Balance Employee Engagement and Productivity

November 9, 2017
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Employee engagement is a BIG topic.

In fact, according to a recent report from Bersin & Associates, organizations currently invest around $720 million annually in engagement improvement.

But with only 32% of US employees feeling engaged at work, would employers be better off focusing on productivity?

Let's take a look at some of the biggest challenges in defining and measuring employee engagement versus productivity—and explore some simple ways to get more of both.

First, what exactly is employee engagement?

When it comes to the topic of employee engagement, the internet is flooded with textbook, expert, and personal definitions. Let's bypass the hype and look at definitions that have been tested and peer-reviewed.

The creators of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson, define employee engagement as the positive antithesis of employee burnout (which they measure by levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and professional inefficacy).

According to another school of thought, proposed by professor Wilmar Schaufeli under the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES), employee engagement is a persistent, positive motivational state of mind—characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption (or that feeling of being 'in the zone.')

So, is employee engagement the opposite of—or completely independent from—employee burnout?

Even in academic circles, the jury's still out. Suffice it to say, employee engagement has everything to do with feeling happy and focused at work.

What is employee productivity?

With employee engagement dominating the discussion, it's easy to lose sight of how it came to be a hot topic to begin with.

Engaged employees are great for the bottom line. According to Gallup, highly engaged workers are 21% more productive than their more disengaged peers. But like engagement, employee productivity can be hard to put a finger on—especially for knowledge workers who don't have hard units of output to measure.

Gallup's 2012 meta-analysis reviewed 263 research studies across 192 organizations in 49 industries and 34 countries, researchers used the following nine performance outcomes to measure employee productivity.

  • customer ratings
  • profitability
  • turnover
  • safety incidents
  • shrinkage (theft)
  • absenteeism
  • patient safety incidents
  • quality (defects)

And in a recent test of two Fortune 100 companies, Harvard Business Review settled for working hours as their metric.

As you can see, there's no one way to do it. Employee productivity will look completely different from one organization to the next.

And just to make matters extra complicated, while engagement is definitely a clear driver of productivity—it's far from a guarantee. For example, you might have an employee who is thrilled to come to work everyday because he gets all his tasks done by lunchtime and spends the rest of the afternoon online shopping.

How can employers get the best of both?

At the end of the day, employee engagement and employee productivity are two sides of the same coin. Productivity without engagement leads to burnout, and engagement without productivity is a sign of workload imbalance.

Think of engagement as the daily multi-vitamin for enhanced productivity and importantly, burnout prevention (which by the way, can be incredibly costly). The best you can do is to work toward a culture that actively promotes both.

Here are some quick tips to get you started:

Create an engaging and productive environment

Consider what factors in your office environment will make your employees feel the most energy and vigor for their work. Whether that means investing in stand up desks or leadership and development (L&D) training, the important thing is that it's well-aligned with your company culture and the nature of the work you do.

For example, the hotly debated open office plan might work well for sales teams who thrive on high-energy conversations, but may be a big distraction for your accounting teams who need a quiet place to engage with sensitive information.

Revamp your weekly reviews

Put an end to the robotic, "What did you do this week?" status reports and upgrade your weekly review with questions that prompt your employees to find the value in their work. Ask questions that encourage them to maintain a big-picture focus and help them find the meaning and motivation in their daily and weekly tasks. And when you see a lopsided workload, take immediate action to rebalance the scales.

Run an organizational check-up

Work is a social construct and issues related to fairness in your workplace community can be some of the biggest triggers for employee disengagement. Workplace civility interventions such as CREW (Civility, Respect, & Engagement at Work) and SCORE (Strengthening a Culture of Respect & Engagement), have been shown to improve office cultures, and reduce employee burnout and absenteeism.

Though they may look a little different at every organization, the best measures will hit both employee engagement and productivity with the same stone.


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