New research shows employee engagement levels are low, and it might not just be a case of the end-of-year energy lull. Here are three ways HR can help.
Employee engagement levels are waning at the tail end of 2023, with new research from Gartner suggesting only 31 per cent of people are feeling energy, enthusiasm and engagement for their work at the moment.
While predictable end-of-year exhaustion is likely influencing these statistics, there are also potential structural issues to consider, says Neal Woolrich, Director of HR Advisory at Gartner.
He refers to three factors that are currently contributing to an “unsettled relationship between employers and employees” this year.
“One was the controversy around flexible work,” he says. “There’s a tension between employers and employees, especially employers who have brought people back to the office with mandates.”
There’s also a lot of anxiety around productivity, he adds.
“Organisations are worried that, because of other financial strains they’re [dealing with] – inflation, supply chain constraints and those sorts of things – they won’t meet their productivity targets.
“Employees are also worried about their own performance. People are just tapping out – they don’t feel as though they can keep up any longer. They’ve already gone over capacity.”
The third factor, he says, pertains to growing mutual distrust between employees and employers. Both sides often feel as though the other isn’t meeting their end of the bargain.
“That mutual distrust is leading to a tense relationship that’s building up over time, and the net result is engagement challenges,” says Woolrich.
Read HRM’s article about how to manage an increasingly polarised workforce.
The research, which surveyed over 3500 employees globally, found that those who were feeling engaged contributed 15 per cent more to their organisations, and would offer 31 per cent more discretionary effort.
“If [employees are] not engaged, they’re less likely to be high performers and they’re less likely to be connected to their organisation’s culture. So if you’re trying to drive any initiatives around culture… and get people feeling emotionally inspired, it’s much harder,” says Woolrich.
Understand what employees actually want
If employees are feeling a lack of a meaningful connection to their work, it’s important to understand exactly what’s driving this.
Woolrich says many employees feel like they’re “speaking into the void” when it comes to the support they need to do their jobs well. HR can act as an important bridge between employers and employees, coaching managers to design more engaging work experiences and encouraging them to collect diverse data on employee sentiment.
For example, with the best intentions, a manager might assume an employee wants a development opportunity to re-engage them in their work. But if an employee is feeling exhausted at this time of the year, that opportunity might feel like more work for them.
In fact, Gartner’s research suggests it might be more effective to figure out how to remove friction points at work instead. In June 2023,Gartner found that 40 per cent of employees would prefer fixes to difficult processes over development opportunities.
Those difficult processes – or friction points – often fall into one of four categories, says Woolrich. They are:
- Misaligned work design – Systems and processes aren’t up-to-date. People don’t know where to find support and resources when they need them.
- Overwhelmed teams – Employees are stuck in the “noise” of work and don’t have a way to focus on what’s strategically important to them.
- Trapped resources – An inability to move people or budgets around when circumstances change.
- Rigid processes – A lack of ability to devolve decision-making to where it’s most appropriate.
“All these work barriers make it more difficult for people to get their job done; they build up like barnacles on a boat,” says Woolrich.
“The organisations we’ve seen over-perform in getting people more engaged are ones that have a strong focus on identifying work frictions and taking action on them.
“We found that people are willing to work hard, but they’re not willing to work hard on things that should be easier.”
A potential starting point to addressing these “barnacles” could be encouraging staff to keep a ‘friction log’ for a period of time then come together as an organisation to work through the most common challenges that emerge. For example, people might feel like you’re hosting too many meetings.
HR can also coach managers to better understand the things that dictate employees’ energy levels. This will look different to everyone, so AHRI has developed a helpful tool – the ‘energy pyramid’ (example below) – that helps employees prioritise the things that give them energy.
AHRI members can download a printable energy pyramid template and a checklist of questions for managers to ask their people in 1 on 1 meetings to assess energy levels. Log into your AHRI account, navigate to the ‘Recruitment and Retention’ section and you’ll find it under ‘templates’. Not yet an AHRI member? Learn more about the exclusive benefits you can recieve here.
Communicate the message differently
Gartner found six in 10 employees weren’t clear on what their organisations were doing to remedy employee engagement challenges.
Woolrich suggests this is because the language used in HR/management circles doesn’t always resonate with employees.
“I would [describe it] as a deal between employer and employees – a two-way bargain. That’s the kind of language I’ve seen work effectively in other organisations,” he says.
It’s also important to clearly communicate your efforts and journey with people.
“People are willing to work hard, but they’re not willing to work hard on things that should be easier.” – Neal Woolrich, Director, HR Advisory, Gartner
He refers to the Australian Tax Office as an interesting case study.
“They plotted out what they’ve done in the years gone by, how they’ve responded to employee engagement survey feedback and the initiatives that have resulted.
“[The roadmap also includes] what they are working on at the moment [and] what their focus is for the future. That encourages employees to participate in future engagement surveys because they know there’s a roadmap of progress [they can follow].”
Managers need employee engagement training
Employee engagement rates can be boosted by 51 per cent, according to Gartner, when managers are supported in making plans to execute engagement strategies.
However, after speaking with 144 Chief HR Officers, Gartner discovered that the majority of actions/behaviours that predict employee engagement rates sit with managers, but only 20 per cent of CHROs thought managers knew how to act on engagement feedback.
Woolrich says there are three common aspects that managers struggle with, which he encapsulates as skill, will and hill.
“The ‘hill’ is those organisational barriers (mentioned above). The ‘skill’ is HR business partners equipping managers with the support and training they need to understand how to engage their team. And then the ‘will’ is managers being brought into this and knowing that it’s important for themselves, their teams and the organisation.”
Looking at managers’ responsibilities from all three angles is important, says Woolrich, because he believes the job of the manager is “becoming unmanageable”.
“Managers’ roles and responsibilities have increased at twice the rate of individual contributors since the pandemic. They’re the ones who are copping most of the burden, and we [tend to] blame them – saying they need to do more. But it’s not all about the managers. It’s also about some of those organisational barriers that get in the way.”
Develop the necessary skills to tap into the full potential of team members with this short course on creating high-performance teams from AHRI.