Improving Employee Engagement Levels to Weather the Economic Storm

Ruwayne Kock

Editors Note: This case study, though based on South Africa, can be translated throughout organizations across the globe.

The global recession has not passed South Africa by and while individual managers can’t impact directly on the country’s economic recovery, they can influence the extent to which employees connect to their jobs and the organisation. This connection is referred to as employee engagement.

This is an important consideration because, in recent years, employee engagement has emerged as an important strategy to improve performance and retain key talent—two vital factors impacting on a company’s ability to weather economic storms as well as to outperform their competitors when trading conditions are more favorable.

Employee engagement is defined as a "psychological state" within which an employee connects and identifies with the personal, job and organizational dimensions of his or her work.

Interestingly, recent research conducted by The Human Resource Practice into employee engagement in South Africa contained both good news and bad news for employers.

On the one hand, the research highlighted that employees in South Africa are more engaged than their global counterparts. The Towers Perrin Global Workforce Report (2008) reported that 62 percent of almost 90,000 respondents worldwide were engaged or enrolled, and 38 percent were disengaged or disenchanted. In South Africa, 76 percent of 767 respondents were fully engaged, 23 percent were undecided and disengaged (i.e. 13 percent were undecided and 11 percent disengaged).

Overall Employee Engagement Levels

On the other hand, there were differences in "intention to stay" depending on how people viewed their current career status. The research showed that just under half (47 percent) of the respondents stated they were ready for a new job at a new level and 17 percent said they were ready for a new job at the same level. Those who perceived themselves to be "growing in their current job" had the highest intention to stay and those who perceived themselves to "need a bigger job at a new level" had the lowest intention to stay.

In addition, African participants showed lower intention to stay than White respondents regardless of career status. Younger participants showed less intention to stay regardless of career status. "Intention to stay" seemed, therefore, to be significantly influenced by perceptions of career status, racial group and age.

And, importantly, employees feel they are not properly engaged through their supervisors, who were given a low rating in the research.

What does this mean in the context of the current recession and limitations on job mobility?

Firstly, employees may be looking for greater meaning in their work because they are under financial pressure to retain it. Respondents who frequently thought of quitting were mainly Africans under 30, graduates, people at lower job levels or with up to 10 years experience or ready for new job challenges at the next level. This profile poses a risk to employers from an employment equity and business continuity perspectives in terms of the labor market availability of mission-critical skills to fill vacancies.

Secondly, if South African managers did more to positively influence the extent to which employees connect to their jobs and the organisation, productivity would improve, as engaged employees perform better, which will in turn assist the company ride out the recession. It would also boost employee retention rates, because engaged employees are more likely to remain with the company, ensuring it has the skills and experience to capitalise on the inevitable upturn.

The research found seven factors which influences employee engagement. Meaningfulness topped the list with a rating of 4.29 out of 5, followed by resourcefulness (4.17) and self-awareness (3.86). This was followed by teamwork and co-workers (3.86), organisation connectivity (3.79), job identity (3.68) and supervisor relations (3.44).

Overall Ratings for Engagement Dimensions

The research aptly illustrated that employees seek a shift from an organisational-focused to a more individual-based people management approach. Acknowledging this allows for the development of an Employee Engagement Model, which provides a framework for managers and organisations on how to engage and retain key competencies and leadership talent. This model shows that retention strategies should focus more on the personal meaningfulness of work than merely on job and organisational connectedness.

What does this teach us about managing employees in these turbulent economic times?

Managers need to change the way they manage their people towards a coaching management style, which presents an empowering relationship that facilitates the creation of meaningful, challenging work that tests peoples’ resourcefulness. Managers have a key role to play in retaining valued employees as, with an upturn in the economy, those employees with a strong sense of resourcefulness will look for more meaningful employment.

To design meaningful work, creative, internal communication methods need to be deployed to demonstrate the link between organizational strategic priorities and individual performance goals. The accompanying employee engagement factors and validated instrument can be applied to assess engagement in companies and the degree of connectedness among employees to their jobs and the organisation. The results can provide a guide to identifying measures for retaining competencies and experience.