How to Address Sinking Engagement

Employee engagement is the lowest in a decade. Hybrid arrangements are a lead culprit, but one association is well-equipped to address.

According to a recent Gallup report, employee engagement in the United States is at an 11-year low. Time to panic?

Not exactly. To be sure, engagement has nosedived since the pandemic, with only 30 percent of survey respondents saying they’re “highly engaged,” down from 36 percent in early 2020. But that’s still above or at the percentage between 2000 and 2013. And though the percentage of those who are “actively disengaged”—the “quiet quitters” that managers were so stressed about a couple of years back—has ticked up, the figure has stayed relatively steady across the time Gallup has conducted its survey.

What the study does reveal, though, is that organizations still haven’t cracked the code of managing hybrid work and creating opportunities for connection within their workplace and professional communities. So the shift presents an opportunity for association leaders not just in terms of their own staffs, but their members as well.

Speaking with SHRM last week, HR consultant Carly Holm noted that the disengagement problem is a function of contemporary life, not just the workplace. “The world of work has changed so dramatically in the last few years,” she said. “People are spending so much more time on screens than actually interacting with other people. I believe that decreased human interaction has led to a decrease in employee engagement.”

Hybrid arrangements don’t address the engagement problem they’re intended to solve.

And that disengagement is exacerbated by the fact that today’s most popular hybrid arrangements—like asking people to come in three days a week—don’t always address the engagement problem they’re intended to solve. A recent Forbes article quoted a LinkedIn post by leadership consultant Heather Paterson, pointing out the disconnect. “If hybrid working is simply people coming into the office to do the exact same work they do at home–sitting and looking at a screen all day–then the benefits of being together are not going to be recognized,” she wrote. If we want people to be happy about coming into the office, we have to make it valuable.”

So, what does “make it valuable” look like? Better coordination of schedules for remote and hybrid workers can help. But so can better communication of the purpose of their work. The Gallup survey noted that the highest levels of disengagement are among younger workers, so opportunities to remind them of how they fit into an organization’s overall goals is key. Meghan Stettler, head of the workplace consultancy O.C. Tanner Institute, told SHRM that she “recommended managers redesign one-on-one meetings away from the standard updates on work progress toward discussing how employees’ work is tied to the organization’s purpose, how they are delivering on making a difference, and how their passions and skill sets could be better utilized, as well as clearly mapping growth opportunities and celebrating their accomplishments.”

That notion of communicating purpose is something that associations can extend to their members as well. If opportunities to meet, connect, and learn are valuable, associations can develop ways to provide them—whether that’s through chapter meetings, casual meet-ups, or marketing the value of networking around larger events. The slackening in engagement speaks to a frustration many are feeling about their sense of belonging. Associations, who foreground a sense of belonging as a core value, have an opportunity to step in.

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