The $64,000 Question: How Can Engagement be Improving in the Middle of a Global Pandemic?

John Hollon Culture, Employee Engagement, Employment Branding and Culture, Engagement and Satisfaction, Workplace Flexibilty

I thought I was done writing about employee engagement.

It’s always been an interesting concept because of what it represented — the notion that the more that people are committed in their organization and their work, the better they they will perform their duties.

Or as Fistful of Talent’s Grand Poobah Kris Dunn once put it, employee engagement is “Discretionary effort that you don’t have to threaten someone to get.”  

This always made a lot of sense, especially the view that it really helps an organization when employees are willing to go above and beyond because they truly care about their jobs and the company they work for.

When better employee engagement became THE big workplace goal, a lot of time and money was spent on improving it, and many organizations invested in all manner of consultants and programs that were supposed to help drive their engagement scores higher.

How can engagement numbers be going up?

Well, as I pointed out four years ago in a FOT post titled It’s High Time We gave Up the Ghost on Employee Engagement, it generally didn’t work. As I noted then:

“Despite all the focus and spending, the percentage of engaged American employees has gone all the way from 31 percent in April 2011 to a whopping 32.7 percent in August 2016, according to Gallup. … Two-thirds of our workers are NOT engaged on the job, and worldwide, the number drops to a piddling 13 percent, according to Gallup.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that our efforts to improve employee engagement have failed miserably. Never has so much been spent by so many to do so little.”

I used to write a lot about employee engagement, but after writing that, I gave up the ghost on it.

So imagine my surprise last week when my friend Jason Lauritsen, a smart guy who really studies and follows the ins and outs of employee engagement, wrote this over on HR Examiner:

“Since early 2020, hardly anything about how we do work has escaped disruption. Where, when, and how we work has changed dramatically. … Given all this change plus the economic disruption that has resulted in 30 million unemployed in the U.S., one would assume that employee engagement is on the decline.

That’s why Gallup’s recent engagement trends data is such a head-scratcher. According to their most recent data, employee engagement is at an all time high.

You read that right — all time high (at least for the 20-some years they’ve been measuring it).”

What? Engagement is at an all-time high? How can that be?

According to Gallup’s measurement, employee engagement in the U.S. is now at 40 percent, but as Jason Lauritsen is quick to point out, “That means 60 percent of employees are still less than engaged. So, while the trend has moved in the right direction, nothing has been fixed or figured out.

It’s still all about your workplace culture

All of this begs the question — why?

If all the spending on engagement when the economy was booming didn’t help that much, why is it moving up now, in a year like 2020, when so many people have lost their jobs or are working remotely?

Jason offers a couple of possibilities — that people who still have jobs are feeling more grateful than they were a year ago, or that employees who have been lobbying for more flexibility and the ability to work from home have finally gotten what they want — but he also says that our expectations about work have changed, and THAT may really be what the rise in engagement scores are picking up.

His HR Examiner article digs into this a lot deeper, of course, and it’s well worth reading if you’re interested.

Here’s my take: But my view hasn’t changed much from what I wrote here four years ago.

Back then, after years of watching the numbers and the spending, I came to the conclusion that employee engagement wasn’t nearly as important as so many organizations thought it was. In fact, I argued that better engagement shouldn’t be the goal, but actually was the result, of a great culture.

In fact, good engagement is really the product of a great workforce culture, and those just don’t get built up overnight. “Building a strong and supportive employee culture, ” I noted,” one where everyone feels encouraged to do their very best work with a bare minimum of bureaucracy and BS, can take years to construct and high-level focus to keep going once you do.”

It’s great that engagement has improved a little, for whatever reason, but I believe it is just an odd outcome of the oddest year any of us have ever lived through.

And, I still believe that we’ve been focused way too much on employee engagement, and that focus has come at the expense of a lot of other things.

Employee engagement? The numbers may be up, but in the larger sense, it’s still yesterday’s news. With all the craziness around us in this strange and unpredictable year, our focus should still be on the basics — building strong cultures and treating employees better.

And like I’ve said before, if you get that right and you won’t need to worry about engagement, because engagement will take care of itself.

In my book, that’s still the case today, pandemic or no.