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Engagement
6 Min Read

Why We Need a Renewed Focus on Employee Engagement in 2021

Santiago Jaramillo

I’ve been working in the employee engagement space for quite some time now, and the one thing that has become pretty clear to me (and most everyone in America by now) is that the way we work has changed — especially in the last year. But more than that, the mentality we have around work has changed. 

Remember back in the day, when companies believed that employees should be nothing but grateful for their jobs? Leaders may even say to their teams: 

“You’re fortunate to work here.” 

Today, that sentiment has (rightly) changed to: 

“I’m fortunate to have you on my team.”

Back in 2014, leadership expert Josh Bersin said it best: “The war for talent is over and talent won.”  It’s even more true today in 2021.

The complex labor market has companies scrambling

Just like it’s a buyers’ market for homes, it’s a candidates’ market for jobs. Talent is in control and their expectations are high. The pandemic has only accelerated this desire for more flexibility and control in our career choices.

As Scott Hamilton, global managing director for the human resources and compensation consulting practice at Gallagher told CNBC:

“This is one of the most complex labor markets in recent memory. One of the biggest factors is employers are essentially having to buy back job applicants’ Covid lifestyle.”

According to SHRM, 2 out of 3 employers say maintaining morale has been a challenge since Covid. The number is even higher for companies with 500 or more employees. And as of this July, there were about 9.8 million job vacancies in America. To fill these openings, companies have to compete for talent like never before. 

Perks don’t work — culture is key

The trend a couple of years ago was to attract young professionals with fun perks like free snacks or naps pods. But with more people now working remotely, those office perks aren’t much help for recruiters. And the truth is, they never really moved the needle anyway. Candidates aren’t going to choose your company for your pet insurance — they care about your culture

People want to be engaged in the work they do and have a sense of meaning and purpose. Even before the pandemic, 77% of adults across four countries (US, UK, France, & Germany) in Glassdoor’s Mission & Culture Survey said they would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there, and 79% would consider a company’s mission and purpose before applying. 

On top of that, over half of respondents said company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction. That means, your potential new hire likely cares more about what kind of culture you’re offering than the dollar amount on their offer letter. 

Adaptability wins in times of change

When I’m speaking to a group and trying to explain what it means to be an engaged employee, I like to reference a quote from Khalid Halim, the co-founder of Reboot (a coaching firm that’s worked with leaders at companies like Coinbase, Lyft, and Etsy). 

He writes:

“There is a fundamental shift happening in the way people view work. It’s not just a job or a paycheck anymore. Our work is the expression of our natural gifts intersecting with the needs of the world. This is the purest realization of human potential.” 

This perfectly sums up what many people are looking for when they’re looking for a job. Sure, most of us need a paycheck and good health benefits — that is still important. But if we’re fortunate enough to be choosy about the type of work we do to earn our living, we’re going to look for an employer that fills our cup and helps us reach our potential.

But finding a fulfilling, engaging career isn’t just good for the employee. It’s really good for their company too. 

Highly engaged employees are almost 90% less likely to leave their companies than their disengaged counterparts, and Bain & Company found that engaged staff is 44% more productive than “satisfied” staff. 

I like to describe satisfied employees versus engaged employees like this: Picture a satisfied employee leaning back in their chair. They’re comfortable, taking it easy. An engaged employee, on the other hand, is leaning forward in their chair. They’re engrossed in their work, fired up about what they’re doing.

So how do we as strategic people ops leaders retrofit an employee experience that goes above and beyond compensation and benefits? One that delivers on a culture that provides meaning and opportunity for personal and professional growth? One where people are leaning forward in their chairs, excited about their work?

Strategic employee engagement = easier recruiting and better retention

Right now, so many companies are having a hard time attracting talent. Many are currently understaffed, which leaves the employees that are there overburdened with work, creating a poor work-life balance for them, which then leads to burnout — and eventually turnover. It’s a vicious cycle.

However, there are some companies out there that aren’t having any trouble filling open positions, because they’ve cracked the code on employee engagement. Their own employees are highly engaged and productive. And those employees are referring their friends and bringing more great people into the organization. 

Engagement is a team sport

Right now we’re living in a VUCA environment (i.e., volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). With so much uncertainty, how can people leaders strategically build more engaging cultures?

This transformation happens as the role of HR shifts from operational compliance to strategic business performance and team engagement. People ops leaders must have a seat at the table and work in lockstep with executive leadership, and employee engagement metrics must be tied to key business outcomes. 

To truly thrive and sustain high employee engagement, we typically see three things in an organization:

  1. An executive team that’s aligned and enthusiastic to measure and act on employee engagement data.
  2. A People Ops/HR function that brings in the right engagement measurement partner and acts as team captain for the initiative.
  3. People managers that receive leadership development and partner with the leadership team and HR on the engagement of their teams.

In highly engaged organizations, performance feedback is continuous. As a millennial, I don’t want to wait a year to hear how I’m doing in my role. I want to know if I’m meeting expectations today. To meet that demand, we need continuous feedback and modern tools to track and analyze the data.

Employee engagement is like volleyball, not boxing. It requires dedicated players with different skill sets working together to achieve common goals. 

When it comes to measuring engagement, you can’t just hand HR some software and say “here you go, good luck!” Executives leaders and their teams need to partner with a neutral third party that offers both the software and service that enables them to hit those goals and win — as a team.

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