What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Engagement?

“A growing body of research shows that an engaged workforce is the key to better customer experience.”

I came across that sentence the other day and sighed. Talk about stating the obvious. It’s a bit like saying, “a growing body of research shows that ice cream tastes good.”

Of course engaged workers are going to provide better customer service, and if you think about it, this doesn’t just apply to those on the front lines. Anyone who is engaged in their work will put more thought, creativity, and perhaps time into that work, with the likely result that whatever task they’re working on will get done that much better. That, in turn, should result in better results for the business, and better results for the business means a) a better product or service (and happier customers) and/or b) a stronger bottom line, providing the company with greater ability to respond generously to customer problems (“sure, we’ll replace that for you, no problem!”)

And yet…

The fact that the research this article referred to was conducted, and that an article was then written about it and posted on a respected online blogsite for HR practitioners, tells me that somehow not everyone has gotten the message. And here’s my theory for why this is: I’m guessing many employers aren’t seeing such results from what they call employee engagement, because their employees are not truly engaged.

Many companies talk about engagement. But like so many other aspects of business that relate to the humans that do the work (think “diversity & inclusion” or “work-life”), engagement is rarely treated as an essential business tool. In the vast majority of cases it’s an add-on, and, as this article in Forbes lays out, that renders it pretty-much meaningless.

One problem is that companies get “engaged” mixed up with “happy.”

This is hardly a surprise, given the amount of attention the media lavishes on the fun perks, from massages to ping pong, enjoyed by employees at the Googles of the world. Engaged employees are generally happy employees (or at least they are probably happier than unengaged ones), but happy employees aren’t always engaged ones, as the CEO of Gallup explains in this thoughtful interview. Employees might be happy to be able to bring their pets to work, but that doesn’t mean they care a hoot about how the business is doing.

(Serendipitously, as I was working on this blog, a friend of mine who happens to be job-hunting called. She wanted to vent her frustration: she had been checking out Glassdoor reviews about a potential employer she’d been really excited about. To her horror, a disturbing number of current employees weighed in along the lines of: “Love the free lunch. Management sucks.”)

Truly engaged employees care about the larger mission of the organization and understand the role they play in achieving that mission.

This carries a level of satisfaction that goes much deeper than “fun”—although it can, in fact, make work fun, too.

When I walk into a store, or call a customer service line, I can often tell which employees are engaged. Occasionally “engagement” is counterfeit—something to watch for especially in companies who brand themselves on their customer service. But one thing’s for sure—I can certainly tell which employees are unengaged. The man who left me hanging for 20 minutes in Aisle 10 of a certain big box home improvement store recently when I needed help was not terribly engaged. (I left and went to my local hardware store, which is where I should have been in the first place) The woman who replied to my repeated email queries about an undelivered package with the same boilerplate, “give it a little more time” language each time was also not terribly engaged. (The package never arrived.)

On the other hand, the guy who stayed in touch with me by email and phone until the sofa that had arrived damaged was replaced with one that wasn’t—that man was almost certainly engaged. I hope he was also treated well and equitably, and had decent benefits—but I doubt he’d remain engaged for long if that weren’t the case.

I hope he was happy, too. People should be happy at work.

Trying for a corporate award? Slogging through an RFP? You can’t win if you can’t tell your story. Why not let me give you a hand?

I blog about work-life, diversity, wellness and other aspects of great workplaces as often as I find the time (which means a couple times a month, if I’m lucky). Want to know when my next post comes out? Sign up here


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