Ask employees of most organizations about their engagement levels these days, amidst the economic turmoil and uncertainty that infiltrates our seeming every move, and you are bound to hear one of two primary reactions.
On the one hand, there are those employees who feel overburdened with the “do more with less” realities of American business at the moment. If being asked to do more, they may be feeling disheartened by the workload. The emotional toll is directly proportional to the project piles that grow ever taller with each passing day, threatening to collapse and bury the employee in a dramatic avalanche of paper, staples and binder clips. It’s gonna be ugly! With every meeting attended, additional project assigned and HR benefit slashed to combat the “costs of doing business,” the engagement level of the employee plummets. The only thing keeping them from quitting is either the lack of opportunities in an economy rife with talented, educated and unemployed labor or the lack of energy to even look for something different.
Across the cubicle maze sits another worker, equally burdened with tighter and tighter deadlines, and whose desk is similarly disappearing beneath the PowerPoint printouts, TPS reports and invoices that seem to reproduce through parthenogeneis. And yet, this worker has somehow staved off the emotional spiral afflicting her colleague. She remains upbeat, perhaps even relishing in the chaotic firefighting that consumes their corporate existence. Determined to keep with the the ever-increasing workload and concerned with the prospect of layoffs that seem to be hitting every industry in town, she routinely works sixty to seventy hour weeks. Most nights she returns home by nine o’clock with little energy left for her husband and children, but satisfied to have a paycheck.
Let’s take a step back now and examine these two employees. Which is more engaged and which seems to make a mockery of the very notion of engagement? Clearly most would instantly point to the second employee, whistling her happy contented day away like the Dwarfs in Snow White. She’s happy, productive, and seemingly content with the pace of the current office, while her co-worker struggles to even make it through a single day without significant bouts of depression. Clearly the second employee is the engaged one, right? Or is she? Let’s explore this further….
In fact, survey measurement of engagement levels may result in similar results between the two employees, and they typically will both be relatively low. For the first employee, this is no surprise, but for the second, this seems counterintuitive. In fact, if one understands engagement to be the willingness to put forth discretionary effort, then current economic situations may make it difficult for either employee to even conceive of being able to exert more effort toward their work, no matter how much they love their job or employer.
So what then is the benefit to measuring employee engagement during times of recession? The value may lie more in what happens if an organization ignores engagement as an important aspect of talent management than if one attempts to rely absolutely on the specific levels of engagement. Because most engagement survey mechanisms provide results in the form of an index, one can glean tremendous amounts of useful information by diving deeper in the results. It is those details that often can spell the difference between understanding and being able to address festering morale issues that, ignored or misunderstood, may drive high performing employees to seek out other opportunities when the economy does improve.
Few would argue that the current economic crisis has slowed the talent drain from most organizations. But the slowdown has begun to reverse, as evidenced by this week’s pronouncement by Paul Bernanke that the recession may have already officially ended. With each positive tick toward financial recovery, organizations are creeping closer and closer to an impending war for talent. A war that will be won by those companies in which thorough focus on engagement has remained front and center. Now is make it or break it time.