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How to keep workers engaged, not vacant

HOW DO YOU rate this sentence? Please give a number between one and five where one is “I’ve stopped reading already” and five is “give this columnist a Pulitzer prize.” If this rings a bell, you are probably one of the millions of workers who have undertaken an employee-engagement survey.

Such questionnaires are all the rage in America. Korn Ferry, one of the biggest survey groups, says that three-quarters of the largest American companies regularly poll their workers. The firm itself has surveyed over 7m employees working for more than 400 companies in the past three years alone.

Employer enthusiasm for surveys is easy to understand. A highly motivated workforce is seen as the secret sauce for corporate success. Employee engagement has been shown to have a statistically significant relationship with profitability, productivity, worker retention, safety and customer satisfaction.

Surveys show that firms mostly fail to motivate the majority of their workers. A Gallup survey last year found that, on average, only 15% of workers around the world felt fully engaged with their jobs, although America was doing better than most, with a 34% level of engagement compared with 10% in western Europe. Many employees clearly feel they are stuck in dead-end jobs.

Having workers who care about what they do rather than going through the motions is even more important in a modern, service-based economy than in a manufacturing-driven one. The principle that tasks should be broken down into small, efficient steps to be mindlessly repeated by employees all day has thankfully gone the way of the Model-T Ford. Firms now automate repetitive tasks. Service workers need to be flexible and creative, particularly when responding to customers’ desires. The more content and committed they are, the better such workers will perform.

Of course, managers can hardly expect their workers to arrive each day like Snow White’s seven dwarves singing “Hi ho”. (Although the efficiency of the dwarves must be doubted since, despite all the jewels they found, they lived in a rundown shack.) And firms should probably pay less attention to levels of satisfaction than to whether the trend is up or down.

The most important factors in employee engagement, according to a forthcoming book from Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall*, are whether employees understand what is expected of them, feel they are surrounded by supportive colleagues and believe they will be recognised when they perform well. As well as gauging overall morale, many companies use surveys to test the impact of group initiatives or to see if individual divisions show signs of staff disenchantment.

Alliance Data, an American marketing-services group, has been running engagement surveys since it was set up in 1996. So far its workers have not tired of answering the questions; the survey has a 92% response rate, according to Karen Wald, the group’s chief of staff. The firm carefully scrutinises results for specific management problems. A few years ago, a survey revealed that employees’ perception of newly appointed managers as a class was poor. Training for managers was revamped and the results duly improved. This year the survey will concentrate on diversity and inclusion to ensure that minority workers feel they are being well treated.

At Toyota Motor North America, Terri von Lehmden, vice-president of HR transformation and strategy, says that the car company has been conducting surveys for more than 20 years. One came in handy when it needed to combine its manufacturing and sales divisions, a change requiring around 4,000 workers to move to Texas. Before going ahead, the firm conducted a survey which found that many workers were willing to uproot their families and move across the country. When staff choose to attend internal “town-hall” meetings and join workplace clubs, that is also a sign of commitment.

Indeed, one suspects that firms which put a lot of effort into keeping their workers happy hardly need to conduct surveys—they will always get fairly good results. Worker-retention rates tell them all they need to know. It is inattentive companies that need surveys to tell them where and how they are going wrong. Like Tolstoy’s families, every unhappy company is unhappy in its own way.

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