Want Engaged Workers? Get Their Managers to Pay Attention

Chief scientist, workplace management and well-being, Gallup
Jim Harter, chief scientist, workplace management and well-being, Gallup Courtesy of Gallup, Inc.

Gallup’s Jim Harter joins our experts discussing e-mail overload, open office plans, telecommuting, and eating lunch at their desks.

What needs fixing in the modern workplace?
Data we’ve collected show that in the U.S only 30 percent of people are engaged at work. There’s another 52 percent that are what we’d call not engaged, who do the minimum required but don’t really go above and beyond. And then there’s another 18 percent that are actively disengaged, and these are the people that are working against the organization’s objectives. The global numbers are a lot worse.

Are people becoming more or less engaged with their jobs?
It’s wavered a little bit here and there, but it’s basically stayed the same, which means that, while a lot of organizations are doing a better job individually, there are other organizations that are doing a worse job.

How do the engagement levels of remote workers compare with those in the office?
The general finding is that remote workers will tend to work a few more hours, and they’ll also tend to be a little bit more highly engaged. But if you look under the hood, you see that the people at the highest levels of engagement worked about 20 percent or less of their time remotely, so it didn’t exclude them from working with co-workers. What this speaks to, in my mind, is autonomy.

And that converges with other research we’ve seen about the importance of social time. You can compensate for some of that with technological social time and all the things that we know about, text-messaging, videochats, all those things. But it’s hard to replace the face-to-face.

Do you think that remote workers are one of the biggest challenges facing organizations?
Technology in general can be an efficiency advantage, and it can also be distracting. One of the core elements of engaging workers is helping them be clear on what’s expected of them at work. Managers have to continually reclarify.

What do successful organizations have in common?
We see workplaces that have doubled the rate of average engagement, and the variance has a lot to do with the quality of management. Having a manager who really understands the individuals they’re managing and gets them into positions where they can use their talents effectively is really important. And then we’ve also found that individuals knowing what they do best and knowing their talents and being aware of them so that they can then leverage them along with their co-workers is really important.

Another thing that kind of stood out to me in these organizations we studied that grew is they didn’t use the economy and changes in the economy as an excuse. When the economy dropped, they just leaned into it a bit more.

How important are the physical spaces in which people work?
One thing that stuck out to me the most in the research we’ve done is that people want a space they can call their own.

There are obvious things like noise. If you build a workplace space where there’s noise and it gets distracting, that can relate to disengagement. Also, if you have a visual line of sight to the outside, that was important.

What’s up with millennials?
They aren’t necessarily less engaged; in fact, they were a little bit more likely to be engaged. If you get people in the right job or they have an opportunity to do what they do best, that works regardless of generation. One of the things that the millennials look for and that keeps them retained in organizations is an opportunity to learn and grow.

Do you think that’s a generational thing or just an age thing?
I suspect it’s an age thing. And a lot of the things that we ascribe to generations are just age.

What’s your personal workspace like?
I have an office in Omaha looking at the Missouri River. I’ve got a big table I work on, where I kind of spread out my research and do my e-mail and all that. We pay a lot of attention to the concept that you need to build both collaborative space and space where people can shut the door if they need to.

And how often do you eat at your desk?
Probably about half the time. That’s one thing I could improve on.

Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) – As part of Bloomberg Businessweek's Fix This/Workplace series, Gallup's Jim Harter talks about the role of in-personal social time in the workday, engagement, morale, and technology. (Source: Bloomberg)

For more Fix This/Workplace, visit: www.businessweek.com/fix-this/workplace.

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