? You also want to understand your employees holistically, too, from a wellness perspective and see how are things going on for them outside of work," McGrath said. "The tool does that and more."
Eric Barger, the chief human resources officer at Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC), is also tackling engagement issues at his company, which handles financial transactions for airlines and travel agencies. Barger's HR team recently started performance management coaching because managers were struggling with virtual conversations, he said.
"Instead of saying, 'Hey, Andrea, can we go grab a cup of coffee?' now it's like, 'Hey, Andrea, can I jump on another screen with you? And tell you how that didn't go real well in the meeting?' No matter how careful I am with my words, it's really tough," he said.
ARC is helping employees do their jobs better by sending out Mindful Monday messages that give people tools to help them work remotely more effectively. The company is also offering job and skills training via several online educational platforms, including A Cloud Guru and Skillsoft Percipio, so employees can improve their job performance even if they aren't working in an office setting, Barger said.
"We rerouted [training] monies to these platforms and people have been going there for hundreds and hundreds of hours. We're a small to midsize company, so to have our employees clocking hundreds of hours in those different platforms is super," he said.
Both The Channel Company and ARC will continue working to fortify and support managers this year, hoping to boost overall engagement. It's exactly the type of focus on managers that can help create positive benefits, Gallup's Harter said.
"It is a responsibility for organizations to hold managers accountable for how their employees feel about the workplace. It's going to affect those hard outcomes. It's going to affect your bottom line. It's going to affect productivity. It's going to affect retention rates," he said. "That metric on engagement—that sets a high bar for your managers—is really important, because they can channel their efforts into those elements."
Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.