We’ve all heard the horror stories, or maybe even acted as supporting characters in them ourselves: droves of dissatisfied workers, silently hating their jobs, contemplating a swift exit. That is, the type of workplaces where engagement levels are dangerously, catastrophically low.
I’m talking about a workplace where no one interacts with each other, where people show up, quietly do their jobs, yet remain mentally checked out throughout their entire shift. An office of listless employees whose only connection to their company is their salary. It’s the type of place where doing the bare minimum is not only acceptable but also the norm.
These desolate wastelands are terrifying, obviously, especially to employers. Engagement can’t be enforced of course, so what’s an employer to do?
How to save your company from low engagement levels
First thing’s first, you need to diagnose the problem(s). The symptoms are there, plain as day: people are unmotivated, dispassionate, not communicating openly (or at all). People are quitting seemingly on a weekly basis and morale is at an all-time low. Clearly there’s a complex web of issues that have driven your people to this point, and your first move should be to untangle that web. What’s made the majority of your people so despondent?
Because of the nature of your position (presuming you’re the CEO or a leader of some kind), your best bet might be to get an outside unbiased opinion—that is, someone who can tell you what’s right in front of your nose. You could hire an HR consultant to perform a culture audit or measure your organization’s employee engagement levels, to figure out what might be the problem.
Alternatively, and perhaps a better option, you could ask your people what exactly is affecting them most at work. You might ask them to complete an anonymous survey or reach out for feedback in other ways, like formal or informal 1:1 chats with former culture champions.
As Mark Feffer explains, “The first step is to learn why employees feel disengaged. The most effective way to do that is to ask in direct conversations with a wide range of employees. In these conversations, be empathetic and resist the temptation to defend or explain problems that come up.”
Once you’ve got a firm grip on the issues impacting your people’s engagement and performance, it’s time to think about how you’re going to solve those problems.
Big changes are better than gimmicks
There’s a particularly hilarious Onion article with the headline “Potential Employee Uprising Quelled With Free Pizza.” Great, right? Here’s the opening paragraph:
NEW YORK—A massive employee backlash over low wages and increased workload was narrowly averted this week when company management arranged to have eight large pizzas delivered to the design firm Cobalt Media, instantly quelling months of mounting resentment and dissatisfaction.
Employers, take note. You can’t solve org-wide existential crises with small distractions or empty gimmicks. In fact, going that route could even exacerbate the problem. To solve low engagement levels, you need to take real, substantive action—fast. This means implementing major changes to the ways in which your organization is run, and communicating as openly as possible what those changes will entail for your people.
No matter what issues are plaguing your workplace—it could be low pay, lack of learning opportunities, long hours, or even just boring work—and no matter what solutions you have in mind, your approach to solving these problems should always be transparent. You need to communicate clearly that you’ve a) understood why your people feel disengaged b) are taking action to address those issues, and c) are going to keep them regularly updated on progress.
I also recommend creating opportunities for your people to contribute feedback, ideas, and ways to improve upon your solutions before (and during) implementation. It’s an excellent way to track the progress and effects of your changes to the organization.
What to do if your organization is beyond saving
Sometimes, when engagement levels are at their lowest, it may seem like there’s no hope for an organization. And although there probably is a point of no return for some companies—for instance, when people give up on the day-to-day operation of the business and just abandon ship—I like to think that the appropriate action, taken at the right time, can save even the most dissatisfied people from the brink.
In other words, most organizations can be saved!
When your engagement levels are at their worst, there’s no easy formula to follow to immediately reinvigorate your people. But focusing on listening to them and putting in the effort to addressing their grievances is always going to be a good move. After all without your people, there’d be no organization. So, figuring out how best to serve their needs at work and find ways to keep them engaged should be your top priority.
Employee engagement is difficult to measure and even more difficult to permanently “solve.” That said, the way you treat your people and the lengths you go to communicate how much you care about their well-being can make all the difference in how they view their work and connect to their workplace. If your people’s engagement levels are extremely low, though, I don’t recommend using pizza as a cure-all.