Employee Engagement was incredibly popular in most mid to large organizations, then the recession hit and organizational survival become the modus operandi. It's not that employee engagement isn't important but rather less important than ensuring the survival of the company.
With business and employee confidence back on the rise and the economy stabilizing, it's no wonder that HR departments and the organizational leadership are now trying to dial back into employee engagement (we are seeing employee engagement discussed at fireside chats during conferences, written about again in management magazines and discussed in HR oriented online forums.)
In the past couple of years, some organizations stopped measuring employee engagement for 2 reasons:
- cost saving
- fearful of the results
The first point is fairly obvious, surveys cost money to prepare, deploy and analyze. In survival mode every penny counted and "superfluous" or "luxurious" items were the first to be cut.
The second point is the sheer fear HR departments and company leadership had about the results. When you cut staff, reduce pays, cut bonuses and otherwise get rid of most perks (from toys to training), you should expect it to hit employee engagement. Whether you measured it or not, the impact of these strict controls are very real on employee engagement and it will take time to fix all the damage.
Communication is often the chief complaint from employees and stressed out leaders tend to communicate less. Reduced communication leads to clouded visibility (by employees) and often feeds the rumour mill. Employees start to question the decisions made by their leaders. They feel ignored and unimportant. Some become extremely vocal about their unhappiness that I nickname them the "prophets of doom".
As a leader you must "pull up your pants" and keep communicating openly and honestly with your employees. Tell them what you can and don't make promises you can't keep. It's especially important not to hide in your office behind a closed door. The more difficult the situation, the more you must be available. Sure some confrontations will be painful but it's our job as leaders to take the good with the bad.
How to improve employee engagement?
Assuming you fell into the above mold, how can you now fix your employee engagement problem? First step is building the lines of communication. Honestly and sincerely communicate with your people. There is no such thing as over-communication. Be honest and share (within reason of course) the challenges being faced, the decisions being taken, why they are being taken and the opportunities you see. Share as much as you can about Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT). Show fortitude of character to take the heat in the tough times not just the glory in the good times.
Employee-employer trust is likely broken because of all the hard decisions most companies have had to take and like situations of infidelity, rebuilding trust takes time. Accept the fact that this is likely something you will have to work hard at for a while. Sincerity and honesty go a long way here.
Like a 12 step program, be honest of any mistakes you (or the organization) have made and explain how you plan on correcting them. Your people are more resilient than you think and often times they can come up with much better and more creative solutions to your problems. Remember that two heads are better than one.
The rest of the solution is to constantly measure employee engagement and fine tune your plan.