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Sustainable Engagement isn’t an Event, It’s an Experience

Image courtesy of SummerHill Group httpwwwsummerhillgroupcaemployee engagementphpJust when you’re thinking you are wrapping your arms around engagement, there is a new ( or not so new, depending on your point of view) and robust approach to engagement. There is no doubt that there is a clear relationship between high levels of employee engagement and improved financial and operational results.

The question — and challenge — for organizations, then, is how to continuously draw out that coveted discretionary effort from employees so that it becomes an ingrained workplace practice or behavior. And so what we’re seeing is that engagement is not just an event… it’s an experience that shapes employee behavior and performance in positive ways. And it  presents a new definition of engagement — sustainable engagement — designed for the  21st-century workplace.

To help guide your efforts to sustainable engagement, Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study provides a comprehensive snapshot of the attitudes and concerns of  workers around the world. Findings from this year’s study show that the steps organizations have taken to improve engagement are beginning to fall short, making it even more important to modify engagement programs so that it becomes a sustainable experience rather than “event” driven one.

What is Sustainable Engagement?

Towers Watson describes sustainable engagement as the intensity of employees’ connection to their organization, based on three core elements:

  1. Extent of employees’ discretionary effort committed to achieving work goals (being engaged)
  2. An environment that supports productivity in multiple ways (being enabled)
  3. A work experience that promotes well-being (feeling energized)

The chart below shows some of the key attributes fundamental to each element of sustainable engagement.

Using a set of nine survey questions to measure the extent to which survey respondents believe these three elements are part of their work environment, responses were categorized into four distinct segments:

  • Highly engaged: Those who score high on all three aspects of sustainable engagement
  • Unsupported: Those who are traditionally engaged, but lack enablement and/or energy
  • Detached: Those who feel enabled and/or energized, but lack a sense of traditional engagement
  • Disengaged: Those who score low on all three aspects of sustainable engagement

This segmentation allows employers to understand the root causes behind changes in employee behaviors or performance, and more accurately pinpoint the practices or interventions required to move people from one segment to another over time.

The Top Five Drivers of Sustainable Engagement

According to Towers, there are five top workplace elements on sustainable engagement that have the greatest collective impact. The figure below illustrates a set of practices and behaviors that make a difference to employees in terms of traditional engagement, enablement and energy.

The Challenge

To move the needle in these areas, it’s essential to first define the broad principles of behavior and the corresponding processes and actions that must occur at the enterprise level, and ensure that these cascade appropriately to the local level where they can influence on-the-ground experiences.

While policies and programs certainly come into play, the first step has to be a comprehensive examination of core processes — from leadership style, communication and values, to reporting relationships, collaboration approaches and work arrangements.

Next Steps

Determine what’s required, broadly and locally, to improve the daily interactions and experiences for individual employees. Some key questions include:

  • How do leaders earn employees’ trust and confidence, and demonstrate interest in employee well-being?
  • How do they balance messages about short-term priorities and financial results with longer-term vision and strategy?
  • Do managers have the skills and time necessary to effectively differentiate and manage employees’ performance, coach their teams and support individuals’ career advancement?
  • Are career paths clear to employees as they consider how to navigate today’s flatter structures with a variety of different employment arrangements?
  • Are the right tools and processes in place for workers to collaborate and connect across locations and functions?
  • Do employees have some level of flexibility in their schedules or work arrangements, and do they feel comfortable taking advantage of it?
  • Are communication vehicles and content appropriately tailored for diverse audiences across ages, cultures and life stages while providing the necessary consistency of message?

Refine Your Model of Engagement

By focusing on the five drivers of sustainable engagement, organizations can set a focused and relevant agenda that can make a difference in their performance, often without a significant monetary investment. What follows is a closer look at the actions employers can consider to close gaps in those five areas.

Towers suggests that the lower hanging fruit for most organizations is to focus on the individuals who already have a well-established connection to the organization, but who are missing some things that might move them further along the engagement spectrum — like greater autonomy, and involvement in setting their own schedules and managing their work, feeling able to take some risks and try new things, and getting help and direction from their manager.

Link to Performance Results

It’s crucial to examine the relationship between sustainable engagement, productivity and retention metrics.

Towers found that companies with low traditional engagement had an average operating margin just under 10%. Among those with high traditional engagement, average operating margin was just over 14%. But among those with high sustainable engagement, average one-year operating margin was close to three times higher, at just over 27%. While many other elements affect margin — and in more direct ways — this finding underscores why organizations need to think more broadly about all of the factors that influence their performance, in both the short and long term.

Change Your Leadership Model

There are three immediate challenges:

  1. Recognizing that current practices need to evolve in very different ways. (While those responsible for leadership development may believe their processes are effective,  the targets of those processes don’t necessarily actually agree.)
  2. Determining how to identify and assess these new competencies in selection processes.
  3. Making a commitment to develop and nurture leadership competencies more consistently and fluidly in both current- and next-generation leaders.

Wherever your organization is in terms of its leadership model, there are a number of immediate actions to consider that can help strengthen the connections between leaders and employees. Specifically:

  • Establish (or review and refresh) a well-defined competency model for leadership that incorporates the new requirements for leaders.
  • Align competencies with strategic plans, particularly in terms of global expansion.
  • Regularly assess leaders’ capabilities against the model, and deliver development opportunities to close competency gaps.
  • Ensure succession plans are robust and extend far enough into the organization.
  • Help senior executives find meaningful ways to demonstrate interest in, and commitment to, employees through regular communication, recognition and visible support for meaningful programs.
  • Create opportunities for leaders to actively sponsor innovative approaches to how, when and where work is accomplished.

Tower’s Global Workforce Study validates what we already know — and what many of us are currently facing — that effective engagement is continuously evolving and ongoing. And that engagement that drives an organization’s performance long term cannot be event driven, rather it must be something that is integrated into an organization’s culture as a behavior or practice…. something that is… sustainable.

I absolutely encourage you to download Towers Watson’s full 2012 Global Workforce Study. It discusses what matters to employees today, and what can help drive higher levels of sustainable engagement to yield the behaviors and performance required to achieve organizational goals.

Get your copy of Towers Watson’s report

88 thoughts on “Sustainable Engagement isn’t an Event, It’s an Experience”

  1. Great post, thanks. I really like your new understanding of engagement being an experience, rather than an event. The kind of thing that once experienced, you are never quite able to come back the same and see the world in quite the same way as before is essential for designing practices that better respond to the challenges of the 21st century. I especially like how you draw the distinction between exposure of engagement, and the experience of engagement, as well as underscore the skills needed to achieve this. Knowing this, designing interactions and organizational spaces should start to look different.

    1. Carey, thank you so much for your comment! I’ve always felt passionate that while “events” are needed, they aren’t the same as an EXPERIENCE … and an experience is what sustains engagement. Best, Elizabeth :)

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