Avoiding early check-out: keeping employees engaged for the long-term

15 Jun 2021

Avoiding early check-out: keeping employees engaged for the long-term

Employee engagement is key to performance and productivity, but given historically low rates, how can leaders ensure their teams are both satisfied and switched-on.

The figures are plain and powerful. Highly-engaged units and teams, and their individual members, deliver huge benefits.

 The Gallup global poll, the longest- running most comprehensive global survey of employee engagement has solid evidence. When comparing top-quartile with bottom-quartile engagement, their evidence shows that business units and teams resulted in median percent differences such as:

  • 81% drop in in absenteeism
  • 18% rise in turnover for high-turnover organizations
  • 43% rise in turnover for low-turnover organizations
  • 10% rise in customer loyalty/engagement
  • 14% rise in productivity (production records and evaluations)
  • 18% rise in productivity (sales)
  • 23% rise in profitability
  • 66% rise in wellbeing (net thriving employees)
  • 13% rise in organizational citizenship (participation)

Over the past years, since 2000, the same research has followed a similar pattern. The percentage of engaged employees globally has never risen over 36%, whilst the actively disengaged average had moved in a narrow range between 14 and 20%.

In Germany, average employee engagement has shown practically no change for the past 19 years.

The percentage of engaged employees in Germany continues sitting somewhere between 11% and 17%.

Did pandemic drive down engagement?

The pandemic of course brought an unprecedented disruption to the lives of workers of all kinds, with issues like childcare and health interrupting normal lives, raising anxiety and stress levels.

Gallup reports that, despite Covid’s impact, in the US and Germany, overall levels of engagement and stayed at the same low levels, but did rise amongst organizations implementing employee engagement measures and interventions during COVID-19.

Another thing that is unchanged is the undisputed importance of leaders in fostering engagement. Their actions are key.

According to Gallup analytics, only 14% of employees strongly agree that the performance reviews they receive inspire them to improve.

Clearly, there is a problem.

Yes, we have a problem

Like any problem, the first step towards fixing your low engagement level is acknowledging that it exists. And then truly commit to fixing it, not just individually, but as an entire senior leadership team.

To be successful, you must listen first, before action. Understanding the current situation by eliciting honest feedback is crucial to designing a solution. More than anything, employees want to be heard and understood. Just that of listening can go some way to changing the prevailing culture.

However well you listen, it’s what happens with that information that will make or break your credibility and this any initiatives you introduce.

All talk and no action, is not a reputation any leader wants.

Be open by what you’ve found too, and move swiftly, following up with action whilst the listening exercise is still fresh in everyone’s mind. And always resist the temptation to only focus on the good news and hold back the bad. People want action where it’s required, not congratulation for what is already favourable.

Once you have publicized the results, the goal should be to bring the team together in manageable working groups to design solutions that make everyone accountable for a successful delivery.

Once change is underway and responsibilities are distributed, regular short surveys on key areas will keep you informed about progress, and if any flex in the plans is necessary.

However successful the plan, don’t slip back into the once-a- year cycle of checking-in on employees. The world, as COVID-19 has shown, can change extremely rapidly. Once-a-year is simply too long.

Mental health is a  continuing serious issue

Another product of COVID-19 and its pressures is that mental health is being taken far more seriously than before. The intensification of work, existential distress, the shift to remote working and the constant fear of infection put many workers under great psychological pressure. Those pressures can clearly lead to disengagement, and worse.

Calling in sick over depression, anxiety or stress had already risen sharply in Germany. In fact, by 2018, the number of workers calling in sick had tripled over the last twenty years.

Leaders need to become more comfortable in engaging on matters of employee mental health.

They need to ask the right questions, and be able to respond with appropriate support. All as a part of their daily routine and leadership inquiry.

Move beyond process thinking

As Gallup observes, ‘to remain an economic powerhouse, German companies need to invest in solid managerial education to help managers change their behavior from process and structure orientation toward the type of coaching relationships that engage workers. Companies need to teach managers how to drive engagement, hold them accountable for engaging their people, and establish recognition and performance management systems that reward an employee-centric approach to management’.

Leadership team effort

Ultimately, employees will thrive in an environment of care that is not dependent on one individual leader, but is built by the whole senior management team working together, acknowledging the issues that cause employees to disengage, and meeting that challenge every day in every way.

As many have observed, employee engagement is a fluid concept that can be influenced by a number of factors, influences and changes. It has to be a process of continuous improvement.

The effect of the pandemic has been to shorten the distance between leaders and their teams, and opened up aspects of their mutual lives that might normally have been invisible. This is an opportunity to create better, more human relationships that can form the basis for increased engagement. It is a rare moment of shared experience that should not be wasted.