“Employee engagement” has been a boardroom buzzword for quite some time. We’ve long known engagement matters. Still, the unspoken “but” has always been that metrics — especially those of the performance and financial ilk — matter more. Now, with the talent shortage at a 10-year high, according to a 2010 survey by ManpowerGroup, the time is right for a major shift in this “metrics-first” attitude.
I have a unique perspective, having negotiated hundreds of labor agreements and seeing firsthand what attracts and retains employees. As leverage keeps shifting toward employees, I see companies scrambling to offer new benefits and put all sorts of expensive retention programs in place — but they’re missing the one thing they should be doing.
As I negotiate contracts, one thing I hear all the time is that employees don’t feel cared about. The key to winning the war for talent might be simpler than many employers realize. It’s not just about paying more. It’s about putting engagement at the center of everything.
Many of my clients get it. For example, the CEO of a huge corporation just flew in all his HR VPs, from every division, and said, “I want a 180-degree change in how we engage employees, and you’re empowered to do it. Don’t be driven by the business or the operators — and if there’s a problem, come to me.”
With the explosion of technology over the past few decades, and the advent of AI, there’s been a tendency to reduce everything to just metrics. It’s easy to see how this happened, as technology is an incredibly valuable tool. But too much of a focus on tech gets in the way of making real connections. Employees are pushing back.
Their message to employers is this: “You’ve got these programs designed to manage us. You’re looking at the metrics and saying, ‘The data shows you’re not being productive.’ But you’re not asking us on the back end, ‘Why is that? Are you struggling? Is there something going on in your life we can help with?’ And if you’re not willing to do that, well, I don’t need to be here.”
So, in light of this growing sense of dissatisfaction, what can business leaders do to better engage their employees? Here are a few tactics:
Stop putting metrics front and center. It’s not that metrics aren’t important. They are. It’s that engagement matters at least as much if not more than, say, tracking and rating employee productivity and performance. And business leaders need to show through their words and actions that they value their employees, care about them and want to help them become their best selves.
Think of this as not an “either/or” but as an “and” approach. Businesses are probably going to keep measuring. But the more intentional they can get about showing employees they care about them in meaningful ways, the better.
Get intentional about knowing the people. Of course managers need to know employees’ goals, strengths and other work-related factors. That should be a given. But they should also know their birthdays, who their kids are and where they like to go on vacation. This requires regular human connections, and they aren’t going to “just happen.” Businesses need to put systems in place to make them happen.
I’m seeing a resurgence of the old “management by walking around” method happening even on factory floors. When managers schedule time to do this, and also make a point of having regular face-to-face meetings with employees that go beyond performance reviews, a lot of things will change.
Be as flexible as possible in regard to work/life integration. Studies show millennials and Gen Z-ers have a strong preference for good work/life integration, and they’ve gotten used to working this way over the past couple of years. Employers may realize fully remote doesn’t work for a particular position, but that doesn’t mean businesses can’t work out a hybrid arrangement or that managers can’t let people adjust start and stop times.
Employers have to realize that there can’t be any more rigid rules. The hybrid workplace is here to stay. Of course, this has to be tempered by common sense, and it has to work for the employee and the company. Still, engaging employees means listening to their needs and making every effort to accommodate them.
Make employee well-being a top priority. Mental health issues are no longer in the closet. They can’t be, in a time when so many have moved past stress and into trauma territory.
Companies are realizing that psychological well-being impacts not just engagement but also productivity, performance and every aspect of culture.
Employers should do everything they can to promote employee well-being, and keep an eye on this issue as they design benefits, career tracks and work arrangements. It’s also important to destigmatize mental health issues. It has to be okay to ask for help.
Don’t neglect psychological safety. If employees don’t feel safe, they won’t trust; and if they don’t trust, they won’t collaborate and innovate. Also, trust is directly connected to employee willingness to give honest feedback to leaders — about what they want and need as well as about where the problems lie that could be driving them away.
How to create psychological safety? Allow people to deliver bad news without fear of their manager’s reaction. (This may require some soul-searching on the part of leadership.) It’s important that business leaders not tolerate any behavior, in themselves or others, that demeans, belittles or blames. It may help to spell out expectations for how co-workers should interact and implement a zero-tolerance policy for bullying.
Think beyond DEI. Earnestly seek to create a sense of belonging. We know diversity and inclusion are important. But organizations that want to thrive go further. They work toward what DEI expert Tristan Higgins calls “metaclusivity.” In other words, they cultivate a true sense of belonging. Feeling that they belong is what gets people engaged and allows them to do their best work.
Leverage generational differences in a smart way. Research shows multigenerational companies do well in terms of performance and productivity. It makes sense: A blend of different ages means businesses get more diverse perspectives and a synergy that gives them a competitive edge. And they can also leverage the gifts of different age groups to boost engagement.
We know young people crave development. Well, multigenerational companies have these seasoned employees who could share their expertise with younger ones. And reverse mentoring is a big trend now, too: How better to engage younger employees than to get them involved in teaching older employees about technology or social media?
For companies used to thinking in terms of number of units produced, profit margins, number of errors and other metrics, some of these ideas may seem foreign. That’s because engagement is truly a different language.
Engagement is about emotional connections. If leaders inside a company have no idea how to make and nurture these connections, it may be time they take a hard look at the culture they’ve created. Like it or not, to win the war on talent, there have to be some changes.
Rick Grimaldi is a workplace trends expert and the author of FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace. Grimaldi’s unique perspective comes from his diverse career in high-ranking public service positions, as a human resources and labor relations professional for an international hi-tech company, and presently in private practice as a partner with Fisher Phillips, LLP, one of America’s preeminent management-side labor and employment law firms.
Day to day, Grimaldi works with companies to help them adapt to the ever-changing business environment, achieve their workplace goals and become better employers. Grimaldi is an internationally recognized writer and keynote speaker and has been selected through a peer review process as one of The Best Lawyers in America© in three of the last four years.
The key to winning the war for talent might be simpler than many employers realize. It’s not just about paying more. It’s about putting engagement at the center of everything.
Technology is an incredibly valuable tool. But too much of a focus on tech gets in the way of making real connections. Employees are pushing back.