Forget the Company Picnic — They’d Rather Have Good Work to Do

Some dreary news this week from Gallup, as reported recently in the Sunday New York Times. Americans have never felt worse about work:
People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do.

No wonder we’re in a recession. You don’t suppose all that apathy and detachment has any impact on productivity, do you?

The article goes on to point out what one might hope would be obvious by now–engaged employees are good for the bottom line. According to Gallup, disengaged employees are costing U.S. companies upwards of $300 billion a year.

What’s frustrating–what makes me bang my head on the conference table–is that if you talk with enough business leaders, you’ll find that many (maybe even most) still think of employee engagement as “soft stuff.”

Which is why companies tackle it with things like casual Fridays and company picnics or, slightly better, raises and bonuses.  When what really motivates employees is knowing that their work matters. Here’s Gallup:

…of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.

This isn’t expensive, difficult or frilly. It is the simple work of setting the right priorities; communicating clear expectations; providing context so employees can see their work in the big picture; supporting the work by removing barriers and providing resources; and then marking progress in a meaningful way.

Where we see employee engagement drop is when managers create fire drills. All hands on deck to meet an unnecessary deadline on a project everyone knows is going nowhere. You can’t fix that with free pizza and a happy hour on Friday.

With engagement levels at an all-time low, the opportunity for competitive advantage is enormous. Companies that get this right will win the talent war, see an increase in innovation, improve customer service, and get more work done with the same number of bodies.

Alternatively, I suppose you could just not worry about it.  After all, there’s a fair chance your competitors’ engagement levels suck, too.