Employee engagement has become a critical topic for HR over the last 10 years as leaders have become convinced by two fundamental management ideas: having the best talent is essential to the future success of any organization, and having a highly engaged workforce is the most effective route to mobilize that talent to deliver what is needed. The result is that many organizations now invest in programs to boost engagement — mostly via an annual employee feedback survey.
Yet, many organizations struggle to improve engagement and productivity in their workforce — no matter how much attention leaders and HR teams pay. Organizational inertia (or "drag") is a widespread phenomenon impacting progress on multiple levels.1 Most organizations find that people prefer to maintain the status quo rather than push for real change. This has led many HR leaders to explore what factors create more relevant and meaningful employee engagement.
In a recent meta-analysis, scientists set out to understand how much of someone's engagement at work is predicted by personality.2 With so many organizations focusing on cultural and environmental factors, they wondered to what extent individual differences influence the way people engage with their organization. Their analysis showed that around half of someone's engagement at work is predicted by personality — with enthusiastic, upbeat and conscientious people generally displaying higher levels of engagement.
This finding helps us understand why engagement can be so difficult to change. If half of engagement is predicted by personality, then organizational initiatives targeting work practices or work environment can only succeed if they include some impact at the individual level.
If engagement is driven by both employee perception and personality, a shift needs to occur at the manager level. Initiatives should be implemented to target the individual employee to help create a stronger connection between that person and the work they do. Cultural/collective changes should also occur to improve conditions, like wellbeing, collaboration, creativity and productivity.
This does not mean that hiring "engagable" people is a strategy for success. Diversity in an organization is an incredibly important resource. People who are more skeptical and critical might be more difficult to engage — but they are also far more likely to challenge the status quo. These people are just as important to have in the workplace, and screening them out is not an effective approach.
Recently, the Facebook HR team published research that examined some of the reasons people at the company quit.3 The main reason is that employees find the day-to-day work they are doing less interesting and engaging than they want. For Facebook, it's not managers that are disengaging — it's the jobs.
However, job design is typically something that managers do, and they often do it poorly. Managers are rarely given any guidance about how to do it, especially compared to the amount of training they are given about other factors, like performance management.
But job design has the potential to be a more important function in people management. As AI becomes more accessible, organizations will outsource transactional work. This creates substantial opportunities to rethink how work gets done, which means we can actually use technology to help us redesign work to make it more interesting and engaging.
The second opportunity in this area is adopting evidence-based management. The science behind effective job design is well established. Implementing a simple process and framework is important in empowering managers to assess current job design and improve the quality of work they create.
While designing work might seem like an easy task for managers, very few employees will stick to their specific job description. By making job design a collaborative process between manager and employee, research has shown that people who craft their roles are more engaged, productive and see more meaning in what they do.
Most organizations have been focusing on career trajectory for years. Talent reviews, internal job boards, career development conversations with your manager — all these things are designed to enable a more optimistic view about career progression.
The problem is these actions do not work as well as they should. Why? Because many people are not clear about the realistic career options available to them at any one time, and the careers that are available now quickly become outdated as the organization changes structure and requirements. Carefully planned careers end up becoming irrelevant as talent demands shift.
This is a really challenging topic. Even educators in schools and universities struggle with this problem — what jobs and future careers are available to students now and in the future? Constant social, technological and economic changes make this question impossible to answer. Businesses have the best opportunity to help with this challenge — but it requires a shift in focus from jobs to skills. If organizations can move from thinking of jobs as a list of functions to a bundle of adaptable skills that provide value to customers, then we can start to understand where the valuable and transferable skills are in the business.
Making this shift also helps leaders talk to employees in a different way about career progression. Using technology, we can help people see the valuable skills they have, the skills that are decreasing in value and skills they need to stay relevant. Technology can also use individual engagement data to help advise employees which experiences excite them and coach them in a direction that will be the best fit for their personality.
In addition to technical skills, organizations also need to think about talent for leadership. Maximizing leadership potential is a topic that many organizations care about but that few do well. As the volume of people data increases, helping people build stronger self-awareness is critical, so those who are best fit for people leadership roles can focus on developing the necessary capabilities.
Work needs to be elevated from a list of tasks to be completed and instead viewed as a set of actions that have both personal meaning and commercial value. This shift isn't possible unless the HR function starts to think of the employee value proposition in a vastly different way.
The most effective value propositions appreciate the whole employee experience rather than just the narrow "economic" role that work plays. It's relatively easy to make a living but it's hard to do work worth doing. A compelling employee value proposition makes an effort to do both. This means thinking past the transactional elements of the employee (pay and benefits) to incorporate more future-oriented elements of the relationships — the opportunity to innovate and create, experience a sense of sustainable wellbeing and develop new skills.
Currently, many engagement programs are focused on answering how to get employees to do more for the organization. But the question that should be asked is, "How can the organization and the employee create a shared future together, using technology to create a healthier and more productive experience?" This changes the relationship dynamic and starts to value the contribution people make in a much broader way.
HR leaders should look at building tools that help improve employee self-awareness, connecting what employees think about their work and how they behave in a powerful way.
In summary, employee survey programs have been failing for years, in part because they have been so narrowly focused on outcomes, like an "engagement index." As technology starts to democratize the way we use employee feedback data, there is an opportunity to use it in a more two-way fashion to coach both individuals and managers. Keeping improved personal experience at the heart of innovations in employee surveys and feedback can help HR leaders make better decisions in adopting tools that will really work.
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1. Garton, Eric. "Your Organization Wastes Time: Here's How to Fix It." Harvard Business Review, 13 Mar. 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/03/your-organization-wastes-time-heres-how-to-fix-it.
2. Young, Henry R.; Glerum, David R.; Wang, Wei; Joseph, Dana L. "Who Are the Most Engaged at Work? A Meta‐Analysis of Personality and Employee Engagement." Wiley Online Library, 23 Jul. 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/job.2303
3. Goler, Lori; Gale, Janelle; Harrington, Brynn; Grant, Adam. "Why People Really Quit Their Jobs." Harvard Business Review, 11 Jan. 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs.