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Conflicting views on engagement?

I find there’s always a lot of talk about employee engagement in the news. Even before the recession, HR magazines and blogs were always asking how best to engage employees. Many based their stories on case studies or new research projects. I guess there are some new ideas about the topic now that hip companies like Google offer benefits like free meals and massages and “20 percent time” when employees work on semi-personal side projects.

Image: interview.officialtips.com

Image: interview.officialtips.com

There are a lot of factors. Some employees need recognition, in the form of pay, benefits, seniority or favour. Others need to feel that they are part of the company and have a stake in its success. Still others need to feel a connection to their work; it must be creative and challenging. Most workers probably need some balance of all these factors. I know I wouldn’t last long in a dull and repetitive environment. But I also would feel unappreciated if I weren’t remunerated appropriately.

But it’s not so easy to provide that balance, hence the free meals and massages at one company and the enhanced benefits or group paintball sessions at another.

Here are two takes on engagement that I’ve come across recently.

Author Tammy Erickson writes on the Harvard Business Review that “Meaning is the new money“. Gone are the days when employers can assume, “If you can see your employees working, they’re productive. If you pay them more, they’ll work harder.” At least when it comes to jobs that involve extended collaboration, which Erickson defines as “the ability to work together beyond the scope of small groups.”

Unlike process-based work, in which the goal is to perform synchronized tasks consistently and reliably, extended collaboration occurs asynchronously and is often aimed at discovering or developing something new. Rather than requiring everyone to be in the same place at the same time, extended collaboration can occur virtually. In process-based work, quality can be assured through in-process inspection and performance judged on conformity to process specifications, while the quality of collaborative work can typically be assessed only by the results achieved.

Because, “People have to choose to do it and have to want to do it well”, this type of work demands employees who are motivated more by meaning than by money. For work to be meaningful, it has to “reflect a clear set of values” that the workers share. “Clear company values, translated into the day-to-day work experience, are one of the strongest drivers of an engaged workforce, one primed for successful collaboration.”

At the same time, surveys consistently find that employees feel they simply aren’t paid enough to do their jobs. The American Psychological Association’s annual survey found that 36 percent of US workers experience chronic stress, and salary is a major cause of the problem. Other factors are limited opportunities to advance and overwork. As a result, 32 percent of respondents said they’d be looking for a new job. These are not engaged employees.

Stephanie Overman writes in Fortune magazine that workers in this situation—high stress, insufficient pay, excess work—have to make a choice: move up or move out. But employers should take heed; while these disengaged employee remain at work, they are draining the life from your company. Not only are they more susceptible to health problems and at greater risk of safety hazards, they are more prone to anger and isolation and less productive.

Employers should keep their eyes out for signs of disengagement, as they could lead to employee turnover. On the other hand, they could be opportunities to re-energize employees, by promoting them, recognizing their hard work with a raise or lightening their workload and helping them understand their place in the company.

These views aren’t exactly in conflict. As I said, I think engagement is about more than a single factor, and it’s likely that improving any one of the factors—working conditions, pay, benefits, workload and meaning, among others—will help a disengaged employee feel somewhat better about his or her job—in the short term. However, it’s fair to say that, over time, trying to engage employees by improving only one factor is likely to fail. Meaning can only go so far if an employee can’t feed her or his family; and money can’t add more hours to the day.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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