Working hard? Or hardly working? A new report from technology consulting firm CEB's Global Talent Monitor shows that, while U.S. workers intend to remain at their current jobs for at least another year, only 22 percent are showing high discretionary efforts and the remainder are doing less in their role. In other words, employees are "quitting in their seats."
As organizations struggle to attract and retain talent, engagement becomes a much more important metric. According to the 2016 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends study of the 7,096 HR and executives surveyed, 48 percent of respondents say engagement is a major area of focus in 2016. "Employee engagement, like culture, has become a CEO-level issue. Companies now compete to win 'best place to work' surveys and monitor social media carefully. There is an escalating war to design great workspaces, provide flexible benefits and create great corporate cultures in an effort to drive higher engagement. Nearly nine in 10 executives, or 85 percent, in this year's survey rated engagement as an important (38 percent) or very important (48 percent) priority for their companies," according to Deloitte's research.
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Engagement is important because it's a major performance differentiator, says Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB, an organization that focuses on helping businesses drive corporate performance. Organizations are learning the hard way that it's not enough to have roles filled, they need to be filled with motivated, productive and engaged employees.
"What used to just be a talking point about 'having the best people' has become a real action item for organizations. They can't just say it, they have to mean it. What we see in our research is that when organizations have an engaged, productive workforce, they tend to outperform the competition; not just top line but bottom line, customer satisfaction, innovation, all those metrics," Kropp says.
Economic uncertainty and skepticism about the slow state of economic recovery are major contributors to the "quitting in their seats" problem, Kropp says. After the financial crisis in 2008, many organizations eliminated layers of middle management roles to cut costs and ostensibly increase efficiency. Today, that means fewer opportunities for workers to move upward from their current roles.They're not being promoted as often or even seeing annual pay increases.
"So, of course, they're thinking, 'Well, I don't see a path to promotion. And if I just show up and don't overextend myself, I'm still getting paid. Why should I go above and beyond?' They aren't seeing any upside to working harder. There's also the very real possibility that, even if they did find a new job at a new company, that if the economy took a nosedive again, they'd end up being laid off since they were the 'new guy or gal,'" Kropp says.
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So how can you tell if your workforce has quit in their seat(s)? It can be difficult to diagnose, because most of the time, everything looks fine on the surface, Kropp says. Employees are still coming to work every day, and work's still being completed. Projects are still coming in on time. What's important from a manager's perspective are the answers to two critical questions: What motivates this person to work hard? And why does this person work here instead of at another company?
"If you aren't able to answer those questions, then it's entirely possible you're dealing with some serious disengagement. Of course, this involves knowing exactly who your employees are, and what their values and their motivations are," Kropp says.
Technology solutions can also help track employees' engagement by monitoring when they check their email, log into certain networks and applications, and can also track other behavioral metrics, says Karen Hsu, vice president of marketing at digital motivation platform Badgeville.
"We've been able to infer from our own observations that the people most engaged tend to be those that give feedback to colleagues on intranet posts, on articles, projects within project management tracking systems -- that kind of thing," Hsu says. It's when employees go quiet on corporate collaboration and tracking solutions that you might have a problem, she notes.
What can you do if you notice these signs? Understanding what truly motivates your workforce, especially younger employees, is crucial, says Kropp. In the absence of upward mobility, giving workers the opportunity to move laterally so they can work on new projects, in new departments and gain varied skills can be a great start.
"For a lot of millennials and younger workers, having different kinds of experiences and learning distinct skills can help a lot. Move people into different roles, start to look at how their skills can translate in other areas of the company and build a robust internal job market," he says.
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The gift of time
You also can give your workforce the gift of time if you can't budget for raises or bonuses. Allowing people to work flexible hours, from home or from remote locations can be a huge motivator and can engender greater engagement and loyalty, he says.
"The more you can offer flexibility and freedom within their own schedule -- and within the constraints of their role -- the better. They'll feel that you truly care about their lives both at work and their personal lives," Kropp says.
Another especially effective tactic seems counterintuitive. It involves having a candid conversation with your employees about what the labor market has to offer external to your company. In other words, what their options are in another role at a different organization.
"You need to talk to your employees often about their skills, their experience and their overall employability, not just at your company but at your competition and beyond. How marketable are they? You know they're thinking about these things, and you want to present yourself as caring about them, their personal success now and in the future. Do you want them to have these conversations on their own? Or do you want to help them progress?" Kropp says.
While this might seem detrimental to a company's interest at first, Kropp explains that, contrary to popular belief, managers who have these conversations see greater engagement, loyalty and longer retention in their workforce.
"The reality is that your employees are already looking at these opportunities and options, no matter what you do and do not say. It's so much better to acknowledge that and say, 'We understand you have other options, but this is what we can do to help you grow, learn and keep you engaged,'" Kropp says.
The best times to have these conversations aren't just around annual performance reviews, either. Kropp says that most employees say, anecdotally, that they start thinking about career changes and other options around the holidays, before vacations and around their birthday each year.
"People tend to take their vacations right around now and in August, so this is peak time for you to address these issues before they go away for a week or two and come back determined to leave. Talk to them about their career, what they want to do, where they want to go and how you can help them achieve that," Kropp says.