Disengagement is not an option.

Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” is a call to business leaders struggling with flat financial performance, declining productivity and limited prospects for revenue growth.

As I’ve written elsewhere, all the quick (but hardly painless) fixes have already been done. Production costs have been screwed down tight, supply chains have been pulled taut and sourcing has been offshored, outplaced, right-sourced and just-in-timed. Workforces have been pared back, and the cost of workplace programs either cut or shifted to employees.

The only thing left to ensure bottom-line growth is to improve productivity. And the best way to do that is to develop a highly engaged workforce.

What Gallup found in its research for 2015 is that, in the United States, only about 30% of workers are committed to their jobs, enthusiastic about the work and supportive of the organization’s mission. In other words, they’re engaged. And that translates into fewer accidents, fewer quality defects, lower health care costs and reduced turnover – but only among this small population.

Specifically, the report revealed that:

  • Engagement makes a difference to the bottom line. Employees who are engaged on the job are more productive, contributing to higher profits, higher customer ratings, lower absenteeism and turnover, and higher earnings per share (up to 147% higher than firms with low engagement scores).
  • Engaged employees understand what differentiates their organization from other brands, and are prepared and willing to connect with customers at an emotional level – tapping into the main driver of customer loyalty.
  • Engagement happens on the “shop floor” (or desk, or service counter) – but begins in the C-suite. Being persistent about identifying and building on employee strengths to help people reach their full potential improves employee well-being, reducing absenteeism, health care costs and turnover.

Engage: Career and Employee Strengths

Start by recruiting for the strengths your business needs. Aligning those needs with the career aspirations and skills that job candidates bring is a good beginning. But you need to continue to build on the strengths, both of managers and employees, so that those strengths are exercised every day on the job. When your people have a say in the work environment, are challenged with meaningful work and are assessed against those particular individual strengths, it will lead to far higher engagement levels – and “painless” productivity gains.

Engage: Health and the Paradox of Wellness Programs

Here’s the conundrum: Workplace wellness programs do improve worker health and lower illness-related costs. But by and large, unengaged workers don’t take advantage of those programs. Placing an emphasis on improving the quality of their lives – employee well-being, rather than simply wellness – earns the most return on investment in these programs. As the Gallup report discovered, engaged employees “have lower incidences of chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, diagnosed depression, and heart attacks than actively disengaged employees. They also eat healthier, exercise more frequently, and consume more fruits and vegetables than their not engaged or actively disengaged counterparts. Further, these engaged employees are more likely to be involved in employer-sponsored wellness programs.”

Engage: Wealth and Financial Stress

Financial stress among workers is a growing global problem, one that seriously lowers engagement and productivity. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study showed that 80% of the U.S. workforce spends 20 hours a month worried about personal finances; another study found that more than 60% of workers are living paycheck to paycheck; and the Federal Reserve Board reports that 30% of workers have no savings put aside for either emergencies or retirement. Reducing financial stress through a combination of the right compensation, rewards and savings opportunities at work helps “clear the decks” for better performance, productivity and the bottom-line benefits of engagement.

Engage: The Lines are Open

Beyond keeping employees informed of workplace policies and perks, engagement involves listening to what the workforce is saying. Employees whose voices are recognized, listened to and acted on – even when the answer is “no” – are more thoughtfully engaged in corporate objectives, simply because they feel their opinions count. Open, two-way, honest communication handled as personally as possible will give HR programs, corporate workplace decisions and change initiatives more credibility and acceptance among employees. That makes the execution of those strategies more effective, on a productivity and cost basis.

So, What to Do?

Building, and then maintaining, high levels of employee engagement starts with the right data and analytics – finding out where the organization is now, and what things are holding back the efforts to engage employees and managers.

Aligning employee needs, corporate objectives and business outcomes means hiring for strengths, effectively developing those skills and working to ensure that they’re used on the job every day.

Implementing workplace programs to improve well-being and reduce stress needs a responsible HR budget that clearly articulates the organization’s philosophy and meets the needs of employees as well as employers.

Talking candidly about business challenges, encouraging open discussions with employees and making sure everyone understands the company’s goals opens the door to greater acceptance of sometimes uncomfortable or unpopular decisions – as long as employees see that the firm’s talent management approach supports them.

When employees know the strategy and objectives of the employer, have the tools to do the job, get the opportunity to employ their strengths on the job and know (and accept) how the organization supports and rewards them, then productivity, performance, customer satisfaction, revenue and growth will follow. That’s the promise and power of engagement. Anything less is not an option.

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