The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the modern workplace. While most organizations seem to have reached some level of homeostasis despite still working through technological and cultural kinks, fundamental changes in the workforce will likely impact the undercurrent of organizational performance for the foreseeable future. People’s lives were – and in some cases, still are – massively disrupted. Personal anxieties and shifting priorities, compounded by organizational pressure to perform in tough economic times, has impacted employee engagement.

The traditional Gallup approach to engagement

Gallup defines employee engagement as “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.” Its Q12 Engagement Questionnaire is widely revered as the industry standard on engagement and calculated by asking participants to use a scale to rate the following questions:

1.     Do you know what is expected of you at work?

2.     Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?

3.     At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

4.     In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?

5.     Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?

6.     Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

7.     At work, do your opinions seem to count?

8.     Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?

9.     Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?

10.  Do you have a best friend at work?

11.  In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

12.  In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

These questions, often asked in an annual survey, seek to uncover data on the areas of employee growth, teamwork, individual contribution, and if basic, fundamental needs are being met.

Engagement is trending downward

Gallup reports most employees are not engaged or finding purpose in their jobs. The percentage of engaged employees had been trending downward, with 36 percent of employees in the US classified as engaged in 2020, to 34 percent in 2021, and currently holding at 32 percent in early-2022.

This means that 68% of the American workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged.

When employees don’t find purpose or connection at work, they are not adaptive or proactive, tending instead to do the minimum, set limits, and interact minimally with co-workers. This behavior can cost your organization. Forbes completed a survey and by one calculation, disengaged employees can cost you approximately $3,400 for every $10,000 they earn in salary. Your disengaged $100k Marketing Manager could be costing you $34,000 in inaction, efficiencies wasted, and lost opportunities. They are also more likely to leave and can have a negative impact on culture, especially if they are managing a team.

Another Gallup report states that in the US and Canada, 41% of workers experienced high levels of worry throughout the day and 50% of workers experienced high levels of stress. It’s understandable why engagement is down.

Engagement does not necessarily equal performance

We are believers in the Gallup methodology, but it’s important to remember that engagement does not necessarily equal performance. There is a statistical connection between disengagement and underperformance, but it’s not absolute. Performance is a combination of talent and motivation. When motivation is lacking, talent can compensate and still lead to good – even great – performance from someone who is disengaged. Additionally, incorrect assumptions can be made about someone being engaged or disengaged based on their personality. Just because someone doesn’t get a tattoo of your logo does not mean their job is not meeting their needs, and that they cannot be an asset to your company.

Work is just work for some people, but low engagement does not necessarily mean someone cannot do their job well.

Not every company conducts an annual engagement survey, but in-tune leadership can make a fairly good assessment of how their people are feeling. “Engagement to me is about meaningful work in an environment of dignity and respect,” says Richard Spoon, ArchPoint Group Chairman and President of the Consulting Division. “As a leader, if I’m not fostering this environment for my team, I can’t expect engagement.” Having more frequent, regular conversations with employees on an individual basis is arguably more important than engagement survey data. Leaders should not wait for issues to arise or an annual survey to warrant a check-in on their people.

Two paths to performance: boosting engagement and managing disengagement

Employee engagement is extremely complex and on a collective basis, little progress has been made on how to make systematic improvements. A recent Harvard Business Review article argues managing disengaged employees is just as important as efforts to boost engagement. However, managing disengaged employees requires a different approach than efforts to boost engagement. Once you have identified someone is disengaged, keep the job about the work – communicate formally and transactionally, operate within the structure, and stay task and goal-oriented. Do not take it personally that someone is not a cheerleader for the company. Respect their perspective. If disengagement is caused by misalignment with the company mission or values, seeking a stronger one-on-one connection with a disengaged employee can build trust, respect, and motivation.

On a parallel path, leaders should also strive to improve employee engagement. Just as disengagement can lead to poor performance and cost an organization, engagement can enhance business results. Teams with high levels of engagement have a 21% higher profit margin than disengaged teams, according to Gallup. The areas in the Q12 Engagement Questionnaire are wonderful reminders of what matter most to employees – clear expectations, respect, good communication, career paths, and meaningful work. Leaders who focus on these areas are likely taking good care of their teams.

Here are three ways organizations can provide a better employee experience and improve engagement.

1.     Start with the big picture. Have a clear purpose and goals and share the big picture with employees. These goals should be reinforced in various forms of communication (verbal and written) and employees must feel they are contributing to the success of the organization. Employees should be able to connect the dots between their work and the overall company goals. Reframe roles so they relate more to the organization’s purpose. For example, a hospital cleaning staff can come to see themselves as not simply cleaning rooms but helping patients heal. Insurance agents may see their jobs as not simply filling out forms but helping people recover from major setbacks.

2.     Communicate clearly and often. One of the biggest mistakes leaders can make in the rapidly changing environment of today is keeping employees in the dark. In times of uncertainty, people want assurance that they have the basic requirements to perform  – clarity on expectations and resources required, do I know what I am supposed to do, and can I actually do it? It is a daunting task to communicate well in times of constant change, and no small effort on the part of leadership. But transparency builds trust, and keeping employees informed of the ebbs, flows, and changes of the business can help them buy into the journey. When leaders demonstrate direct, honest, and regular communication, they are more likely to receive it in return. This flowing conversation up and down and back up the organization is a major contributor to increased engagement.

3.     Discover and develop areas of mastery. Engagement comes most naturally with tasks that play to strengths or stretch skills in a challenging but still achievable way. If employees are constantly given responsibilities outside the realm of their capabilities, their motivation will tank. By having conversations based on their strengths and desires to develop, leaders can create a work environment ripe for engagement. Notice what things they do well on a consistent basis and make a plan for creating more opportunities for success. Provide autonomy whenever possible and encourage employees to make decisions as appropriate. Allowing some room to take chances and make mistakes provides space to grow and can foster a deeper sense of ownership to the work.

Although there are a host of measures organizations can take to help employees cultivate their sense of purpose at work, there is no substitute for one-on-one interactions between managers and employees. Trust takes time to develop. Managers can talk about their own sense of purpose, worries, successes, and failures so that employees feel safe to express their real concerns and desires.

This is fundamental for a healthy culture and fosters a willingness to help each other solve problems and be more involved. Exhibiting care for your employees as people, not just workers, can go a long way. The more vested an organization is in its own people, the more likely an organization can expect the same in return.