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Employee engagement is low. Here’s what HR can do

Jen Priem
Jen Priem
Jen Priem is a senior principal of research in the Gartner HR practice, focusing on employee experience. Jen leads research initiatives that help organizations utilize best practices to deliver on their employee value proposition, drive cultural change and maximize employee engagement and performance alongside key business outcomes.

Since the start of the pandemic, the role of HR has expanded greatly, with more requests to support a wider variety of topics and solve novel challenges, such as mental health and integrated work wellbeing, hybrid-work productivity, digitalization and AI. Gartner research shows that 83% of HR leaders feel they are expected to do more now compared to three years ago.

While HR’s purview is broadening, employers are also facing an unsettled relationship with their employees around three key tensions:

  • Flexibility: Gartner research shows 75% of organizations have some form of on-site requirement, but only 26% report their employees fully comply.
  • Productivity anxiety: Only 58% of HR leaders are confident their organizations can meet performance targets. At the same time, nearly half of employees worry their current performance is unsustainable.
  • Mistrust: Less than two-thirds (60%) of organizations trust their employees, and just over half (53%) of employees trust their organization.
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These pain points are fueling decreased employee engagement. Only 31% of employees report they are engaged, enthusiastic and energized by their work, according to a June 2023 Gartner survey of nearly 3,500 employees. This is staggering, as it means that nearly 70% of the workforce is languishing—or worse, burned out—and are not finding a meaningful connection to their jobs.

Challenges through change

The upside for HR leaders is that increased expectations and responsibilities present new opportunities for change. A July 2023 Gartner survey of nearly 300 HR leaders found that 70% say they have more opportunities for impact, and 58% report they have more authority to determine strategic priorities.

As we look to 2024, HR can make real strides to improve the relationship between their organization and their employees. But to reinvigorate employee trust and engagement, HR leaders will need to tackle three major challenges when seeking to engage employees and invest in employee experience:

  • Trying to solve the wrong problems: HR often acts on employee feedback from surveys or other listening methods by adding more benefits, services or opportunities. The issue with that approach is that, with the dynamic work environment and high levels of employee stress, employees often don’t have time or energy to utilize these benefits, diminishing their ROI. And worse, it isn’t fully what employees want. A June 2023 Gartner survey found that 40% of employees would prefer fixes to difficult processes over development opportunities.
  • Ensuring actions to address employee feedback happen: The majority of CHROs report managers are responsible for 10 of 12 actions to engage employees, but only 19% of CHROs believe their managers know how to act on engagement feedback. With competing demands to reach business objectives and limited support in interpreting and acting on employee feedback, plans to address feedback don’t always come to fruition, leaving employees wondering why they provide feedback and feeling disengaged.
  • Taking actions that resonate with employees: Engagement is an HR term that doesn’t resonate with employees. Despite engagement initiatives and communication around action, employees aren’t making the connection between action and their feedback. Just 34% of employees believe their organization will act on their feedback; 60% of employees don’t understand what their organization is doing to increase engagement.

Leading organizations are adopting several strategies to address these challenges and engage employees.

Reducing work friction

Organizations typically look at employee engagement—and fixing it—through the lens of solving the biggest problems. The actions they take require significant investments and time to implement. Meanwhile, employees who may be hopeful for change after they’ve completed an engagement survey have to wait a year or more to see improvements, which leads to dissatisfaction and frustration.

To make the issue worse, the actions leadership takes to engage employees often mean the workforce has to do more to benefit from the initiatives, such as taking a skills development seminar or participating in a new program.

Employees want changes they can see in their everyday work. That is where reducing work friction—things that make employees’ every day harder—as a driver of engagement comes in. HR leaders should focus on two critical elements of action planning and implementation to reduce work friction:

First, diversify the actions proposed to overcome friction. HR should identify actions that can be taken quickly and are visible in employees’ daily workflow while planning more significant change initiatives. It signals to employees that their feedback matters and builds trust that action will be taken. After achieving some smaller, quick wins, when the big changes eventually take place, employees will feel a connection between the big change and their feedback, which creates a culture of trust.

