An Interview with Julie Gebauer on Towers Perrin’s Just Released Global Workforce Study, Part 2
Julie Gebauer, Towers Perrin Managing Director, leads the firm’s Workforce Effectiveness practice. In Part 2 of our three-part interview with her on the results of the firm’s 2007-2008 Global Workforce Study, she discusses employee engagement and its implications for companies.
To access Part 1 of the interview, click here. Part 3, examining leadership issues, will be posted soon.
Q: Employee engagement appears to be the underlying influence on almost every key aspect of the employer-employee relationship. How do you define engagement?
A: Engagement measures the level of connection employees feel with their employer, as demonstrated by their willingness and ability to help their company succeed, largely by providing discretionary effort on a sustained basis. In past studies, we calibrated employees’ engagement levels by measuring their rational and emotional responses to employer-related questions. To add a bit more precision to our findings, this year we added a third metric — motivation.
Q. Is that what you mean when you use the phrase “head, hands, and heart”?
A. That’s exactly what we’re referring to. The “head” refers to the rational part of the engagement equation, how employees connect with their company’s goals and values. The “hands” refer to the employee’s willingness to put in a great deal of extra effort to help the company succeed. And the “heart” is the emotional connection between employee and employer, such as the employee’s pride in the organization. The sum total of these three elements is what we used to measure overall employee engagement levels.
Q. So just how engaged are employees today?
A. Our study shows that barely one in five employees (21%) is fully engaged on the job. And 8% are fully disengaged. This means that an overwhelming 71% of employees fall into what we’ve termed the “massive middle.”
One enhancement in this year’s study, however, is a clearer picture of the massive middle. Instead of our original three response groupings from our 2005 study — highly engaged, moderately engaged and disengaged employees — we’ve been able to split the moderately engaged cohort into two groups: the so-called “enrolled,” who are partially engaged, and the “disenchanted,” who are partially disengaged.
This approach gives us much greater insight into the composition of the “massive middle” or moderately engaged group. In most of our findings, this group represents the majority. It also represents perhaps the biggest opportunity — and the biggest threat — to employers.
Q: Why is that?
A: These are the employees who could go either way on the engagement continuum — either becoming more engaged and contributing more to the company, or growing more disengaged and contributing nothing or, worse, actively disrupting the efforts of others in their work environment. Being able to place employees on the engagement continuum with more precision helps ensure a company can identify the most effective strategies to increase engagement, or find other ways to deal with those who can’t or won’t engage.
Q: Can you actually create an engaged employee? Or is it really just a matter of finding the right kind of motivated people when you recruit?
A: The good news is that engagement is not just part of someone’s DNA from birth. It is definitely possible to increase employee engagement levels among existing workers. A key aspect of our study was identifying exactly how to do this, using analytic techniques to pinpoint more precisely the aspects of the work environment that make a difference in engaging people, as well as those that help attract and retain people. The chart below highlights what we call the key drivers in all three areas. Two points are worth noting here:
- First, the things that draw people to a company are very different from the things that keep them there or engage them. This means employers have to emphasize different elements of the employment relationship at different stages of the employment lifecycle. Pay is critical in recruiting, of course. But leadership rises in importance when the focus is engagement.
- Second, engagement has little to do with employee programs per se. It’s all about what we might call the interpersonal or relationship side of the work experience. Employees care about what kind of leaders they have and leadership’s focus and commitment. They care about what their company stands for, and their ability to build skills and advance in their careers. These are the things that matter to employees in forming emotional attachments to an organization, and they’re remarkably consistent around the world.
An employer that concentrates on these aspects of the work environment and experience can definitely improve employees’ level of engagement. But by the same token, an organization that’s deficient in these key areas can also drive engagement down. Just because someone is motivated when recruited does not mean that he or she stays that way forever. Companies have to continually test and assess levels of engagement and make sure the most important elements remain in place for employees and ensure employees see a meaningful personal return on their investment of time and energy in the company.
At the end of the day, engagement is a two-way street, and companies are essentially the “crossing guards” guiding which direction people move.
Q: Does engagement affect employee retention?
A: Yes, there’s a clear and direct connection between engagement and retention. In virtually all of the countries represented in our 2007-2008 study, the more engaged the workforce, the greater the percent of employees intending to remain with their current employer. More than half (51%) of engaged employees across our global sample have no plans to leave their employer and only 4% are actively looking for another job. At the other extreme, 28% of disengaged employees are actively looking for another job and only 15% indicate that they have no plans to leave. So, yes, engagement translates into workforce stability — a key corporate objective in today’s increasingly competitive market for talented performers.