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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking

NAVIGATING TALENT RISK: THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

2021-12-09 13:15

Cathryn Barnard

Blog, EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT, TALENT RISK, GREAT RESIGNATION, RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION, FUTURE OF WORK, FUTURE OF WORK CONSULTING, RETENTION, ENGAGEMENT,

NAVIGATING TALENT RISK: THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

When I was building teams in the 1990s, employee engagement wasn’t a thing.  Nonetheless, the engineers that designed and deployed the phone networks...

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When I was building teams in the 1990s, employee engagement wasn’t a thing. 


Nonetheless, the engineers that designed and deployed the phone networks we depend on today for ubiquitous mobile coverage were high-performing, highly committed and hyper-engaged. They had to be, to deliver against the aggressive network launch targets set by governments across Europe.


Various projects we’ve completed this year have required a deeper analysis of employee engagement in the 2020s.

 
As COVID continues to dismantle ‘business as usual’, we’re forced to continue to work from wherever is safest, regardless of wider media narratives about impact on performance. Statements about getting back to the office seem increasingly shortsighted and narrow-minded. 


And now we’re in the thick of ‘the Great Resignation’ – the clearest indicator yet that we have a chronic engagement issue. 


Perhaps because of my own experience of working with high-performing teams, I struggle to understand why workforce engagement has become so problematic. 


Back in the 1990s, of course, we didn’t have digital tools to connect, measure or motivate us. We just had to get on with it, using whatever communication and relationship skills we had. 


According to Wikipedia, ‘Employee Engagement’ first appeared in management theory in the early 1990s. Boston University’s William Kahn described it as:


“The harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during work performances.”


Since 2000, analytics firm Gallup has tracked global engagement data. It’s found engagement to range between 13-20% which is, you’ll agree, pretty dismal.


It wasn’t until 2008 that the UK Government commissioned research to understand employee engagement and its link to productivity. In the thick of the global financial crisis, it was unsurprising that any obstacles to economic recovery should find themselves under scrutiny. 


The findings of David MacLeod and Nita Clarke have gone on to underpin how we define engagement today. But despite their work(1) and the myriad engagement tools that have emerged in the last decade, creating high-performance work cultures remains elusive. 


I’ve some thoughts as to why this is.


Peter Drucker famously said, “What you can’t measure, you can’t manage”. This seems obvious. Until you know your starting point, you can’t improve.


How can an organisation improve engagement without a baseline measurement of how people really feel about the work they do, their place within an organisation, their colleagues, peers, leaders and managers? 


Having tools available to help us understand the general mood in the room is a huge step forward. But what’s actually getting measured? The quality of information captured surely depends on the right questions being asked in the first instance. While it’s never been easier to conduct an engagement survey, most platforms are set up to capture quantitative, rather than qualitative data. 


Likert and rank-scale questions (where respondents rank preference on a scale) and closed ‘yes/no’ questions (which are regularly used for time efficiency) present a broad overview of employee sentiment, but provide limited insight.


Surveys are also prone to bias. Firstly, we typically race through survey-style questions without huge reflection. This results in data that’s less than accurate; it’s what psychologists refer to as response bias. Secondly, social desirability bias tends to distort response truthfulness as respondents prioritise how they appear to those asking the questions over how they actually feel. 


Furthermore, by asking questions, we imply an interest in the opinions of AN other. When we acquire those insights and then fail to act in response to those revelations, we do more harm than good. We leave people feeling ignored. 


So, while we now have SOME understanding of employee sentiment, it’s important to recognise the limitations.


While today’s engagement tools are a starting point, in my experience, there’s no substitute for a deeper dive exploration into the wants, needs, hopes and aspirations of our colleagues. This requires curiosity and the willingness to hold steady in the presence of ideas that may cause discomfort, because they don’t match our own. In the age of cancel culture, this is an increasingly big ask.


Back when I was working with high-performing teams, I often had to listen to opinions I didn’t identify with. But this is part of the delicate interplay of team dynamics. 


Showing up with a willingness to listen and learn is integral to building and maintaining engagement. Putting your own preferences on a backburner in pursuit of a greater goal is, to my mind, key to getting things done. 

In the 2020s, this will be the work. Increasingly, modern workers are choosing working styles to best suit their life circumstances. Ten years from now, there’s every possibility more people will be self-employed than not. 


Modern workers want to feel seen and heard. The future of work will be highly personalised. When we hold ourselves open to assimilating to alternative views, we expand our worldview and build empathy, connection and community –all vital superpowers for organisations navigating ‘talent risk’ in the future of work.

 

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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Navigating Talent RiskRecruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.


Reference:

1: engageforsuccess.org/our-history/

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