In today's competitive job market, where talent is in short supply and candidates have more choices than ever, understanding the pivotal role of employee engagement is crucial.
With less than one in five workers expressing genuine engagement in their workplace, the emergence of trends such as the 'Great Resignation' and 'Quiet Quitting' is hardly surprising.
To address this pressing issue, organisations must proactively look for solutions to enhance employee engagement across the board.
Workplace Conversations spoke with AIM WA CEO and social affairs and workplace expert, Professor Gary Martin FAIM to discuss the importance of employee engagement, plus what organisations can do to implement it within their workplaces.
What do you define as employee engagement?
Employee engagement is crucial to the organisational relationship with its employees and focuses on enhancing workplace culture and connectivity.
A common misconception, however, is confusing engagement with job satisfaction, as employees can be happy with their role yet feel disengaged in the workplace.
When discussing employee engagement, Professor Martin defined this as the actions taken by employees to connect with or adopt the values of the organisation they work for.
Additionally, it’s the actions employers implement to attract, retain and involve individuals within the organisation.
“Employee engagement, from my perspective, is a mindset,” he said. “It is a mutual commitment where employees embrace what the organisation does and makes it a part, but not all of their life.”
Why is employee engagement important in today's workplace?
Undoubtedly, engagement offers numerous benefits, with The Harvard Business Review reporting that organisations with highly engaged employees experience 22 per cent higher productivity.
While important, Professor Martin believes that being engaged doesn't mean demanding maximum effort, instead it involves fostering an understanding of an organisation's purpose.
“It's about getting people to understand what an organisation does, the purpose it serves and being motivated by that. It's about committing to moving the organisation forward," he explained.
Professor Martin further elaborated that to have employees who drive the organisation forward, engagement is essential.
“Otherwise, you will get a few people who are the leaders or managers and it'll fall on them. It takes many hands to build an organisation,” he said.
How does employee engagement contribute to improving workplace culture?
Professor Martin emphasises that building a culture relies on having engaged employees. He believes that the strength of a culture is closely tied to the level of engagement among team members.
When referring to organisations that have harassment and bullying, overworking and stress, Professor Martin shares how these all lead to less engagement.
“If you don't engage, then you're going to get fewer opportunities to grow and develop as an organisation and get better at what you do,” he said.
What challenges do leaders face in promoting and maintaining employee engagement?
Despite evident benefits, numerous organisations struggle to cultivate and sustain employee engagement.
The Gallup State of Global Workplace report reveals that within Australia and New Zealand, only 14 per cent of employees were engaged, while 71 per cent were disengaged and 15 per cent were actively disengaged.
Globally, the report highlights that a mere 23 per cent of employees were engaged, underscoring a widespread issue with disengagement.
For Professor Martin, the biggest challenge is when the majority of the staff are engaged, but a small percentage isn't.
“These employees can actively undo some of the engagement of others because they don't believe in what's being done,” he said.
“ … If you don’t subscribe to what the organisation does, then it becomes a major issue because those people systematically work against the engagement that many have.”
Another challenge is engaging diverse employees, which, while beneficial for diverse viewpoints, can make working towards a common goal challenging.
“How do you engage people who come from backgrounds that are somewhat different to other people in the organisation? How do you help them to be heard?” Professor Martin asked.
“That’s also a challenge for engagement. It's not just getting those people that want to engage; it's then giving them opportunities as well.”
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are looking to improve employee engagement within their organisation?
According to Professor Martin, organisations should move beyond the concept of ‘forced fun’ - the workplace concept of a mandated social activity designed to bond colleagues.
“It's about getting people involved in the actual organisation's purpose, whether it's marketing it, delivering some of the services and so on. But make sure that people understand what an organisation does,” he advised.
AIM WA Chief Executive Officer, Professor Gary Martin FAIM
However, Professor Martin acknowledges that this is easier in some organisations than others.
“It's easier in an organisation like AIM WA that does a lot of work in building communities. Whereas, if you're an insurance company, for example, it might be more challenging for people to get on board,” he said.
What are the benefits of employee engagement surveys and why is it important for organisations to ask for feedback?
When a company has great internal communication, employees feel more informed, secure and motivated to achieve the organisation’s goals.
For Professor Martin, while surveys are useful as a guide for an organisation - they should not be the sole option, as they can be viewed as more of a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, without leading to any meaningful change.
“Whenever you do a survey, you've got to have something that you're following it up with,” he said.
“Some individuals don't feel safe making comments about their organisation … So you have to create a safe environment to do a survey otherwise, the results that you get are going to be skewed.”
Additionally, Professor Martin stressed the importance of complementing surveys with face-to-face communication.
“Usually, a one-on-one discussion or a focus group is better than a survey,” he said.
“Surveys are prescribed and formulaic. Yet, do they get to the bottom of the reasons why people say that they would want to work there?”
Which workplace actions or cultures stifle engagement?
In many organisations, employees can be viewed as an ‘asset’ rather than as individuals. Professor Martin believes that culture is rooted in creating a respectful workplace.
When employees face challenges at work, Professor Martin emphasised the importance of shifting the perspective from ‘this person can’t do their job’ to ‘this person's learning and growing’.
“New employees sometimes come in and we expect them to be perfect straight away, but it takes a long time,” he said.
“I think the best way to get engagement is to view people as an ongoing development … Not to view people with a pitstop mentality of needing to be fixed.
“... Leaders can quickly disengage people. So it is crucial to make sure everyone is involved and make sure they’re learning, rather than just giving them tasks.”
Referring to this, Professor Martin highlighted selling an organisation’s purpose to encourage employee engagement, as people tend to work for companies they believe in and commit to.
“It can be difficult to underpin why some organisations struggle with retention, while others don’t,” he said.
“It’s trying to get to the cause by talking to people about what it is that they like about an organisation.”
How can employees get involved in shaping and improving engagement initiatives?
While leaders play a crucial role in encouraging employee engagement, employees must actively contribute towards fostering positive change.
“With one-on-one discussions, people need to share constructive feedback on how they will be more motivated at work,” Professor Martin said.
“[As leaders] we've got to listen to these things, but people have to be prepared to share them as well.
“[Organisations] can provide surveys that tick the box … Yet to go beyond that, that’s where employees have to come in and constructively provide feedback.
“That's the biggest challenge because if employees don't step up - then issues, challenges, opportunities and areas to improve in an organisation are not addressed.”
For employees to feel a part of the organisation, they must make efforts to align with the organisation’s purpose and speak up if they feel disengaged. Yet leaders must also work to provide a respectful workplace culture and opportunities for growth.
Through a dedicated embrace of their respective roles, both employees and leaders become active contributors to steering their organisation toward remarkable success.