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Employee engagement

We had training at work today, where we talked about employee engagement; a buzzphrase that seems to have lasted a few years now. Let’s define it as how bothered people are about the job they do and who they work for.

The trainers quoted a piece of research I was vaguely familiar with (I think a previous employer contributed): Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement (PDF).

You’ll probably find the conclusions pretty inane: organisations with engaged employees do better than those whose employees can’t be arsed, and lots of UK employees aren’t engaged. I think we were meant to be surprised by the fact that less than 30% of workers are “engaged” (and 20% are “actively disengaged” i.e. dislike their employer so much they’re willing to do it harm).

But if you think about why an employee is engaged, the figures make sense. How many places have you worked where:

  • the organisation does an obvious social good
  • you own the organisation you work for
  • the organisation produces a distinctive, useful service or product
  • the organisation looks after its employees well
  • you can trust the organisation
  • you have highly interesting, challenging work
  • you’re allowed to exercise your skills and judgement
  • you’re paid lots of money

We’ve moved from a manufacturing to a service economy. Obviously, manufacturing working conditions could be awful, but you were making or producing a tangible product that could be used by people. Now, you’re more likely to be working for an identikit insurance company, selling complex products for less than 10 quid an hour, where the only purpose is to increase shareholder profits.

Throw in constant restructures, rationalisation, redundancies, an inadequate minimum wage and automation, and is it really a surprise work doesn’t interest us?

The report suggests ways you can increase employee engagement, but for me it’s just a symptom of your organisation’s purpose, attitude and broader forces. You can’t send staff on a course or present them with a colourful diagram of some sort of engagement model to make them engaged.