Are we wasting money on employee engagement?

Posted by Steve Carter on May 27, 2018 12:48:39 PM
Steve Carter
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A lot of organizations have employee engagement programs - and spend a lot of money on them. Then they do an engagement survey and discover that they are not getting any results. A Towers-Watson study showed that two-thirds of US employees are not engaged in their work, despite all the money spent on engagement consultants and software. The UK gets similar results. Why is this - and what can organizations do better?

There are several reasons why employee engagement programs or strategies fail - here are the top ones and what to do about them:

1. Employers think short-term. Too many employee engagement programs offer a quick perk, boosting scores, but then it fades out. So they toss in another perk - free coffee, or whatever. Employees quickly realize that they are getting a band aid, and see through the strategy. Instead, organizations need to think about long term improvements to the work environment.

2. Employers have no actual strategy. Instead of having a plan to improve employee engagement, they do whatever the latest buzz word is to keep everyone happy. The answer, of course, is to think through and come up with a solid strategy.

3. Employers ask everyone what their employees want...except their employees. Going to an expensive engagement consultant to ask what people want or need at work rather than simply asking them is never going to get a result.

4. Employers get obsessed with engagement programs and get caught up in a cycle of studies, graphs and "benchmarks" instead of looking at the workplace as a whole and what they can do to improve it. This means that while employees can initially get excited about the chance to give feedback, they rapidly realize that all the feedback is doing is making graphs for the conference room wall.

The truth is - employee engagement programs are almost always a complete waste of time and money. In fact, they can often reduce profitability. What engages workers is managers who actually care, shared values, good communication, and solid career paths that encourage them to thrive. Which might not mean happiness - the happiest workers are sometimes the ones who are sitting there going through the motions, while a bit of dissatisfaction encourages people to push for the next thing. Research shows little or no correlation between job satisfaction and performance.

So, what should companies do instead of hiring employee engagement consultants? The simple answer is: Hire and train better managers. The basic core of making employees "engaged" and productive is ensuring they are treated properly and listened to by their immediate supervisor - and making sure they have a goal to attain, whether it's a higher bonus, the development of a skill they enjoy, or earning extra vacation time off. What that goal is depends on the person - so the first thing to do is listen to your employees. For example, instead of setting a specific reward such as a bonus, consider offering a choice of rewards - a bit of extra money versus a day off, for example. This will motivate people better - and will also tell you more about that specific employee and what they consider most important.

And instead of investing in employee "engagement," consider investing in employee experience. This means designing the workplace around the needs of the employees. Real-time feedback programs have been demonstrated to produce good results. Letting employees have input into changes in the design of the office gives people more of a sense of control. The key is to look at what employees, your employees, really want and need and to consider how best to give it them. The results are a much greater increase in productivity than any "employee engagement program" can provide.

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