What does employee ‘engagement’ really mean?

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It’s Pride month, time for corporates to show off their shiny LGBT+ inclusion policies. A lot of them cover well-trodden diversity ground (I simplify: make staff feel included; encourage employee resource groups for LGBT+ staff; stamp out inappropriate behaviour among colleagues).

But for leaders who want to go beyond obvious in-house inclusion steps, there’s a paucity of advice on — what’s next? How can companies advocate publicly for LGBT+ rights? Given the political climate in the US, that’s never been so timely (this FT analysis of Disney’s travails in Florida has excellent context).

As I was giving up hope, a note from EY alerted me to a new report: Opening Up the World: How Multinational Organizations Can Ascend The Maturity Curve on LGBT+ Rights. It’s a mouthful of a title, but this joint venture — which includes Microsoft, Dow and the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law — is trying to move the dial.

It’s intended as a discussion paper for multinationals, focused on how to effect positive change in countries that don’t have legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Fewer than a quarter of the world’s 193 nations uphold such safeguards.) Recognition and protection for transgender people is, as the report describes, “patchy, and laws often prescribe intrusive medical requirements”.

The paper urges companies to resist calling themselves “consistent global advocates on LGBT+ rights”. That’s just not realistic. Instead, it offers detailed pathways to progress. For example, start with promoting gender inclusion.

PS My favourite FT feature on LGBT+ experiences at work showcased personal stories from my colleagues worldwide.

Read on for Sophia’s investigation into what we mean when we talk about “engagement” and advice on how revisiting workplace regrets can lead you to a more positive future. (Isabel Berwick)

How do you measure employee engagement?

© FT montage / Getty

Only 21 per cent of people are engaged with their work, according to a recent report from Gallup that surveyed 230,000 workers around the world.

But what does that actually mean? Measuring employee engagement is a tricky science. Constance Hadley, an organisational psychologist and lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says that there’s a lot of “murkiness” in how people understand and use the term. It usually refers to some combination of enthusiasm, a sense of belonging, the frequency with which you enter a “flow” state of deep focus, and finding your work meaningful and rewarding. It’s hard to pin down an exact definition, though. Indeed, many HR departments design internal surveys at their own discretion, which can be subjective.

Both Constance and Jim Harter, chief scientist at Gallup who studies the situational factors that highly engaged teams have in common, agreed that the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale, developed by organisational psychologists Wilmar Schaufeli and Arnold Bakker in 2004, is one of the most useful tools. The survey, which asks respondents whether they identify with statements such as “time flies when I’m working”, and “my job inspires me”, measures a person’s physical, emotional and cognitive relationship to their work.

The UWES measures people’s attitudes, but not necessarily why or how employees feel the way they do. Jim’s team at Gallup has developed 12 questions, Gallup’s Q12, that measure engagement in a more actionable way. The questions fall into three broad themes: material conditions in the workplace (do you have what you need to do your job?), relationships (do you receive recognition from your boss? Do you have a best friend at work?) and the presence of opportunity (do you have the ability to learn and grow?). 

Answers to these questions can help guide employers to create the type of culture that fosters engagement. That said, there might only be so much that a company can do in a top-down approach, because people’s relationships with their coworkers play a significant role. “Anecdotally, we’re seeing that it’s hard for people to feel emotional engagement with the work if they don’t feel connected to the people at work,” says Constance.

Engagement may not seem as important as the bottom line — but highly engaged employees actually feed directly into better business performance. Companies with engaged employees report 23 per cent higher profits than companies with miserable employees, according to a 2020 study by Gallup — not to mention higher productivity, customer loyalty, and lower turnover. Another study found that these success metrics were even more pronounced during recessions. (Sophia Smith)

What’s more important for you to feel engaged with your work? Do you feel more engaged when you’re involved with challenging projects that are rewarding and connect directly to the company’s mission? Or are you more likely to be engaged when you have strong emotional connections to your team and boss? Let us know in this week’s poll.

Listen in: Regrets? I’ve had a few

This week on the Working It podcast, we talk regret, failure — and how those past disappointments could actually propel us towards a better future. I sat in on a fascinating conversation between bestselling author Dan Pink and my FT colleague Andrew Hill. Dan’s most recent book, The Power of Regret, offers hope to anyone who’s been passed over for promotion, regretted not making the risky leap to self-employment, or who generally looks back in anger.

What’s the secret? Well, in a nutshell, as we age, we are biased towards regrets about “inaction” — the job not taken, the opportunity missed. And sometimes we can fix that by taking action. Find out more in Andrew’s interview with Dan — and listen to our Working It discussion here.

Next week, we are discussing imposter syndrome. I try to make sense of this catch-all phrase and find helpful ways to minimise our performance and workplace anxiety. My guests are Sian Beilock, a neuroscientist and the president of Barnard College, and the performance coach, author and podcast host, Viv Groskop. (Isabel Berwick)

*We’ve responded to listener requests by offering transcripts of Working It podcasts, now available in FT’s transcripts feed. Here’s the regrets episode.

Elsewhere in the world of work:

  1. Can bosses be funny? Humour can help build trust, but leaders who joke around walk a fine line between establishing rapport and putting people off. The boss who succeeds at being funny is the one who knows when to be serious.

  2. How new grads are adjusting to work: The old “watch and learn” approach to training junior staff doesn’t translate to a hybrid world. Many companies are adopting online learning platforms, buddy systems, and other “blended” programmes to better onboard recent graduates.

  3. Best business books of the summer: Whether you are trying to become a better strategist, endeavouring for a more egalitarian office, or wondering about the workplace of the future, Andrew Hill lays out the most interesting titles on these and other workplace topics.

  4. How to spot strong company management: If you have clients at external companies, you don’t necessarily need to meet a firm’s management team in person to make a judgment call on them — just look for these characteristics.

  5. ‘Drop servicing’ is a new entrepreneurial moneymaker: In a massive but little-known sector, freelancers are building agency-style operations in which they delegate creative work such as marketing and copywriting to other freelancers.

Last week, Isabel wondered why engagement levels were so low in Europe. What’s gone wrong, and how can we fix it? Richard Vickers, CEO at recruiting firm Search Consultancy, shared his thoughts with us:

There is a misconception that all people want from their work is flexibility and a higher salary. In my experience, they also want career opportunities, mentorship and [members of] leadership who are genuinely invested in them as people, and their career. The saying goes that people quit bosses not companies; the key to a motivated and enthusiastic workforce is ensuring employees engage with their line manager. A leader should have passion for the engagement and development of their staff — coaching, motivating and inspiring their team to be the best versions of themselves.

I see a lot of leaders who have lost their own passion for their role and this passes on to those they are accountable for. Ultimately, if leaders aren’t passionate and engaged about what they do, is it a surprise that those who work for them also lose their spark? This impacts productivity, an area where the UK is notoriously lagging behind its main competitors.

This comment has been edited for length and clarity.

And let us know . . .: 

“Email Twitter” got into a tizzy yesterday over comedian Abby Govindan’s tweet that there’s functionally no difference between adding someone to the “Send To” field versus CC’ing them. The thread branched out into a number of breakdowns of how people use — or don’t use — email CC’ing. Including the controversial practice that some people simply filter everything they’re CC’d on to a separate folder that they don’t necessarily read.

Do you have a specific philosophy about CC’ing people on emails? Do you feel different levels of obligation when an email is sent specifically to you versus when you’re included on CC? Do you even notice? Let us know at [email protected] (We don’t mind if you put us on the Send To or CC.)

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