Engagement is one of the favorite topics of HR and managers. For some because it is a sign of well-being, for others because it is a prerequisite for performance.
So when it comes to talking about the future of work, especially in an unstable and hybrid world, the subject cannot be avoided.
So there is no future of work without a future of engagement and we will once again analyze this topic through the forces that shape the future of work.
Employee engagement has been one of the key concerns during the crisis and even managers and leaders who previously paid little attention to the subject have started to look at it carefully.
Let’s be honest, not always for as pure a reason as we wanted it to be. If HR really wanted employees not to suffer in a difficult time, for others it sometimes meant “we hope they don’t take advantage of remote work to try to work less”.
I think they were happy to see that remote work was not the “slacker’s paradise” that too many still try to make it out to be. Well, for those who are in good faith.
However, the pandemic has shown one thing: it is difficult to assess people’s engagement when you don’t see them.
Ok, there are the usual barometers and surveys but we know that they measure satisfaction and not engagement. Moreover, they analyze things in a global way with a long periodicity whereas what we need today is to know things at an individual level with a short periodicity.
In short, managers were at a loss when it came to understanding the level of engagement of their remote teams. Why? Because most of the time, engagement is evaluated based on certain behaviors (tone, attitude, employee advocacy, willingness to socialize, etc.) and on non-verbal communication that is difficult to perceive from a distance, especially when you are not used to it.
In short, for those who were not yet aware of it, for many the assessment of engagement was an entirely subjective notion and proved difficult from a distance.
Of course, the real issue of the pandemic was maintaining engagement, but since it is only possible to act on what can be measured, we had to ask ourselves the question of how to measure engagement in this special context, which will become the norm with hybrid work.
We know that consumer platforms are constantly trying to find the right way to measure the engagement of their users/customers and some managers may legitimately wonder why this is not so developed in enterprise software.
I’m always suspicious when it some consider that customer and employee engagement are exactly the same thing but there may be ideas to steal from there.
It is omnipresent on the subject, or thinks it is. In any case, if the market already existed before the pandemic, it has skyrocketed since.
Survey and feedback applications allowing to measure employee engagement in a fine-tuned and almost real-time way were very popular before the pandemic (sometimes too much so, in my opinion) and even more so during the pandemic, with many vendors going so far as to change the positioning of tools that were not necessarily designed for this purpose in order to take advantage of the windfall.
They are infinitely more relevant than the old and cumbersome barometers, but they are still based on declarations and on voluntary participation, which is not free of bias.
We could consider using secondary data but this raises two questions. The first is to avoid misusing this as Microsoft almost did with Viva (with good intentions at the beginning): no, reading your emails at midnight is not a sign of engagement and can even be a sign of much more negative things at the employee or management level. The second is how far to go in terms of data privacy. A long time ago I saw tools that by analyzing the content of email boxes, chats, looking at who was interacting with whom or stopped interacting with whom, drew bottom lines in terms of engagement and risk of attrition. I don’t know if the results were relevant, I know that it can be essential in terms of compliance in some industries within a very strict framework, but on a large scale it is a time bomb in any other case.
In short, there are the beginnings of something but nothing 100% satisfactory (even if it is infinitely better than nothing or what we had before).
The evolution of society and economy
No impact here.
The transformation of service activities and knowledge work
I would rather talk about the transformation of work and activities in the context of increasingly distributed and hybrid businesses.
I have repeatedly explained that the nature of most white-collar work makes it impossible to control their work, to control them, and that you have to learn to focus on what they deliver. This is even more true at a distance.
At this point, should we say that in this context we can no longer measure engagement on behaviors and attitudes but on tangible and non-declarative data? Let’s just say that the sequence has the merit of raising the question.
Bottom line: towards a new way of measuring engagement
This topic echoes a recent question of mine. I was hearing people say about their employees that they were not engaged because of the way they interacted online with others and behaved during the rare moments when it was possible to be together. They did their jobs with awareness, dedication, and a genuine desire to help others succeed, but when their day was done they also wanted to get on with their lives and not continue with a drink with their colleagues.
Disengaged employees? I’ll let you be the judge, but it got me thinking about whether effective collaboration is something technical or emotional.
I remain convinced that an employee’s engagement and dedication cannot be limited to the way he behaves . I’m not talking about discipline, of course, but about warmth, expressiveness and socialization.
Which brings me to an article that interested me earlier this year.
Here is what I highlighted at the time :
“Recent research from the O.C. Tanner Institute indicates that engagement can be a flawed and misleading gauge of effectiveness, as it’s not a measure of the quality and impact of the work product itself. And with remote and hybrid work changing the employer-employee equation, and mass resignations shifting the power balance, it’s clear that even the best traditional measures of workplace activity may no longer be relevant. That’s why we believe that companies would do well to hone in on a different metric in 2022 and beyond. Let’s measure “great work” instead.“
Or else :
Here are the five key behaviors that employees who produce great work demonstrate:
- They ask the right questions, like “How might this task/process/problem be made easier/faster/safer/better?”
- They go and see, which may mean standing on an assembly line or watching users interact with a product.
- They talk to an outer circle, gathering information and insight from a broad array of experts.
- They improve the mix, continually fine-tuning and improving upon their work.
- They deliver the difference, remaining laser-focused on positive outcomes.
This leads to a categorization of employees into different profiles.
Socializers are outgoing, driven, and motivated by fun and rewards. They are only 12% likely to produce great work but 55% likely to demonstrate engagement.
Builders are warm, friendly, emotionally intelligent, and diplomatic. They’re 45% likely to produce great work and 85% likely to demonstrate engagement, and they tend to be motivated by goals, fun, and rewards.
Achievers are driven and high-energy but can be tense and moody. Of all the groups, they have the highest likelihood of doing great work (66%) and demonstrating engagement (96%). They are motivated by fun, rewards, and avoiding punishment.
Taskers are generally quieter, more composed, and more resistant to feedback. They respond well to rewards, but not to fun or punishment. They have a 10% probability of producing great work and a 46% probability of engagement.
Coasters tend to be pessimistic and prone to stress. They appreciate rewards, seek to avoid punishment, and have just a 3% chance of producing great work (and only a 17% chance of demonstrating engagement).
Is there anything that shocks you? If we take engagement as everyone understands it today, there is in almost all cases no link between what we see as engagement and the fact of achieving great work! Almost all people who are perceived as engaged do not achieve great work!
To go further, I think I see the difference between old-fashioned engagement and “great work”: while engagement was measured in terms of attitudes towards people and the company, “great work” is measured in terms of attitudes towards work and the search for improvement and performance.
One shows the real or declared will to be part of a collective, the other to contribute to pulling the collective upwards.
What could be more logical at a time when we are moving towards a results-based culture?
So there is a problem.
Because if everyone is so interested in engagement, it is because we are convinced that an engaged employee is more productive and efficient and all this shows the opposite! Or rather, it shows that when we try to measure employee engagement, either we are wrong to do so because it is useless or we measure it in the wrong way by looking at the wrong indicators.
Surprising? Not so much. Already this article from the Harvard Business Review showed us that being engaged does not mean being productive.
So if we consider that engagement is an essential factor for quality work, and if we try to think about the future of work we have two options
• Either engagement is not a useful thing to measure and improve because it has no impact.
• Either it is useful but it is very badly measured.
In both cases, it will be impossible to think about and design the future of work without asking what engagement or even the future of engagement is, and how to measure it or at least observe it.