Workplace Culture

Employers Seek More Satisfaction With an Engaged Workforce

By Richard Rothschild

Apr. 13, 2011

Judy Whitcomb can recall a time when employers were content with satisfied workers.

But in the wake of a deep recession and surveys indicating burned-out workers are ready to jump at the next job opportunity, Whitcomb, assistant vice president of learning and organizational development for Chicago-based Vi, which runs senior-living residences in 11 states, says employers must change their perception of a contented workforce.

“Employers now are looking for the difference between satisfied and engaged—when employees are going above and beyond [their job description] and have an emotional attachment to the company,” Whitcomb says. “Satisfied is not good enough.”

Employee engagement is the elusive new golden goose to revitalizing and retaining a workforce that’s psychologically and in some cases physically drained by two-plus years of massive cutbacks and doing more with less. BlessingWhite Inc., a worldwide consulting company focused on employee satisfaction issues with North American headquarters in Skillman, New Jersey, says engagement melds an employee’s contribution to a company’s success with their own personal satisfaction in their job.

A relatively new term, employee engagement is the principles and policies by which an organization or company “engages” its workers to improve productivity, creativity and loyalty. Engagement can take the form of feedback, career development or strong leadership.

Engagement experts quoted in this story offered their top 15 ways to best engage workers. Their advice includes:

• Onboarding experience

• Offer clear lines of sight or alignment

• Feedback/communication

• Feeling of community

• Opportunities for job advancement

“The measure of engagement has been constant over the last couple of years,” says Ilene Gochman, consulting director of Chicago-based Towers Watson & Co.

Gochman cites three areas to measure engagement: the “head or rational,” what direction a company has charted; the “emotional,” the pride and connection of working at a company; and the “motivational” or, as she puts it, “whether you are jumping out of bed on a Monday morning ready to do any assignment.”

“What we see are [employees] that are getting increasingly optimistic,” Gochman adds. “Does a company offer long-term opportunities, employee development and career path? Those areas took a big hit in 2009.”

Yet firm answers to whether employees remained engaged during the recession and subsequent rebound seem elusive.

“We can make a broad-brushed statement that all things [with engagement] took a hit in 2009-10,” says David Wilkins, vice president of research for HR software company Taleo in Dublin, California. “There was a loss of personnel, a cutback in training. Most people’s vision last year was survival.

According to a study by Philadelphia-based Right Management, the outplacement services division of recently rebranded ManpowerGroup, 84 percent of the more than 1,400 North American workers polled in late 2010 “intend to actively seek a new position” this year. The number was 60 percent a year earlier, according to Right Management.

“As companies lost personnel, there were very high levels of worker productivity but now there’s a drop-off because people are just burnt. There was only so long people could sustain that,” Wilkins says.

And when employees think they’ve reached their breaking point—either psychologically or at their job—they look for a change.

“The burnout factor is starting to take hold,” says Judy Sweeney, who runs her own research firm in Milton, Massachusetts. “There is a big jump in people who want to look for another job after an intense period of doing more with less.

“People are saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

If 84 percent of employees truly are thinking about finding a new job, it behooves companies to engage the people with the creativity and ability to contribute to an organization for years to come, Wilkins says.

“When people leave an organization, survey after survey shows that one of the top five reasons is always the lack of career growth,” Wilkins says.

In other words, poor engagement plays a big role in their departure.

“Low engagement often leads to low retention, which leads to low productivity,” says Alice Snell of Snell Research in Raleigh, North Carolina. “There have to be opportunities within the organization. People need to see how they can grow with the company.

“The employee-employer relationship, at its core, is an investment.”

Snell notes that the recession forced many employees to stay put. As the economy turns around, however, low engagement can mean a loss of top performers, making it crucial for organizations to develop what she calls “talent intelligence.”

“A company has to understand who they have and what good performers and good performances look like,” she says.

Perhaps the most extensive recent study was BlessingWhite’s Employee Engagement Report 2011. Published in December 2010, researchers contacted HR and line leaders and conducted an online survey that drew 11,000 responses from around the world.

Among the report’s findings:

• Thirty-one percent of employees are engaged and 17 percent are disengaged.

• More employees are looking for new opportunities outside their organization than three years ago.

• Employees worldwide view opportunities to apply their talents, career development and training as the top drivers of job satisfaction.

• Trust in executives can have more than twice the impact on engagement levels than trust in immediate managers.

BlessingWhite’s study notes, “Executives aren’t getting the basics of performance right. Creating an environment that supports high performance … received the least favorable response in the entire survey.”

Whitcomb of Vi, formerly known as Classic Residence by Hyatt, has seen how employee engagement leads to better customer engagement and higher productivity. “We’ve really turned our company upside down” in terms of employee engagement, she says.

Whitcomb says it became imperative for Vi’s 4,000 employees to better engage customers—in this case, Vi’s elderly residents.

She cites one study saying companies that are highly engaged with employees enjoy 26 percent higher revenue per employee and a 13 percent higher total return to shareholders.

Whitcomb puts the onus on management.

“Without competent managers, everything else falls apart. You have to have managers who are engaged.”

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