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‘Fresh Ideas’ About Employee Engagement? Not so Fast

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bob Lavigna
March 9, 2020

The start of 2020 has prompted a barrage of articles and posts describing employee engagement trends and innovations. Despite my enthusiasm about what might be new in engagement, I’ve been disappointed.

Why? Because I haven’t seen much that is really new. For example, here are some of the “trends” authors have declared that we should focus on to improve employee engagement in 2020:

  • Employee development and growth.
  • Finding purpose at work and making a difference.
  • Diversity and inclusion.
  • Work flexibility.
  • Recognition and rewards.
  • Interesting and challenging work.
  • Work-life balance.
  • Organizational culture.

Good ideas, but not particularly new or innovative.

One writer listed 20 “fresh ideas” to improve engagement. More of the same—improve communication, focus on work-life balance, provide rewards, etc.

Another list  was written by a self-proclaimed “Big-time Human Resource Management enthusiast.” Don’t get me wrong, we certainly can use more “HR enthusiasts” even if they’re only small time. Better than HR critics, since we already have plenty of those.

My concern about these lists is the implication that if an organization does these things (even if it doesn’t implement all 20 fresh ideas), engagement will automatically improve.

I’ve long held that trying to implement one-size-fits-all solutions can be disappointing—and even destructive. Plus, can any organization really do 20 things at once?

As a native New Yorker, I am a born skeptic (but not a cynic). Maybe that’s why I find it interesting that many of these trends tend to correlate with the services the organizations proposing them offer (e.g. rewards, communication, culture makeovers).

All this attention on employee engagement is justified, but has also generated a cottage industry around engagement. To propel this industry, some try to reinvent what engagement is and how to improve it. The results include so-called new trends and practices.

This often strikes me as old wine in new bottles.

My Institute is a proud member of the engagement industry, albeit as an independent government agency and not a for-profit organization. We may be old school, but we believe in some fundamental principles for measuring and improving engagement that transcend trendy approaches.

The first principle is that engagement matters, especially in government. High levels of engagement link to important outcomes that include employee retention, organizational performance, customer satisfaction, innovation, teamwork—and even attendance. After all, the primary resource we have in government is talent. When public servants are engaged and perform well, government performs well.

Second, engagement needs to be measured, just like anything else that we hope to influence. Ideally, this measurement should be through regular employee surveys that collect empirical data on issues like leadership, supervision, the work itself, organization mission, team members, resources, pay and benefits and culture.

We agree that engagement needs to be improved, especially in government. My Institute’s most recent annual national survey revealed that only 33% of public-sector employees (federal, state and local government combined) are highly engaged. In the private sector, 36 percent are highly engaged. These results are consistent with research from other organizations such as Gallup.

It’s not the why we need to improve engagement, it’s the “how.” And that’s where we depart from many of those who announce trends and innovations.

I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all way to improve engagement, even if an idea is “fresh.” In part, this is because of the wide variety of public-sector organizations across the United States. By one count, there are more than 90,000 government jurisdictions across the country—counties, cities, townships, villages, special districts, etc.

And each is unique, with different missions, political and budgetary situations, workforces, stakeholders, residents and so on. It’s hard to imagine that any single set of actions will improve engagement across each of these organizations.  

To the contrary, each must understand its workforce and its workforce issues, and then take specific action to maintain what employees feel good about and improve the areas employees feel less good about.

For example, in our work with governments across the nation, we see great variability across—and even within—individual organizations.

In a single city, the levels of fully engaged employees by department can range from zero to 100%. Same for what influences engagement. For many organizations, leadership is a key driver of engagement. But elsewhere, drivers can be supervision, the work itself, training and development, culture, and pay and benefits.

In other words, each organization needs to understand its own workforce, and then take action based on what is important to its employees. You can’t prescribe a solution unless you know the condition.

That’s not new, fresh or innovative. It’s what decades of research—and common sense—dictate.

However, there is one trend that is worth noting, and that is the enhanced use of technology to collect survey data and then act on it. What I mean is technology as a tool to enable organizations to measure engagement and then take action to improve engagement—but not necessarily technology as the action itself. More on this in a future column.


Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR consulting, an independent government agency. The institute was created to help government organizations measure and improve engagement. His previous positions include assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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