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Is Now the Time to Pay Attention to Employee Engagement?

At a time like this, should we even be talking about employee engagement? I vote yes.

Unprecedented. Disruptive. Scary. The words we use to describe the current state of our world are accurate, and yet still somehow inadequate. Our world is reeling. Many businesses are struggling simply to keep the doors open. At a time like this, should we even be talking about employee engagement?

I vote yes. And I would go as far as to say that we should be talking about employee engagement even more now than ever before. Because when you get right down to it, engagement is about how people feel. And how people feel about their work and the world matters.

In pre-COVID-19 times, employee engagement was often seen by organizations as just another target to be met. They aimed to beat some national benchmark or to show a certain percentage of year-over-year increase. While many HR leaders have advocated for a different approach to engagement, it’s now an imperative for the wellbeing of any organization and for the wellbeing of any workforce. It’s not about the number. It’s about the people.

We all have a heightened awareness that it’s the people who matter. Engagement is the measure that lets us know how people are experiencing their work. So how can an organization make sure its engagement tools are painting an accurate picture of where people are at right now, in order to support them when they need it most?

First, we need to acknowledge that because work is an emotional activity (just like everything is an emotional activity), our emotional experience of work changes frequently — especially so in times of stress. That means organizations should be paying attention to employee engagement more frequently to better understand how people are feeling and what they need.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many organizations, and I’ve seen that the most common frequency for any kind of engagement survey is annual. I’m not sure that’s enough, even at the best of times. When an organization starts measuring engagement quarterly, it gets a better pulse on how people are doing, which creates the agility to respond more quickly. Given the stress that exists today, organizations may want to measure even more frequently — say, every 4–6 weeks.

Of course, if you’re measuring more frequently, you don’t want to bog people down by asking lots of questions that don’t really matter. At The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company, we recommend using just a few carefully chosen survey items that you know really tell the story of engagement. Our own research over two plus decades has identified 8 items that best capture how employees are experiencing work. At TMBC we also use a metric we call % Fully Engaged. This measures whether people are “all in” — consistently contributing their best, highest quality work. Why does this matter? Because those people who are “all in” become a beacon for everyone. They are natural leaders who can show us the way, setting the tone for the rest of the team.

Speaking of teams — while organizations should certainly care about engagement at an overall level, it matters most team by team by team. It’s at the level of the team that engagement happens, or doesn’t. That’s why it’s super important to make sure that engagement measures are being shared first and foremost with team leaders, as soon as the results are available. Because team leaders are one of the very few constants that employees can count on right now, they should be armed with as much light-touch, valid intelligence as possible to support their teams.

Should we be paying attention to engagement right now? Yes, absolutely. These unprecedented, disruptive, and scary times will most certainly have an impact on employee engagement. The variables coming at people from individual, organizational, and global directions may be so disruptive that being “all-in” at work is out of reach. However, measuring engagement in real time, with a light-touch, evidence-based approach, can provide organizations with key insights. Not so that a metric can be achieved or a box can be checked off. But so that organizations and team leaders can help employees navigate the wavy waters of work. It turns out that engagement isn’t just one of a hundred HR initiatives of the year. It’s the thing that matters most.

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