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Future of Work Leadership

What we really need is employee DISengagement

We’ve been barking up the wrong tree on “employee engagement” for a decade, so here’s a new curveball.

Y’all, we’ve been talking about employee engagement — and the newfound, whatever-the-hell-difference-this-implies “employee experience” — for about 10 years now. Broadly nothing has really happened. Engagement scores on major surveys haven’t really budged; sometimes they’ve gone down. I don’t think we have a “crisis of engagement,” because typically the term “crisis” implies “Something that high-level people care about,” and in reality very few high-level people care about engagement. Work to the top dogs is about being in sixth gear, shipping product, and beating your rivals. They know one definition of “engagement,” which is when they got down on one knee in front of a woman they hoped would ignore their 72-hour work weeks for the next three and a half decades. I jest… or do I?

Real talk/tea: the workplace is often closer to “shockingly inhumane” than “engaging” at a lot of companies. I worked for some real doozies of assholes in my day. Actually, just 2-3 days ago I was getting a chicken sandwich with my cyclist friend and one of my old supervisors walks right by me, makes eye contact, and doesn’t even say anything or nod. Admittedly I didn’t either, but this was a person I spent probably 17-18 months meeting with at least a couple of times per week. Ha. There’s no real “loyalty” or “engagement” around work at some level. We’re all replaceable cogs. It’s just a question of how self-aware you are to admit that. I’m pretty self-aware, but believe me, I have lots of other problems. That’s for another post!

OK, so what about embracing DISengagement? Huh?

Here’s a cool quote

Got it from here:

But to make this a reality, organizations need to place more emphasis on actual leisure—allowing workers to leave the office entirely to refresh. Workplaces that attempt to build leisure opportunities into the workspace itself to keep their employees on-site may be doing themselves, and their employees, a disservice. Because even though amenities like food trucks, foosball tables, and extensive schedules of social events may seem really cool, they are still at work.

“The key for organizations is to get away from needing to control employees at all times and let them disengage,” Waytz says.

I personally agree with this. I had a job in 2018-2019 where one of the managing directors told us repeatedly “I’m not big on desk time” and/or “You’re not a slave to a clock” but then 75 percent of the time you tried to work from home or a coffee shop, someone balked or you got an email from another manager saying “Your teammates are concerned about your collaboration…”

The fact is, work is largely about control and relevance to most people. That is what makes this idea hard.

So does vocabulary

If you went to a decision-maker and said “Hey boss, I want my employees to be more disengaged this year,” said boss would automatically worry that productivity was going to drop. In reality, said boss is probably investigating as many automation suites as is humanly possible to consider in one month and intends to fire 20 percent of the people you’re referencing, but let’s ignore that sheer reality for a second and pretend the boss man cares about human resources, er, I mean human beings.

The word “disengagement” would get people riled up at most jobs, as would the word “leisure.” Again, work is about grinding, hustling, being in 10th gear, shipping, being relevant, and beating rivals. That is how people who build companies and employ others tend to look at work. As a result, any proposals around “Hey, give these fools more leisure time” is typically met with “But my productivity! I need them here hitting targets!” Now again, let’s ignore the true reality that we all are expected to sit at desks hitting targets for someone else to make more money, but eh. First-world life, baby! Achievement vs. fulfillment!

So, broadly speaking, these terms would never work.

What could work?

Increasingly train managers that it doesn’t really matter where a person is, per se, so long as the work is getting done. You hire people for the work to get done. That’s why we still hire off bullet points. We might claim we are hiring innovative, curious people, but we’re usually not. We are hiring so the work gets done.

But we have Wi-Fi at scale in the first world. And we have suites to organize info and forms (Google!) and suites to video-conference (Skype! Zoom!)

So none of the control stuff really matters. Managers hang onto it for their own sense of relevance and concerns that someone not in front of them might be on a beach, or looking at Facebook. The beautiful irony is that often the person right in front of them is still looking at Facebook, but somehow the idea that the person is right in front of them comforts said manager. I don’t understand people.

You just need to explain to managers more and more that human beings have lives outside of their deliverables, and sometimes they need to go live those lives at the vet, the dentist, the dry cleaner, or a nooner with their significant other. I mean, let’s be honest.

If the work is getting done, this should be allowed. We do this with sales guys all the time. If they’re top performers, no one ever questions where they are.

If the work isn’t getting done, fire the fool. It’s probably legally justified, if you even live in a place where you might need to justify it.

This isn’t complicated: Let people disengage (don’t use that word) from work if they’re performing their tasks at the right level. If they’re not, feel free to clamp down on them like most managers do anyway.

But instead of jamming the square peg of employee engagement into the round hole of the actual psychology of work, maybe we should consider this disengagement idea a little bit more.

2 replies on “What we really need is employee DISengagement”

Very true statement Ted. I’ve been in the Advertising industry for thirty years (I just dated myself) and all of what you said hits home. As a Creative Director with people reporting to me, I cut a deal with the owner of the company about a year ago to work remotely two days a week. It saves me an hour and fifteen-minute commute one way and they are my most productive and enjoyable days. 

Why I say that. I’m not dealing with all of the internal bullshit from the people I work with. Things such as people having to be the smartest in the room by talking over everyone (love that ego and it still happens in go-to-meetings),or that passive-aggressive person who goes behind your back to get what they want. Don’t hear, don’t see, don’t worry. What a piece of mind.

On top of this, the entire company has gone through leadership training on how to be open and honest with one another when these situations come up. It’s good in concept, but when you are constantly battling the same situation over and over you just don’t give a crap. I believe we need open conversation, but when it’s the norm, leadership or in my case the owner needs to step up and have a conversation with individuals or the entire company that this isn’t acceptable. I believe this is a way for leadership to wash their hands from actually leading. Put it on the individual.

I’ve pushed for one more day out of the office and was rejected. It wasn’t because I’m not productive or strategic (working fifty to sixty hours a week), but that I brought life to the office and engaged people. What this is telling me is that it’s not me, but the culture of the company is the problem. By the way, we do employee engagement branding and obviously we don’t live up to what we say. This is why after twenty-five years with this company I spoke to the owner about quitting. It’s just not worth it anymore. There has to be something better out there that you can feel part of something. By the way, he asked me if firing these people is what I wanted. I had to tell him that it wasn’t about them, but about what I need in the workplace. Talk about not listening. I digress.

I guess what I really wanted to say after my rant is that you are correct and I enjoyed your article. 

If you have any other suggestions on how I can “disengage”, I welcome them.

[…] Les employés enregistrent de meilleures performances sur leur poste de travail quand le management leur fait confiance. Autrement dit, ils sont libres de faire le nécessaire dans l’accomplissement des tâches. En fait, cela revient à dire de ne pas encadrer les collaborateurs s’ils sont à même tous seuls de réaliser le travail à fournir. http://thecontextofthings.com/2019/10/24/what-we-really-need-is-employee-disengagement/ […]

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