Employee engagement is the management concept of the moment. Engagement is a measure of an employee’s commitment to and involvement with their work and their organization. It’s considered to be very important because it has the power to impact an employee’s performance, and ultimately, how likely they are to act in a way that will further the organization’s interests. It is also linked to many other crucial aspects of organizational performance, especially employee retention.
But is it the same as what employees themselves want from their work?
As individuals we tend to be motivated by factors close to our day-to-day experiences. Do we find our work interesting? Does it feel worthwhile? Do we like our colleagues and managers? All of these factors are very much related to engagement, but are even more directly associated with the quality of our experiences at work - that is, how happy we are there.
Happiness at work and employee engagement are similar ideas, but the difference between them - a subtle difference in perspective - is crucial to our way of thinking. If an organization is interested in employee engagement, it is from the perspective of how this relates to better performance. For the employee, the advantage of engagement is its association with better experiences.
The distinction between these related concepts have very different feels to them. If managers are told to make their employees more engaged it sounds like a command to drive higher performance out of them – almost like ‘sweating their assets’. If managers are asked to create happy teams who love what they’re doing – it’s more like they’re being asked to ‘build their assets’. To an employee, engagement can feel like it’s about what your organization can ‘get out of you’. Happiness feels like it’s more concerned with what they are prepared to ‘give you’.
Moving from a position of ‘what can we get’ to ‘what can we give’ might mean only small changes. But those changes will be profound, and attempting them certainly requires a bit of trust. Some managers worry that if they focus on the happiness of their employees, they will lose control of the business agenda, and that their employees will insist on doing their own thing. In reality, giving an inch is very unlikely to result in an unruly workforce taking miles. Managers should be able to trust that people understand that there is work to be done and that they’re being paid to do it. Everybody can see that a great place to work which is fast going out of business won’t maintain its ‘great place to work’ status for very long. In happy workplaces, work gets done – indeed more work gets done as people are enjoying their work, putting more effort into it and performing better.
Earlier this year an official UK government task force called Engage for Success produced a compelling case as to why employee engagement should be a top priority for all business leaders and indeed for Government itself. In their report Nailing the Evidence they showed that higher engagement results in:
- Higher shareholder value
- Increased sales
- Higher productivity
- More loyal customers
- Increased innovation
- Reduced sickness absence
- Lower staff turnover
- Fewer accidents at work
While the report clearly showed that having engaged employees is great for business, it also cited evidence that showed that most workers are not highly engaged. The estimates vary depending on the exact definitions, but in the US, Gallup suggests that only 30% of the American workforce is actively engaged. In the UK, the picture is even worse with only 27% of employees being highly engaged. A disengaged workforce, sometimes called a zombie workforce, is bad for business, and is bad nationally for the struggling economy of the UK. It’s also bad for the employees themselves. Happiness is worth striving for.
There are ways for organizations to work on improving the engagement of their employees. Some, like the US online retailer zappos.com, have done so by putting happiness first. Zappos has a business model which has become famous for its focus on employee happiness. It also has a pretty spectacular success story to tell, with near exponential growth from zero to $2billion in just over ten years.
While their growth was not exclusively powered by happiness (there are some very efficient warehouse systems in there too) the culture of Zappos has undeniably had a huge impact. Happiness was put first, and performance followed.
Happiness and engagement bring similar business benefits, but by focusing on happiness you can genuinely engage employees and kick-start a whole set of seriously positive changes, without sweating your assets or increasing their levels of stress. The smartest thing to do, in an organization that really wants to engage its employees, is to put their happiness first.