Software Is Not a Substitute for Brains

Yesterday at the holiday lunch, a colleague told us about his background.

"I used to jump out of planes," he shared.

"That's pretty impressive," someone said. "You were a paratrooper?"

He laughed. "In the Marines, we just called it jumping out of planes."

In a nutshell, that's how I feel about the term "employee engagement." Because a paradoxical thing has happened by virtue of using this term.

While paratroopers will always jump out of planes, the term employee engagement itself has become a kind of substitute for action.

In other words, we talk about it and talk about it, and we throw a lot of money at it, but very few companies actually do it in a way that is successful. As of January 2016, according an article in Gallup Business Journal called "The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis," just 32% of U.S. employees are engaged in their jobs, and on a global level this percentage is a miniscule 13%.

Obviously this is not a good situation.

But I disagree with Gallup's recommended approach to addressing it, which is essentially to fold employee engagement into the overall goals of the company, and then to measure it. Not because they're "wrong," but rather because such cold and dry tips miss the point.

"Employee engagement" is a human term, it's an emotional metric, and only a qualified communications professional who understands the unique culture of the organization is situated to boost it successfully.

Engaging people is an art and a science. It is not reducible to logic or reason: Believe it or not, salary is only weakly correlated with motivation. And it's not enough to know your company does meaningful work, nor how you fit into the big picture.

Some may think that tribalism is the key determinant of employee engagement. But one could also argue that feeling too much a part of the company can actually be suffocating. Google, for example, is widely considered a top employer precisely because its employees are a prized, cushioned, walled-off elite. Yet as one former Google employee said, the insularity can get to bee too much: "You start making the same choices day in and day out. You hang out more and more with the same people you work with."

Some organizations try to address the issue of employee engagement by allowing staff to create their own social environment, through the use of internal networking software. But according to at least one study, by Altimeter, quoted in Harvard Business Review ("Why Nobody Uses The Corporate Social Network," April 2015), less than half of employees actually use them. Again, this is not because the software itself is flawed, but because its implementation must be guided by a skilled professional--a human being--who is able to draw employees out and create safe spaces for online interaction.

The bottom line is, employee engagement is really a marketing function. And study after study has shown that internal communications professionals have a demonstrable impact on employee engagement; here is just one example.

While it may be tempting to reduce the work environment to controllable, cheap, automated technologies, the fact of the matter is that emotions are messy. People need people to understand what they are going through, address their concerns and higher-level needs, and communicate back with them in an empathetic and inspiring manner.

Companies with high levels of employee engagement are situated for all manner of risk reduction as well as greater revenue both immediately and down the road. Conversely, those with staff who are just "marking time" are actually losing money on every employee, every hour, every workday.

You market your product to outside customers. It makes sense to invest in building a loyal customer base internally as well.

All opinions my own.