Communication breakdown

Employee engagement is one of HR’s favourite phrases at the moment, cited as a key factor in business success. But new global research shows that more than three-quarters of UK employees are either ‘disengaged’ or only ‘moderately engaged’ at work.

The survey of more than 85,000 employees from 16 different countries, including the UK, US, France, Brazil, India and Japan, also reveals that UK employees were almost twice as likely to be ‘disengaged’ than ‘highly engaged’.

The Global Workforce study, by business consultancy Towers Perrin, asked respondents a range of questions, including how much they cared about the future of their organisation and how much of a sense of personal achievement they gained from working there.

‘Engagement’ was defined as an attitude, a willingness to contribute to the company success and ‘go the extra mile’.

Mid-table mediocrity

The UK only showed ‘mid-table’ levels of employee engagement in comparison with other countries, ranking fourth among its European counterparts and ninth globally. Belgium was found to have the most engaged workforce in Europe and Mexico topped the worldwide league.

The research drew a significant parallel between engagement and employee commitment. Engaged em-ployees were, for example, more likely to think they could bring measurable benefits to the company, regardless of their rank.

Globally, more than 80% of highly engaged employees believed they could contribute to business results, compared with 31% of less engaged employees. More than 70% of highly engaged staff also believed they could affect levels of customer service, compared with just 27% of disengaged staff.

So why are so many employees disenchanted with their employer?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, bad leadership was found to be a key factor. The belief that senior management cared about the welfare of employees was central to an employee’s interest at work. Only one-third of global respondents believed senior management communicated openly with them and just 40% claimed that senior management acted in a way that was consistent with their own personal values.

Towers Perrin’s principal and author of the report, Jim Crawley, said: “By leadership, we mean both the effect of senior leaders and the influence of direct managers. These findings are particularly worrying because leadership in the workplace is one of the key drivers of employee engagement.

“Employees are looking for guidance, direction, vision and clarity – from both top management and their direct supervisors – and they don’t believe either are delivering to the extent they would like,” he added.

Graham White, head of HR at Surrey County Council, believes managers need to interact more with employees to boost engagement levels.

“Too many of our managers are inexperienced or ill-prepared to support employees accordingly,” he said. “Staff simply give up when they don’t perceive that management is asking their opinion or seeking their feedback. Most employees want to be a part of the company processes and managers need to facilitate their contribution.”

A link between engagement and retention was established by the report. Engaged employees were more likely to stay within a company than move elsewhere. Worldwide, almost 60% of highly engaged em-ployees said they planned to stay with their employer compared to a quarter of their disengaged peers.

Employees in the UK and Ireland were found to be some of the most restless. Just under half said they were open to job offers and more than 20% said they were planning to leave their current company soon. Germany was found to have the most stable workforce in Europe, with more than half of Germans saying they had no plans to move.

An organisation’s reputation was also seen to be important. About half of European respondents said that knowing their company was rated as a good employer encouraged them to stay. More than 20% of UK, Irish and German employees listed reputation as a significant factor in attracting new employees – about twice as many as in France or Spain.

Irish workers had the most favourable view of their employers, with 61% claiming their company had a good reputation. But both the Brits and the Italians fared badly. Less than half (46%) said their employer had a good reputation.

Marginalised employees

Esoteric issues such as reputation, keeping staff informed and involved, particularly during periods of change, are fundamental to employee engagement, according to White.

“What we as managers need to realise is that as we continue to reshape and redefine ourselves and our organisations, it’s all too easy for staff to feel left behind and marginalised,” he said. “If we’re not careful we [as managers] will actually become the main cause of staff becoming emotionally disconnected from their colleagues, the organisation and its goals.”

There is, however, evidence that employee engagement is being taken more seriously as employers begin to understand its importance.
Crawley said: “Engagement is increasingly a boardroom issue. In my work, I see more and more boards holding their senior management accountable for taking steps to engage and retain the people needed to ensure the company executes its strategy. It’s part of more effective overall governance.”

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