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Second, engage in continuous dialogue with employees to identify work friction and understand their experience of it, validate interpretations of employee feedback, discuss plans for addressing friction to ensure actions will address the source and assess the success of initiatives. When employees’ feelings and experiences of friction are captured and translated into action, it creates an environment where everyone is working towards a common shared goal.

By addressing sources of daily frustration due to overly complex or inefficient procedures, in addition to traditional drivers of engagement, employee engagement increases by up to 10%. Beyond the boost in engagement, reducing friction can also benefit business outcomes like retention. This is especially true for highly engaged employees; the enthusiastic and engaged employees who are struggling with work friction report as much as 19% less intent to stay at their organization compared to engaged employees for whom work friction isn’t an issue.

Closing the loop

While organizations have spent a significant amount of time and money trying to increase and maintain employee engagement, the over-reliance on managers stops many organizations from moving the needle. Many times, action plans are created with the best of intentions, but due to time constraints and competing demands, implementation or follow-up often fall through.

HR must do a better job of supporting managers in both planning to engage employees and executing those plans. Progressive organizations are utilizing HR business partners to co-create engagement plans with managers. With broader knowledge of the organization, senior leadership and business units, HRBPs are well-positioned to synthesize engagement data into actionable insights.

HRBP action planning workshops help groups of managers make sense of employee engagement data faster and facilitate co-created action plans. Doing so not only helps to alleviate issues of alignment throughout different levels of the organization but also generates joint accountability to follow through on specific next steps among managers.

Effectively supporting managers in engagement action planning has an impressive impact. When employees feel their managers are accountable, their engagement increases by as much as 51%.

Increasing relevance

Even when the right problems are addressed, and managers are supported, there is often a disconnect between organizations’ investments in engagement and employee reports of it.

HR needs to use a common, shared language to measure and talk about people and experiences rather than engagement with employees. By speaking about engagement in terms employees understand, the workforce can better see how investments in engagement initiatives address their needs and desires.

Rich Product’s approach to engaging its associates illustrates how organizations can create and utilize a shared language. Rich’s created a “Moments that Matter” framework that focuses on those moments that affect an associate’s organizational experience most significantly throughout their journey. By anchoring its approach in moments that inherently connect with people, Rich’s was able to measure, communicate and enhance its associate experience strategy.

With a global, cross-functional cohort of associates, Rich’s co-created definitions of key experiences that make moments feel exceptional and established a universal measure of engagement success. The final framework focuses on nine key moments that apply broadly, such as My First Impression, which includes an associate’s first 90 days; Our Culture and My Work, where associates reflect on leadership support to execute their job.

To ensure the new initiative is understood by all throughout the entire change initiative process, leaders were provided with their own local measures gathered through engagement questions mapped to each of the moments, along with a comprehensive toolkit to share associate feedback and actions based on moments that matter most to their people.

Examples include a moment-based action plan to equip leaders with proven and scalable solutions to address associate feedback and a survey discussion guide to help managers report survey results and discuss planned change initiatives with their teams.

A Moments that Matter approach is one way to measure and communicate around engagement in a way that resonates with employees. The goal is to help employees see how initiatives address their feedback.

When employees can see how their organization is working to improve their experience, the results are staggering. Engagement increases by up to 49% when employees understand the actions the organization is taking based on their feedback. And understanding has benefits beyond increasing engagement: Employees’ discretionary effort—their willingness to go above and beyond—increases by up to 22% as well.

Most organizations understand the importance of employee engagement and are expending ample time and resources to improve it. A survey at the end of 2022 revealed 32% of organizations anticipated increasing investments in employee experience this year. And for good reason: Engaged employees are more willing to go above and beyond by as much as 31% compared to their non-engaged counterparts. Their performance also increases by up to 15%, and their intent to stay is 31% greater.

Simply investing and doing more isn’t the answer. To enhance engagement and drive greater ROI, HR leaders must think about barriers to engagement, how they can ensure employee feedback turns into noticeable improvements in employees’ daily lives and talk about engagement in a way that solidifies how responsive the organization is.