Employee engagement and the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report: What can we learn?

I’m writing this at the intersection point of a couple of different aspects of my life:

1. A few years ago, I went to graduate school to focus on organizational development/behavior and employee engagement. I was interested in these topics because I’ve worked at a ton of different places, been on a ton of different teams, and had a ton of different managers — and yet seen the same things plague almost each situation, so I wanted to know a bit more about how it all worked.

2. Parts of the program have been interesting, but by and large it’s been just-out-of-college kids without much contextual work experience (I’m older than that), and, for various reasons I’ve detailed here and there, I don’t actually have a job out of the program yet (which is fairly stressful).

3. I’m working part-time right now for Teach for America doing summer institute logistics (I was a TFA corps member back when) and I just spent five days at a conference in Memphis. Teach for America is definitely a very vision-focused organization, and people at conferences spend a lot of time talking about engagement and the value of people, which is fairly rare in most work settings.

I’ve been Googling and otherwise researching around this for a few years now, and more in the past couple of weeks — is “culture” something tangible, or is it just a synonym for “We want to pay people less money and not have them bitch?” Is employee engagement truly possible, or will it die as the millennials take over the workforce? These things seem to be big-picture questions for work going forward — if you don’t have the best people, how can you make the best products/interact with your customers the best/etc? And if the big challenge of the next generation is going to be retaining the best people, how do you do that?

It turns out, creating “engaged” employees actually isn’t as hard as you think. Part of it just involves getting over the standard bitching that we all do to an extent in the workplace.

Here’s an article from Forbes summarizing the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, which ultimately looks at 2500 organizations in 90 countries. Here’s an example of something that jumps off the page, even if it’s really none too surprising:

  • 86% of business and HR leaders believe they do not have an adequate leadership pipeline (38% see it as an urgent problem)

OK. That’s probably not good. What if someone gets poached to another company, or wants a new responsibility? Is there anyone to replace him/her? It seems as if, er, the answer is no.

It does seem from the research that the idea of performance management is broken — which others have claimed as well — and it seems like this idea below is the ultimate disconnect between the “hiring manager generation” (40s) and the “new worker generation” (early 20s):

As one HR manager put it, “today employees don’t want a career, they want an experience.”

I semi-disagree with that and I think it’s too easy of a thing to say; at a certain point, “rubber” does meet up with “road” and people just want a job so they can have an apartment, pay their bills, etc. More millennials are living with their parents, yes — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all want to be doing that. Eventually, in a capitalistic society, people will settle for jobs to have income. By saying the issue is that “people want experiences,” you’re essentially bitching about your “skills gap.” If people want experiences, cool. Give them experiences then. Don’t use it as a crutch.

Here’s an interesting book tied to the study. Basically, look at retail-type companies that over-staff vs. those that under-staff. The prevailing business model in most of the world is “go lean” (i.e. under-staff), because compensation accounts for so much of your money going out. But when you compare those types of organizations, the over-staffed ones are more profitable. Why? The employees have more time to focus on bigger picture items, re-stock shelves, come up with ideas related to layout, work with individual consumers, etc. That all pays dividends on the back-end.

If you look at that small example, maybe the issue of “employee engagement” — which Gallup is putting at about 13 percent world-wide — is really very simple. People want support, training, context and empathy around the work they do. (Training and development opportunities are one of the major things that distinguish top companies from mid-level companies.) I’ve seen studies that say an average middle manager in America is in meetings six hours a day and receives 137 e-mails during the work hours. That’s asinine, especially when you consider how long a human being can actually focus at work. So what we need to do is talk less about “OMG, young people want these experiences! It’s not like our generation was!” and talk more about “how can we support these people and make them feel like part of something bigger when they come here.”

Cue the violins, because someone will always say, “Well, this is all well and good, but there’s actual work to be done, and we’re here to do that.” Got it, chief. Here’s the thing: work gets done at companies all the time and the companies can still have “a culture” that rewards individual thinking and down-time away from projects. What if companies came together every month, at the beginning (on the 1st or 2nd) and set their agenda for that month? “These are the big things we want to focus on, these are the main revenue streams, here’s the upper limit on meetings you can call, and here’s how we’re going to reward people.” Something like that. Utopia? Sure. Could it all blow up 2 days later? Of course. But providing some base-level context about the work and the ideas and the objectives regularly would seem to be good.

I don’t know what the exact answer is — and I don’t think anyone does, and it’s probably very different by organization and the people composition — but it does feel that in the past 7-10 years, there’s been too many excuses made about how “younger workers expect too much” or “the skills gap is too big.” Those are ludicrous complaints, because organizations can fix those things in terms of how they treat and evaluate workers, or train and develop workers. Find good people and make them great people. Isn’t that how all industrialized nations ultimately were built up?

Simon Sinek has this idea about “starting with why.” That seems fairly logical, no? Start with why — provide a context — and build training and development up from there. It’s not about getting the person who hits all 12 checkmarks on the job description. It’s about getting the person who hits six and is willing to get those other six and stay loyal to the company. And it’s about the company not whining about “OMG, this person is going to leave” — yes, they may well leave — and instead providing them with tangible reasons to stay.

Ted Bauer