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Debunking engagement myths in the midst of Covid-19

22 Sep 2020 By Matthew Emerson

Employee engagement remains one of the most misunderstood areas of business, but it’s possible for employers to be clear on how to improve it, says Matthew Emerson

Employee engagement has become high-frequency vocabulary in business circles, but continues to be an enigma, with engagement levels nationally being relatively low and business leaders still not clear on what the problem is, let alone how to solve it. This is irrespective of Covid-19, but any research conducted on this subject during this period will only uncover more complexity rather than clearer solutions.

Employee engagement is often over-simplified and over-generalised, tackled through discrete activities intended to target common triggers of energy and motivation – for the many, rather than being tailored to our individual differences. Like what we know about learning styles, motivation and other human behaviour at work, trying to manage and improve engagement has minimal impact if tackled at a generalised level.

I think it’s important to clarify that I work with the model of employee engagement developed by Dr Mark Slaski based on the definition that engagement is a “positive experience resulting from the relationships you have, the role you do and the rewards you get in the workplace”. This model has both the academic underpinning and practical application that make it credible for commercial organisations to use. 

With engagement one of the most misunderstood elements of business, here are four myths that need clarifying:

Money is a significant lever for employee engagement

Earning a wage is a significant reason for going to work, it is possibly the primary or sole reason for working. If you underpay or effectively reduce pay, then you are fighting a losing battle on employee engagement. However, while fair and equitable pay is expected, pay increases rarely do anything to generate lasting increases in engagement. Most research into the nature of employee engagement suggests the reward aspects are largely connected with recognition and growth opportunities, which inevitably need to be more tailored than financial reward.

Employee engagement is about social interaction and building friendship at work

It’s great to work with people you like and many employee surveys ask questions about whether you have a friend at work, but employee engagement doesn’t hinge on personal friendships and this is certainly not something that is easily managed. The key aspects of engaging relationships at work are routed in genuine collaboration, enabling people to voice ideas, opinions and actively contribute without fear. Employee relationships could be under threat by the stark move to a socially distanced world but if colleagues are able to work in a trustful, respectful and cooperative manner with each other then you can sustain or improve engagement levels, despite the circumstances.

Engagement correlates with how much time people are willing to spend at work

Many workplaces have tried to move away from strict working hours as we accept that people have a range of life circumstances that require flexibility. This year, we have seen the biggest step-change yet in this regard as employees have had to accept work into their homes and employers have quite literally lost control over when and how people work as the world has wrestled with how best to operate in social lock-down.

Engagement equals productivity

Productivity can be impacted by a range of variables – ‘distraction’ has been a significant one of late – and looks at the issue of output versus input and assesses the process in between, which can vary depending on the nature of work and can be impacted by tactical issues as much as systemic problems. Distinctly different, changes in how people feel about their role, relationships and reward at work are not likely to be significantly impacted by single issues and not likely to shift in small cycle times. Many large corporate businesses conduct annual surveys and still often find little meaningful change in the results. Productivity is likely to be impacted by engagement and engagement could be impacted by productivity, but they are two very different things.

Matthew Emerson is founder and managing director of Blackmore Four

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