April 2018
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Should We Even Worry About Engagement?

Monday, April 30, 2018

Is it time to stop obsessing about employee engagement? The unfortunate reality is that all of the massive efforts to improve engagement rates over the past decade—all the time spent fretting over engagement surveys, redesigning office spaces, and putting ping-pong tables in break rooms—has done very little to move the needle on engagement rates. The $750-million-per-year industry has barely made a dent in the past generation, which has seen rates improve by a paltry 3 percent over the past 20 years. While this doesn’t mean we should simply give up on making employees happy, maybe it means we should look at it in a different way. Maybe we’re not understanding the problem. What if 30 percent, give or take, is the best we can get as far as engagement goes? And what if the problems we associate with low levels of engagement—turnover and the like—are actually symptoms of a different problem? Maybe it’s time to be comfortable with the fact that 30 percent of the workforce enjoys their work, and 70 percent will be discontent wherever they are. Instead of offering on-site laundry, maybe businesses should instead invest in making employee’s jobs easier, and removing the roadblocks and frictions in their day-to-day workflows.

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Red tape, bureaucracy, and inefficient systems are in fact major obstacles to employee engagement. That's what we found in an employee engagement survey we did at a previous employer. Employee engagement efforts should try to pinpoint exactly what would make the difference to employees. So I think your conclusion is overbroad. It's not that employee engagement doesn't matter, it's that it's very difficult for organizations to identify where they have leverage to improve it.
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