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Boosting Worker Engagement in Tough Times

Engagement is always critical but never more so than during tough economic times. When resources become leaner and employees are asked to do more with less, stress levels can climb and engagement levels can drop. Developing effective strategies for keeping the workforce engaged becomes paramount.

That's easier said than done, of course. No matter the economic outlook, employee engagement is a top challenge for organizations. In fact, a major survey conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and commissioned by the American Society for Training & Development in late 2007 found that only about a third of the average respondents' workforces are highly engaged and nearly a quarter are disengaged or minimally engaged.

It's not that organizations don't view engagement as crucial. In fact, the survey—which included 776 participants—found that more than four out every five respondents said engagement is of high or very high importance. The real problem is that many organizations just don't know how to get started. Engagement can, after all, seem like a nebulous term that's difficult to gauge and even more difficult to influence. But if this study showed anything, it's that there are various practical, achievable steps for boosting engagement.

What's the secret? Two words: culture and leadership.

Analysis of i4cp's survey suggests that the organizations reporting more highly engaged workers differed most from their more poorly engaged counterparts in the strategic area of actively promoting a culture of engagement. The results also suggest that one of the best ways of forging such a culture of engagement is by ensuring that organizational leaders, including immediate supervisors, are skilled in the area of engagement improvement. After all, having a good relationship between employees and immediate supervisors was recognized as a top driver of employee engagement.

Yet leaders are lacking in this area. Less than a third of respondents (29%) said that their leaders currently take effective actions to improve employee engagement to a high extent, but fully 79% said that their organizations should do so. A meager 15% agreed that employees think leaders are quite skilled at engaging the workforce. And less than a quarter said their organizations train managers in how to engage employees to a high extent, while 86% said their organizations should do so.

The bottom line is that many leaders and managers need considerably better engagement-building skills than they currently possess. Their skills deficit is one of the most widely cited barriers to engagement, second only to the notion that leaders and supervisors are not held accountable for engagement. So, most organizations need to become better at both educating leaders in how to engage employees and holding them responsible for actually acting on this knowledge.

Following are some of the other most prominent findings of the engagement survey:
  • Higher reported levels of engagement are correlated with higher levels of market performance, as gauged by self-reports in the areas of revenue growth, market share, profitability, and customer satisfaction. So it appears that companies that perform better in the marketplace also tend to have higher engagement levels.
  • Organizations with more highly engaged employees differ from organizations with less-engaged workers in some interesting ways. For example:
    —Highly engaged organizations place more faith in practices such as peer coaching, stretch assignments, and communities of practice as methods of boosting engagement; that is, they seem to emphasize what could be termed "learning cultures" more than other organizations do.
    —Organizations with less-engaged workers tend to use engagement-building strategies to a lesser extent.
    —Less-engaged organizations are not as likely to take strong actions to deal with disengaged employees, that is, they're relatively passive in the face of low engagement.

During stressful financial conditions, however, some managers might be tempted to shift engagement issues to the back burner. After all, the reasoning might go, engagement will pop back up when things get better, and turnover rates are less of a problem during a general economic downturn.

It's true, of course, that stressful working conditions are a barrier to engagement, with about a third of respondents saying such conditions inhibit engagement to a high or very high degree. But such situations are not nearly as much of a problem—according to the survey findings—as a lack of accountability and skills among senior leaders and supervisors. And, as far as barriers go, stressful conditions are even ranked below a lack of advancement opportunities and a lack of an engagement connection to performance assessments.

So, it's likely that engagement levels can be boosted, even during the tough times, if organizations take the trouble and make the right decisions. And higher engagement levels are, according to the study, linked to enhanced customer service, improved productivity and a healthier bottom line. In good times or bad, these are excellent reasons for making worker engagement a top priority.