It should go without saying that the working world has its share of fully committed and engaged employees. There is no shortage of those workers who have found the job that suits them, at a company they believe in. Look around, and you’ll see people who are doing well—they may not be overjoyed with their employment, but things are good.
That is not, however, the complete picture. If you manage a workplace or are in close enough proximity to those who do to overhear the complaints and laments they give voice to at the office, it will not surprise you to hear that workplace engagement is not, across the board, at an all-time high.
In fact, engagement appears to be on the wane. I have recently been interviewing employees of many big companies in tech, retailing, food, and other industries. When I ask how they like their jobs, and how likely they are to remain in them, the answer is often the same: “I get great benefits here, but I cannot wait to jump off the boat.”
The ones I talk to who work in the gig economy say, “I don’t want to go back, but I’m not making enough money—it is a struggle.”
Things are good enough, but if you scratch the surface things don’t look as good. For some companies, employees turn over as quickly as if they rode on a raft on a rushing river, and their employers had but a frayed rope to keep them moored to where they wanted or needed them to stay.
Even when a company retains employees, they are often unsatisfied. They have one eye on the door, or they have one eye on the clock, which cannot tick fast enough for them.
A little bit of this is inevitable. Even people who love their jobs are often eager to go home to their kids, the gym, or their home entertainment centers by the time 4:30 PM rolls around.
But anything more than a little disengagement can be costly. And a recent Gallup poll found that only 33 percent of employees are actively engaged at work.
People go to work, and they do their work, but they don’t care about their work. If what they produce isn’t the best it could possibly be, it doesn’t matter to them, for any number of reasons that have everything to do with how we run the companies that employ them. It is up to us to determine how to rectify this, and there are a million more wrong ways to accomplish that than there are right ones.
Even at jobs where employees are passionate and unusually engaged, Facebook and Twitter are always one ALT-TAB away. People are distracted, at work and elsewhere. Employees may not be bound to their desks, but they carry the same diversions in their pockets all the same.
What is there to do about it? Institute rules against social media use? Penalize workers for gazing into their phones when they should be unloading those trucks?
That would only mean exacerbating another unfortunate trend, making employees resentful, or at least unhappy. Workplaces today can be toxic enough; we had better not contribute to the toxicity.
It could be that your employees don’t feel they are fairly compensated. Maybe they aren’t! Maybe they deserve a raise.
If so, you should give it to them, but know that this is unlikely to solve the problem of disengagement, long-term. It’s true! Studies have shown that even paying people more money does little to nothing to address the slippery problem of employee disengagement.
Looking for small solutions like this one can be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. The moment you offer one remedy, an identical problem springs up elsewhere, and on and on until everyone is either exhausted or has been bashed in the head with a mallet.
Is it any wonder that younger generations of prospective employees are doing all that they can to find ways out of such arrangements? The gig economy offers any number of alternative arrangements, whether they work from home on a contract-to-contract basis or create their own startups—where engagement is not in question, and where disengagement has a direct and undeniable effect on their own livelihoods.
The plain and yet difficult truth of it all is that, in order to keep from losing the most talented employees to the new, alternative paths, we must ourselves take a new, alternative approach to management, and rethink our roles from the ground up as we trudge forward into the twenty-first century.
Employers have had documented success in increasing employee engagement by guaranteeing an employee’s sense of personal growth, improving communication between workers and management, and using those avenues of communication to bolster workers’ senses of importance to the company, ensuring that they know they are valued and necessary.
If we do not do these things, and more, as well as we could, then changes are in order—and those changes should be fundamental. A time is coming when we will have no choice but to rethink our management philosophies, when leadership will come to mean a great deal more than it currently does.
What will get employees to spring out of bed in the morning then, rather than slump reluctantly to the office, is the same thing that makes the spring / slump difference now. What everyone wants—in addition to fair compensation, respect, and all of the other essential things—is to know that what they do has meaning. They want to have a sense of purpose.
An employee knows that they are a part in a machine. They want that part to be oiled with competitive benefits and salary, and communication with management and peers—but they want, too, to know that the machine of which they are, for so much of every day, an essential cog, serves a worthy purpose. No one ever entered a field of work saying they wanted to put in the bare minimum of effort, clock out, go home, and not think about the bigger implications of what they do.
People want to care about what they do. It is up to us to find the right ways to see why they should. The way to retain the best talent is to ensure that implications such as these are never in question. Employees need to know that your company is doing work that means something. And that purpose must be felt and understood by everyone, down the line.
How do we do that?
That is the tricky part. But think of Nike’s recent ad campaign that puts the image of Colin Kaepernick’s face over the company’s logo. Leave aside your feelings—whatever they might be—concerning Kaepernick’s protests and the controversy that rose up around them. And leave aside the question of how well Nike’s overall ethos as a company aligns with Kaepernick’s cause.
What Nike did with that campaign was to tell its customers and employees alike that the company stands for something. They are not simply making and selling shoes; they are participating in a national discourse. They have a renewed identity; they’re not only about striving and just doing it; they are about bucking the system. They have, among other things, a new sense of purpose.
Whether this has had a remarkable effect on employee engagement at Nike has yet to be seen. But by September 10, its sales had spiked 31 percent.
There are far less controversial ways to imbue our work and our employees’ work with a greater sense of purpose. We will explore the question of how to do that in posts to come.
For now, consider the potential benefits of this approach to rethinking management. Increased sales? Better employee engagement, leading to reduced costs?
Is there any good reason not to start taking this seriously?
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