Business Journal

Despite the Downturn, Employees Remain Engaged

by Jennifer Robison

But there are important signals managers shouldn’t miss. Here are some suggestions to help managers keep employees energized amid ongoing uncertainty.

Despite the turbulence in the U.S. economy over the past two years, Gallup has found that employee engagement has remained relatively stable. But there are subtle changes going on that managers need to keep an eye on to help their workgroups -- and their companies -- remain competitive.

Worker engagement is an emotional response, so one might expect employees to become less engaged as the recession deepened. Surprisingly, they haven't.

The current U.S. recession began in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. During the heart of the recession -- throughout 2008 and 2009 -- Gallup surveyed American workers on a wide range of measures, including its Q12 survey -- 12 items that measure employee engagement. Employee engagement is the psychological and emotional attachment people feel for their workplaces. It's based on the fulfillment of basic human needs in the workplace, and the more people feel those needs are met, the more engaged they are.

Why does engagement matter? Because there's also a clear link between engagement and profitability, which makes engagement a more urgent issue now than it has been in prosperous times. Worker engagement is an emotional response, so one might expect employees to become less engaged as the recession deepened. Surprisingly, they haven't: Gallup has found that there have been only slight changes in overall engagement, but there have been significant changes on specific elements of engagement.

Ups and downs less traumatic for the engaged

In general, Gallup's tracking of the U.S. general public's daily mood throughout 2008 and 2009 shows that there have been "significant changes in average mood by month as we've tracked it throughout the year," says James K. Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing. (See "Gallup Daily: U.S. Mood" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

This same tracking indicates that several key wellbeing variables have been affected: There have been increases in worry and stress. The amount of time people spend socializing has decreased. And obesity is on the rise. But "the ups and downs have been less traumatic for people who are engaged in their work," says Harter.

Gallup has tracked the engagement levels of the U.S. working population for the past decade. Its most recent employee engagement research shows that 28% of American workers are engaged, 54% are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged. Throughout the decade, the percentage of engaged employees ranged from 26% to 30%, while the percentage of actively disengaged employees ranged from 15% to 20%. (See graphic "The Three Types of Employees.")The Three Types of Employees

In addition, from July 2008 to March 2009 -- during the heart of the recession -- Gallup tracked a large sample of employees and found only slight (1%) changes in overall engagement. In July 2008, 31% of employees were engaged, 51% were not engaged, and 17% were actively disengaged. In March 2009, these percentages had changed very minimally: 30% were engaged, 52% were not engaged, and 18% were actively disengaged.

Why did these engagement levels remain so stable despite the dire economic conditions? "This likely has to do with the fact that engagement is based on very local, everyday, worker experiences," Harter says. "Therefore, engagement can serve as an anchor during troubled times."

What managers can do

Although overall engagement levels seem to be stable, there were significant changes at the individual Q12 item level that managers would be wise to monitor in their own workgroups. Managers who focus on just a few items -- such as making expectations clear, providing frequent feedback and recognition, encouraging development, and helping workers connect their efforts with the mission and purpose of their company -- can enjoy a big payoff not just for their team but for the organization as a whole. (See graphic "Significant Shifts in Engagement.")

Significant Shifts in Engagement

Knowing what's expected. "The element that dropped the most during the recession was 'I know what is expected of me at work,'" Harter says. "I think that speaks to the reality that as the economy has changed, workers have role clarity issues. Layoffs are happening, organizations are restructuring, and workers' roles are changing. People are uncertain about the future." To counter this, managers need to work particularly hard at clarifying expectations with their employees.

The majority of people just want their managers to realize that they're here, that they're making a difference, and that they're working really hard.


Opportunity to do what I do best. Over time, many employees can do more of what they do best because they continue to refine and optimize their role. In a down economy, when companies are struggling to do more with less, employees may have to pick up the slack for colleagues who have been laid off or who have had job changes. As a result, they might be taking on new tasks and responsibilities they are uncomfortable with or aren't as good at.

To help workers find opportunities to do what they do best, managers can focus on their employees' strengths and work to understand the barriers that get between employees and performance -- and try to remove those barriers. "During a down economy, it isn't difficult to notice what is going wrong," Harter says. "It is more challenging, and useful, to think about and leverage individual strengths to get done what needs to get done."

A connection to the mission of the company. During turbulent economic times, people might feel less connected to the mission of their company, especially if they think their job is threatened. "When changes are happening, it's either a threat or an opportunity," Harter says. "When people around you are losing their jobs, employees are more likely to see it as a threat, and they revert to basic survival needs." And when employees are in survival mode, it's more difficult for them to connect to the broader purpose of the company.

For managers, the key to helping employees overcome this is to get them to understand how they are part of the organization's future. Managers should conscientiously and assertively help employees see how what they're doing is part of something bigger -- and how it connects to the future of the organization. That produces substantial benefits for the organization's performance "because it helps workers focus on thinking about how the organization can get better in the future, rather than getting into a 'hunkering-down' mode," Harter says. "Even though the economy is down, there are opportunities for the company to grow."

Talking about progress. During a challenging time, some managers can also feel threatened or that their job may be at risk, and they might not communicate with employees as well as they should. "But people want to be part of the future, and progress discussions help them see how they can contribute to that future," Harter says. "Managers can help employees by continually communicating how they are progressing and showing them how their work benefits the organization."

Opportunities to learn and grow. Many companies have reduced their budgets for training and education, so managers have less discretionary income to allocate to employee training programs. But learning and growing isn't just about buying training -- it's about helping employees continue to grow in their jobs, and there are many ways to do that outside the training budget. "Providing employees with meaningful opportunities to learn and grow starts with getting to know each person one on one, thinking about their strengths, and thinking about the ways they learn best," Harter says.

Recognition and praise. One item did go up significantly from July 2008 to March 2009: More employees agreed with the statement "In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work." Why was there significant positive change on this item? It could be that managers are leveraging the non-monetary means they have to motivate their workforces during a down economy. If a company's financial situation precludes things like development training or job role changes, managers can still perform a crucial function: recognizing and praising employees for hard work and quality productivity.

"Many companies can't recognize people for their work with financial rewards right now," says Denise McLain, a Gallup principal. "And truthfully, financial rewards are important to some people, but the majority of people just want their managers to realize that they're here, that they're making a difference, and that they're working really hard."

In a healthy economy, engagement makes good companies better. During challenging times, engagement might be what helps keep companies solvent. As the economy begins to improve -- and it will -- organizations with strong engagement will be poised to grow, and engagement may well play a role in that recovery.

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