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3 Things to Know About Employee Engagement

Employee engagement. We often hear these buzzwords used, and it can be hard to cut through them to reach a working, useful definition. With the rise of remote and hybrid work, how can firms ensure that their employees are both engaged with work and their employers?

Wayne Turmel

First, understand that employee engagement isn’t about hanging out after work, foosball tables or cake in the breakroom. One working definition is: “Employee engagement is the degree to which employees invest their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral energies toward positive organizational outcomes.” Translate that jargon, and it’s how much employees care about the work, their colleagues and the organization, and their willingness to put in discretionary mindshare and effort.

Human resources and other legal managers worry about employee engagement. They are frantically tracking employee satisfaction and other metrics to make sure their employees are “actively engaged” and the results often don’t change dramatically.

This isn’t to say that firms shouldn’t worry about whether their employees are actively engaged at work. Disengaged workers put you at risk for poor productivity, a lack of quality work and employee turnover.

Here are three things you should know about employee engagement:

1. As in romantic relationships, the employee isn’t engaged until they say, “yes.”

Understand that someone’s level of engagement is determined internally. Yes, firms can (and should) do everything they can to create an environment where people choose to connect emotionally and put in discretionary effort. There are factors unique to each worker such as their family situation, personal career goals and emotional state that are outside the control of even the most dedicated leader. When making efforts to better engage employees, it’s important to actually ask them what they want to do better.

2. There are four signs that people are really engaged, and two that they aren’t.

Team members are proactive. They seek and offer assistance without being asked. They also volunteer for tasks or learning opportunities because they are self-motivated. They use the words “we” and “us.” Engaged workers take a big-picture view of their work, taking the organization, its customers and their fellow workers into account. Less engaged people focus on their own work and tasks, without much regard for others. They also offer their leaders and teammates feedback. Furthermore, even online, people enjoy each other’s company and laughter.

Two sure signs that people are disengaged are: a sudden, negative change in behavior (such as people who have always been actively involved in meetings suddenly going into “speak if spoken to” mode) and … silence.

3. A red flag to watch for is when people say, “everything’s fine.”

It’s no different from when your spouse or friend says, “everything’s fine.” That should signal you to find out what that means now, or you’ll deal with the consequences later. Especially on remote and hybrid teams, it’s easy to miss cues that something is wrong until little problems become raging fires. When we are face-to-face and ask someone, “how’s it going?” we can see the smile on their face, or the rolling of the eyes or the look of panic as they say, “everything’s fine.” We’d likely ask follow-up questions to make sure both parties are on the same page.

“Engaged workers take a big-picture view of their work, taking the organization, its customers and their fellow workers into account.”

When people are on the phone or webcam and they say “fine,” we might believe them even when things aren’t going well. Avoiding tough topics or refusing to engage in conversation is often a key sign of disengagement.

So, whose job is it to be concerned about engagement?

The fact is, everyone should do what they can to make it so people want to engage with them. When your co-workers care, your job is easier and more pleasant. Leaders don’t have to work as hard when they know people are motivated, proactive and positive. As organizations start to plan for or continue remote and hybrid work, if they create an environment where people are rewarded for their efforts, see a future for themselves and do work that matters, there’s a pretty good chance people will respond accordingly.

Finally, there’s a simple way to find out if people are engaged: Engage with them. Yes, employee surveys help, but so do conversations. Are your coaching conversations merely focused on tasks, or are you having real discussions about not just what people are doing, but how they’re doing?

If people throughout the organization discuss engagement, there’s a good chance employee engagement will be much, much more than just another buzzword.