As anyone who’s ever had a job knows, being happy at work and being productive at work are not the same thing. It’s easy to show up, accomplish your prescribed tasks, and be ready to head out the door at the stroke of 5:00. “On autopilot,” “phoning it in,” “treading water” — whatever you want to call it, most of us have experienced it, perhaps for a day here and there but often much more.
In fact, according to a Gallup survey, 52% of American workers meet this lackluster description—to say nothing of the additional 19% of employees who dislike their jobs to the extent that they badmouth the company. Employers, naturally, hope for more from their employees. Many have some sense, if not direct knowledge, of the bottom-line benefits that passionate workers provide.
If organizations with large pockets of engaged workers (comprising only 29% of the American workforce, according to Gallup) see higher profits, sales, customer loyalty, and productivity levels—and research data suggests this—then all employers are surely eager to know how to turn their merely content workers into engaged ones. But it’s also in workers’ best interests to keep themselves engaged. How great does it sound to be unfazed by the daily commute, ready for Monday mornings, and see yourself as collaborative and creative?
These are some of the energetic traits exhibited by engaged employees. So, what can employers and workers do to help each other snap out of it and create a livelier, more productive workplace? Consider three strategies for re-animating zombified workers into committed contributors who take personal responsibility for their organization’s performance.
Offer Recognition Everyone wants recognition for their contributions and accomplishments, but throwing cash rewards at employees is unlikely to have a lasting effect on engagement. Engaged employees are craftsmen who want to build cathedrals, not just lay bricks, according to Dov Seidman, CEO of corporate culture consultancy LRN. “Our existing approach to employee engagement only produces bricklayers: people who perform tasks for money; people who may briefly become more productive in these tasks via one-off awards, bonuses, and other motivations (whose positive effects fade as quickly as sugar highs).” Since every employee has a different value system, it’s always a good idea to give reward choices: a raise, a bit of equity, a title promotion, childcare, time off, etc. But what if a deeply engaged employee was rewarded with better work, such as a plum assignment working on an innovative, prestigious, or even virtuous project? Purpose and meaning can be especially rewarding, but even something as simple as a tweeted compliment from the CEO could reinforce engagement.
Play To Strengths Most of us are self-aware enough to not only know our own strengths and weaknesses, but to see the value in cultivating skills, exercising our talents, and learning in the style best for us. Employees become energized when employers give them opportunities to pursue interests, especially if that comes in the form of training, certification, and other forms of résumé-beefing education. This works out best for employers when an employee’s manager can help tie those new skills into day-to-day job operations. Because some people, especially those in the IT field, tend to be motivated by game mechanisms, a field of enterprise incentivization called “gamification“ has emerged. “The same incentives that inspire game players to strive for the next level in a computer game can also inspire your employees to reach for a higher level of performance and engagement,” writes Elise Olding, Gartner’s business process management research director. Gartner predicts that by 2015, about 40 percent of large companies will use gamification techniques to transform business operations.
Build Culture A healthy corporate culture can be defined in many different ways, but the most important attribute is a flow of communication that allows employees to speak up without fear of penalization, and encourages transparency from management. This back-and-forth conversation is how the tenets of a company’s culture evolve: employees take it upon themselves to state their problems and needs (regarding anything from bureaucratic obstacles to the limitations of an inflexible telecommute policy to a proposed shorter meetings rule), and employers provide support. But engagement-minded employers need to take care not to fall into the trap of promising happiness – building up employee expectations and creating either dependence (if employers deliver) or resentment (if they don’t), says Edward Muzio, CEO of workplace improvement firm Group Harmonics. “Build an environment that allows people to grow without putting yourself in the role of Santa Claus,” he writes. “Tell employees it’s up to them to find their own engagement, and up to you to encourage and support them in doing so.” If employees are invested in troubleshooting problems, they’re probably on the way to engagement.
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Rachel Rosmarin is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has reported on the intersection of business and technology for publications such as Tom’s Guide/Tom’s IT Pro, Forbes, Sound & Vision, and Business 2.0 Magazine.