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Why You Can’t Force Employee Engagement

May 21, 2019 by Josh Hrala

One of the hottest HR topics right now is employee engagement. This makes a lot of sense considering the fact that organizations all over the US are attempting to find ways to retain their talent in our tight labor market.

Employee engagement is definitely a great way to do this. However, if you were to read around the internet for just a handful of minutes, you’d find numerous articles about ways to foster engagement through forced activities, weird team building exercises, and other things that just don’t seem all that enjoyable.

Needless to say, this isn’t the best approach.

Employee engagement isn’t something that can be forced into existence. Sure, HR and management in general can do specific things that make workplaces – as a whole – more engaging, but those initiatives are only going to be engaging for those who want to be engaged in the first place. Forcing engagement can turn disengaged workers even further off.

Consider All of the Different Ways We Work

To illustrate this, consider all of the different ways we work and feel about work.

It should come as no surprise that different people perceive work in different ways. For example, one person may absolutely love what they are doing and are willing to work long hours with no extra pay just because they like it. Others may do the bare minimum their job requires because – to them – it’s just a job that pays the bills.

employee engagement

Most of us are somewhere in the middle of these two, though no one but the actual person can say where exactly they sit on the spectrum.

And, for this reason, it doesn’t make sense to use blanket fixes for employee engagement problems and it definitely doesn’t make sense to force people to be engaged.

“There is little point attempting to impose a sense of engagement on employees across the board. We need only look at how society as a whole views the concept of work to understand why. The origins of the word ‘work’ has no positive connotations – the Latin word, tripalium, referred to a three-staked instrument of torture used by the Ancient Romans. Atravailleurin twelfth century France referred to a torturer. The word “travail” in English means painful or laborious effort,” writes We the Talent.

“Is it any wonder then that work has a very poor reputation and is seen as more of a constraint, bringing with it the risk of such extreme syndromes as boreout and burnout? Work is an issue that divides us all. What it represents differs from one person to the next. If you ask those around you what it means, you’ll get a variety of responses.”

By using activities and engagement tools that force cooperation, organizations are basically missing the entire point of employee engagement and are, instead, creating an almost dictator-like environment.

What Level of Engagement Do You Have?

It can help to take stalk of what levels of engagement are currently running through your workforce. To do this, you need to first understand the various ‘stages.’

We the Talent also gives a great rundown of the types of workers there are currently in the workforce, ranging from engaged to disengaged to actively disengaged.

Engaged workers, according to the article, are people that believe fully in their company and will do whatever it takes to make things work. These individuals account for roughly only 13 percent of workers worldwide (oof).

Disengaged workers are your typical bunch. They use work as a way to get paid and live their lives. They aren’t out to sabotage the company and they, too, probably believe in its mission. They simply don’t take it to the next level. These folks account for a whopping 63 percent of workers worldwide.

employee engagement

Then we have actively disengaged. Here are the ones to really watch out for. Actively disengaged workers are unhappy at work. They don’t want to be there. They don’t care about the company in anyway. And, if not dealt with, can have a toxic effect on their coworkers. According to the report, 24 percent of workers are totally disengaged. That means that some of them are actively disengaged, too, but the exact figure isn’t mentioned. Either way, the number is probably around the same amount as the engaged category.

As you can see, the core of the workforce is disengaged. They work because, let’s face it, food is good. On the extreme ends, we have super engaged workers and super disengaged workers. Your workforce will likely reflect this. You’ll have workers who are superstars, normal workers who are great at their jobs, and those few low performers who just don’t seem to care (and may even be toxic).

So, What’s the Employee Engagement Answer?

The answer here is that employee engagement strategies need to reflect the fact that adding a new ping pong table to your office isn’t going to get people to work harder. In fact, if your workplace reflects the data above, those disengaged or actively disengaged workers will now just have a reason to work less.

To create a great employee engagement strategy, you need to consider what has been proven to work. For example, numerous organizations have found success in today’s modern world of internet connectivity by allowing workers more flexible working arrangements.

Say, for instance, if you have a disengaged, normal worker who really just wants to spend time with their kids. What if you allowed them to work remotely a few days a week (as long as they get their job done)? This would get them focused on work without having them miss the things that are important to them. It also shows that you care about what the employee cares about (home life) and respect them enough to allow them to try something new so they’re happier.

employee engagement

Flexible hours are just the start, though. You can have employees work on projects that they’re truly passionate about, too. You can promote a culture of not overworking by putting breaks in place, etc.

You can also hold social gatherings after hours (or even during hours) where people get together to chat and become friends. Friendship in the workplace is one of the best ways to build teams. A bad way to build teams is by using a cheesy team building exercise that everyone can see through.

For far too long, people have ignored these simple, easy to use options and have opted instead to bring in distractions like gaming tables or free coffees. These don’t do anything but take people away from work. You want the opposite of that. You want people to work harder and feel like they’re actually getting something out of their task. In other words, you have to understand what makes your people feel fulfilled.

As we mentioned above, organizations that want to foster employee engagement need to do so in a way that their workforce actually wants. This means that HR leaders and managers need to fully understand their staff members and how they will react to new initiatives.

Forcing Employee Engagement: Key Takeaways

With all of that said, the core message here is that many organizations decide on a one-size-fits-all approach to engagement because employee engagement is all the rage right now. At the same time, bosses and upper level management expect people to be engaged by work simply because its their job. But, as research shows, the vast majority of people are not fully engaged at work. They view work as . . . work.

This shouldn’t be a shocker but to many it is. To increase engagement, use common sense practices that are proven to work. One of the best ways is to become more flexible in all aspects. Allow people to work the way they want to work and allow them – when possible – to take on projects that they truly care about. For this to succeed, you need to be in touch with your workforce, which is easier said than done.

In the end, though, employee engagement isn’t something that is easily concocted in a boardroom. It happens on the ground.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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