Future of work and the engagement crisis

The full effect of this pandemic remains, as yet, poorly understood

Future of work and the engagement crisis

by Kendra Bolton, MBA Candidate and Simon Taggar, PhD, MBA, BSc

It is clear that challenging change may be the only certainty when considering the future of work. As organizations continue to adapt and transform due to COVID-19 and as they continue to deal with other work trends (e.g., innovative technologies, remote work and new skill sets), they should not lose focus on the importance of employee engagement.

The full effects of how this pandemic and the new ways of working will affect employee engagement remains poorly understood. However, even before the pandemic, 40% of employees reported feeling isolated at work, resulting in lower engagement (Carr, Reece, Kellerman & Robichaux, 2016, pg. 2).

Not all employee engagement is of a high quality. Employees may be engaged for three reasons. First, because they feel they have no viable work alternatives. That is, they are engaged because they cannot get another job. These employees have “transactional engagement” because they are often motivated to be engaged at the minimal levels required to keep their job. They appear engaged because they don’t want to lose their paycheck, ultimately feeling as though they are prisoners in their organization.

On the other hand, employees with “passionate engagement” focus on achieving organizational goals unburdened by the continuous calculus of what they contribute to the organization and what they get back in return. These employees are generally happy and passionate about their organization and tend to perform to their best abilities. Unlike employees having transactional engagement, employees with passionate engagement do not think that much about gaining alternative employment.

Lastly, employees with “obligated engagement” feel that they owe their employer something. For instance, many newly minted MBAs report feeling that they should stay with their employer because their employer payed for their MBA education. Employees with obligated engagement are likely to display moderate levels of engagement – more than employees having transactional engagement do, but less than employees with passionate engagement do.

Some may ask, is passionate engagement necessary as long as employees are engaged enough to get their job done at a minimally acceptable level? Well, Salesforce, Google, Hilton, Cisco and American Express seem to think so. These organizations have been top ranked when it comes to ensuring their employees display the high levels of engagement associated with passionate engagement. Hilton, for example, topped Fortune’s list of the 100 best companies to work for, two years in a row. They did this by focusing on employee’s first - which seems to be working for them. “With the stock up 274% from its IPO price in 2013, investors are no doubt cheering the employee-first changes too. Says Nassetta of his staff, “I am obsessed with taking care of them.” Sounds like a formula for a long stay as a Best Place to Work. -  Rey Macheyekhi” (Fortune, 2020) Additionally, Highly engaged teams show a 21% greater profitability and disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year. (Beheshti, Forbes, 2019)

So, how can organizations prioritize passionate engagement in these uncertain times?

Below, are a few ideas:

1. Make lemonade out of lemons

With remote work being most likely here to stay, employers need to learn to not only embrace it, but demonstrate to their employees the benefits of remote work. This could be more flexible working hours, home office expenses or encouraging more work-life balance.

2. Make it Meaningful

In a time of uncertainty and disconnection, organizations and leaders should take the time to connect more with their team and employees. Whether it be zoom drinks or other ways to stay connected, leaders must ensure there is time set aside to really get to connect with their teams at a deeper meaningful level. This is a time for leaders to create deeper more personal connections with their employees.

3. Learn New Things

We know that one of the trends in future of work will be new technologies which require new skills. Life-long learning will be crucial during transformative change with the fast pace of innovation. Organizations should be providing learning opportunities and encouraging their employees to try new things. This can be achieved by setting learning goals.

4. Embrace Change

In the race for innovation and transformation, organizations should keep people at the center of these changes. Organizations should value communication and transparency. Additionally, organizations should find ways to get employees involved, seek feedback, and create creative challenges around innovation and change.

5. Well-Being Matters

The Pandemic has been difficult on many. Organizations should ensure that employee well-being is a priority. Whether that be more incentive programs, benefit dollars, mental health days or mindfulness breaks, leaders should make these check-ins a priority.

On the surface, your employees may seem just as engaged as they were this time last year. However, beware, our experience is that in many organizations the amount of passionate employee engagement is slipping as the stresses of workplace change and uncertainty continue to mount. Employee engagement isn’t new however, organizations should be prioritizing employee engagement now more than ever before. We have suggested a few things leaders can do to make these times of uncertainty a little less challenging.

About the authors:

Kendra is a consultant specializing in human capital. She has 5 years of experience working within the human side of the businesses. She is completing her Masters of Business Administration at Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Laurier University. As part of her MBA, she has done extensive research on organizational engagement, commitment and the future of work.

Dr. Simon Taggar is a Professor of Management in the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University. He is a recipient of various research awards and his research has been published in numerous top-tier academic journals. Simon’s work experience includes working as a management consultant.

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