The race to retain staff

Oct 12, 2022

6 mins

The race to retain staff
Judith Crosbie

US-based freelance journalist.

For the majority of us who don’t study employee survey data or work in the field of organizational psychology, jobs like “employee engagement manager” or “happiness manager” may sound a bit farcical. They may conjure up notions of glorified party planners or bring to mind anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. But for Fresia Jackson, Lead Research People Scientist at Culture Amp, employee engagement is serious business — and it might even save your life.

Jackson analyzes data from surveys of workers when companies engage Culture Amp and its software to get feedback. In this feedback lies the clues to what companies need to do better to retain talented staff and function better. It meant one company, Autotrader, was able to reduce employee turnover by 9%. Startlingly it also meant medical companies were able to link mistakes and complications with patients to how staff felt about their jobs.

“We’ve seen from some of our medical customers where they’ve been able to correlate the employee engagement of a unit to patient outcomes,” she says. If employees aren’t happy at work, then they’re not going to give their all. We experience people at work everywhere we go: if you go to the grocery store, if you go to the doctor, if you go to a restaurant. These are all places where you are directly interfacing with people while they’re at work and you can feel it when someone is not engaged,” Jackson says.

A growing trend

Culture Amp has been helping companies compile data on employee engagement for 12 years, but since the pandemic and the tightening of the labor market, interest in this space has really ramped up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the US is currently at 3.6%, with estimates showing there is just one unemployed worker for every two job openings. A Gallup poll from July 2021 showed 36% of US employees were engaged in their work, compared to 20% of employees globally. This is better than what it had been in 2020 when just 14% of US employees said they were engaged.

Dr Terri Axtell, an adjunct professor at New Jersey’s Montclair State University who has a PhD in management consulting, says there has been a growing trend towards companies having employee engagement roles — but that their goal now has dramatically changed.

“It used to be that companies had these roles to try and get more productivity out of an employee. So you’d have employee engagement managers trying to get more work out of its workforce, get them to be more productive, get them to try harder and go the extra mile,” she says. “Now, it’s not about getting productivity. It’s just table stakes for getting talent at all. So in order to hire people, if all of your competition has an employee engagement manager or an employee happiness manager of some sort, and you don’t, as an employer you’re at a disadvantage for getting talent and for retaining talent.”

Axtell continues, “The labor market is hyper competitive right now; there’s a huge shortage of talent, we’ve had the pandemic, we have the Great Resignation going on, lifestyle changes where people are striking a different balance between work life balance. And so for these reasons, companies are investing in these types of roles as retention strategies.”

Dr. Donna DiMatteo-Gibson, senior faculty member for Minneapolis’s Walden University psychology programs says there can be clear benefits for companies: “This could result in positive changes for the company like better identifying challenges and improving organizational decision making, enhancing collaborative opportunities and increasing employee and customer satisfaction,” she says.

Happy or engaged?

The debate over whether the role should be termed happiness or “employee engagement” manager is a moot point for those working in the field. Fresia Jackson says happiness is transient, is often linked to mental health and with many variables affecting an employee’s ability to be happy.

Jim Link, Chief Human Resources Officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, a member organization for human resource professionals, also believes engagement rather than happiness should be the focus.No human being can be responsible for the happiness of the workforce because even if you’re engaged and you’re well, you may not be happy. Generally, when you put those two things together, you do get some heightened degree of happiness from that employee,” he says. “I would encourage employers to focus more on the engagement of their employees and the well being of their employees. And if they focus on those two things, they will get a higher degree of happiness,” he adds.

How to measure engagement

Measuring employee engagement comes down to a series of questions, which are treated confidentially in surveys. Jackson says there are core questions that can assess employee enthusiasm, connection and commitment to their organizations:

  • if they would recommend the company as a great place to work
  • if they are motivated beyond what they would be in a similar role elsewhere
  • if they are proud to work at the company
  • if they are looking for a job in another company
  • if they still see themselves at the company in two years time.

What is interesting is how responding to what employees are looking for is not always about getting paid more. One company looked at the comments from employees and realized they wanted more recognition for their work. “It ended up costing the company much less and was more impactful than just doing a typical bonus system,” Jackson says.

Walking the walk

Getting the data and crunching the numbers is one thing, she says. Acting on it is another.

“Just having a pair of tennis shoes does not make you exercise, so just having an employee engagement manager does not mean you’re going to be able to improve employee engagement or experience. Those roles really need to be set up for success by being given resources and the authority to make large changes,” says Jackson.

Improving engagement by “posting fun social get-togethers or happy hours is not going to cut it. “Companies really need to be willing to put the time and money behind identifying what employees need by truly listening and then most importantly, acting on that feedback,” she adds.

What the job entails

Laura McAtee has been working as Employee Engagement Manager for over a year at Workplace Options — a company that helps find health and practical services for employees. She is the first person in the company to have the role. Based in North Carolina, she previously worked in hiring, but her new role grew out of both her and her company’s interest in ensuring ongoing engagement with staff.

“We’ve always been very passionate about culture and engagement. We’ve always run surveys, we’ve always had programs but it had never been something where an entire person focused on it,” she says.

When the surveys come back and the analysis has been done on them, it’s McAtee’s job to develop programs that respond to what employees are looking for.

The company has several different career development programs and also has mentorship programs and opportunities for employees to work in different departments. It runs volunteer days in conjunction with local community groups where employees can help the homeless or local kids (instead of working at the office those days). It has also set up a program where employees can pitch an idea to the board, and if it’s accepted, it gets implemented.

McAtee says her role involves a lot of creativity and flexibility, given that she has to respond to what employees are telling her. This is different from human resource roles where tasks are often static, such as payroll and hiring. “I have a lot of autonomy because I create programs that I think will be helpful,” she says.

The future of employee engagement

So the big question is, are these roles here forever or will they dwindle when the tight labor market loosens and as employees drift back to the office?

Dr Axtell says it is difficult to predict.The world of work is changing so fast right now. Will we have this type of role in 10 years from now, 20 years from now? It’s hard to say. But if you’re talking short term, in the next two, three, four years, I would imagine the role will stay because companies are investing in it,” she says.

McAtee believes if companies want to retain their best staff they need to know what will keep them in the job. “Eventually employees are going to hit a ceiling on salary or they’re going to have all the benefits that they want. And then they’re going to look for the next thing, and if you don’t have something like this, you’re going to be left behind,” she says.

Jackson agrees: “Your best talent is always going to be able to leave. They’re always going to be able to find another job. So if that’s who you want to retain, you really need to put the time and resources in to figure out what they want and provide those things.”

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