Employee engagement has been such a hot topic in recent times it has become a strategic issue. Yet it seems the main challenge facing companies these days is more one of employee disengagement. The results of a Gallup poll published in 2013 sent shivers down the spines of HR professionals, leadership teams, and managers the world over. According to the survey, only 13% of employees worldwide said they felt engaged at work, 63% were not engaged, and 24% were totally disengaged! But what exactly is employee engagement? Should it be pursued at all costs? The pressures on employees to engage with their job and find happiness at work are immense. Little wonder then that large swathes of the working population feel more like they are being ordered to just be happy, ‘or else!’.

So What Kind of Employee Are You?

According to Isaac Getz, professor of Leadership and Innovation at the ESCP Europe Business School, there are three types of employee:

  • Engaged: engaged employees are motivated, creative, and innovative. They believe 100% in their company’s core goals and values. They are happy, passionate about their work, and love contributing to the overall success of the business. They speak highly of their company and jump at the chance to recommend it elsewhere, because as far as they’re concerned, it’s a great place to work!
  • Disengaged: disengaged employees live by the motto “Why do more than the bare minimum?” They are not committed to their job and show no loyalty to their employer. Work is purely a means to an end, a way of paying the bills. They arrive and leave on time, do no more than they have to, and never go the extra mile.
  • Actively disengaged: these employees are unhappy and unproductive, and practically have to drag themselves into the office. They have no desire to work. They are driven only by a sense of duty and the need to pay the bills. Their constant negativity can have a toxic effect on co-workers, demotivating everyone around them.

Nowhere in Europe is this problem more evident than in France, ranked last by Gallup out of all the Western European countries surveyed. In other words, workers in France feel the least engaged in their jobs. Given that it is widely accepted that engagement leads to increased productivity and profitability, it is easy to understand why companies are so keen to tackle this matter head on and try to turn the tide of employee engagement.

Engagement: an Employer’s Perspective

With a myriad of foosball tables springing up all over companies, and the rising popularity of many team-building type exercises, organizations are investing heavily in promoting wellbeing in the workplace. And you can’t knock their logic. If employees like their surroundings and are given the chance to relax and have a bit of fun, they are more likely to associate the notion of enjoyment with work, and thus be more engaged.

But employers need to go much further than simply improving the working environment; they need to focus on satisfying expectations. Employees want their voice to be heard, their ideas to be taken on board, and their work to be valued and rewarded. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “Workers may contribute to their own exploitation through the very effort they make to appropriate their work, which binds them to it.” He alludes to work as a form of emancipation, suggesting it can be a source of pleasure if employees feel their opinions and contributions are valued.

dictature de l'engagement

Forced Engagement and Happiness at Work

There is little point attempting to impose a sense of engagement on employees across the board. We need only look at how society as a whole views the concept of work to understand why. The origins of the word ‘work’ has no positive connotations – the Latin word, tripalium, referred to a three-staked instrument of torture used by the Ancient Romans. A travailleur in twelfth century France referred to a torturer. The word “travail” in English means painful or laborious effort. Is it any wonder then that work has a very poor reputation and is seen as more of a constraint, bringing with it the risk of such extreme syndromes as boreout and burnout? Work is an issue that divides us all. What it represents differs from one person to the next. If you ask those around you what it means, you’ll get a variety of responses.

  • Earning a crust
  • A way of fulfilling social potential
  • The need to conform to societal norms
  • The natural progression after graduation!
  • One of the elements in the “eat, work, sleep” cycle

This diversity of responses proves that employee engagement can come in many forms. The challenge facing companies is to make sure all viewpoints are duly considered, and to come up with the best way to meet everyone’s needs. Engagement can even vary for an individual employee depending on the stage in their working life: factors such as whether they are new to the company, serving their probationary period, seeking promotion, have particular family commitments, or are close to retirement can all impact an employee’s level of engagement.

How to Foster Employee Engagement

There are numerous initiatives companies can introduce to try and boost employee engagement. “Escape room” games, currently all the rage in cities across the globe, are designed to promote team cohesion, improve communication, and challenge participants. Intra- or inter-company sports tournaments, like running or team sports events, can add a further dimension if they are organized in aid of a chosen charity. What’s most important about any initiative, though, is that it involves mutually-agreed activities that will have a positive impact on an employee’s perception of work. Participation should be on a purely voluntary basis; there should be no negative repercussions for anyone who is unable or does not wish to take part, for whatever reason (they may already do something similar elsewhere in their own time). Employees who do want to engage should be encouraged to do so, as well as to suggest their own personal initiatives, supported through tailored e-learning programs.

In their book, Freedom Inc, Isaac Getz and co-author Brian Carney describe how organizations can be transformed into “liberated companies” by abandoning traditional ‘command-and-control’ organizational models in favor of a business philosophy based on freedom and responsibility. Companies can become places where liberating leaders empower employees through a joint decision-making process, where everyone has the freedom and ability to act in the best interests of the business. If you don’t believe this is possible, read the book to find out how!