Engagement...And Not With A Ring

Engagement is definitely a hot topic these days.  Not the type that involves announcements or wedding plans, but that involves the quest for that *thing* that will result in happy employees who are fully engaged each and every day at work.  There's talk about employee development, rewards and recognition programs, and opportunities for advancement.   Articles, blogs, and research about engagement rule the day yet solutions seem to remain elusive. Companies are struggling to figure out how to shift the engine that drives engagement into gear.   They recognize that engagement translates into retention and strong bottom-line numbers.  And while some may believe that it's still a "soft" business issue, the reality is clear -- happy employees translate into a successful business.  Sounds simple but as anyone in HR and Benefits knows, it's anything but.

So what's the problem?  Why aren't employees engaged after that holiday party complete with lobster puffs and champagne?  Why isn't company-paid life insurance and that health club discount enough?   What more do employees want?   Wait...maybe that's the issue.  Engagement may have less to do with what employees want and everything to do with what employees need.  May sound like semantics, but it's the nuances in life that make all the difference.

To drill down into needs, let's make a few brief assumptions (and I do hate to make assumptions):

  • Life is not linear, therefore every day presents new challenges.
  • Workplace and family responsibilities often conflict.
  • Increasing productivity demands on employees along with ongoing demands from children and aging parents along with personal issues create obstacles.

While not the entire picture, it does show one thing -- the marriage of work/life balance and employee engagement is a rocky one.  And while we can draw some other conclusions about employees through assessments (e.g. how many employees are using the smoking cessation program), one of the core things often overlooked is that employees are *individuals*, not a cluster of the same.  And as individuals, their needs vs. wants are individualized, making it even more challenging for companies to figure them out no less try to meet them.

A recent article in Forbes spoke about 28 research studies that focus on employee engagement, addressing core areas impacted by engagement including sales, retention, and profits.  Basically, the studies highlight the importance of engagement and the direct correlation to healthy, successful companies.  Yet what was not addressed was the correlation between a company's understanding of the *needs* of employees -- the real-life issues facing this mosaic of individuals -- and how addressing these needs translates into engagement.

Like virtually every area of work/life integration, one size does not fit all.  Yes, there are some conclusions that can be drawn and some solutions -- call them benefits, programs, perks -- that can target a large swath of the workforce.  Yet even when solutions seem to be well developed and executed, the ebb and flow of daily living often quickly shifts employee priorities and needs ... often without fanfare or communication to those who may be able to assist.  And this has a direct correlation to engagement.

Companies and the people charged with figuring out the solutions face challenges inherent in a diverse workforce.   Solutions require a level of "company engagement" not needed in prior years because the workforce is vastly different today.  On Monday morning -- or any other morning, look at your employees and remember that each of them is shouldering hidden burdens and life demands that are in direct competition with your need (not want) for them to be engaged.

Asking employees, "What do you need in order to be more engaged at work" means being prepared to respond.  And as with other things in life, not all needs can be met ... or met completely.  But it's asking these needs-driven questions that brings engagement to an individual level.  And isn't this what engagement is really all about?