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May 13, 2020
Kate Marshall

Your guide to reengaging disengaged employees

Do you want the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that 70% of employees in the US are disengaged at work. The Engagement Institute also reports that disengaged employees are costing US companies over $500B annually.

Meanwhile, companies with high engagement are 21% more profitable, and highly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave.

The good news is that there are a few things you can do to reengage disengaged employees. We dug deep to find out what engages employees at work, what causes them to disengage, and what you can do to make it better.

Why are employees disengaged at work?

Disengagement at work comes in two forms: solo disengagement and group disengagement.

When a singular employee shows signs of disengagement, causes could be deeply personal or reflective of their unique relationship to the job and company. When the whole team—or big sections of them—begin to demonstrate the signs above in tandem, you could be experiencing a larger culture issue.

There are a number of reasons that an individual employee or the whole team have begun to disengage. These are common:

They feel misaligned

When employees feel ‘aligned’ with their work and with their employer, engagement is intrinsic. Their work should feel challenging, but they should feel equipped. It should feel compelling & creatively-driven, yet controlled, clear, and fair.

Your employees want to feel in sync with their managers and teams, to feel both socially welcome and professionally encouraged. They want to feel ethically and consciously aligned to your company and its values, and proud to work for and with you. 

True alignment implies a reliable balance between your employees’ personal and professional lives, too. For example, 71% of employees would quit if another employer offered them a more flexible schedule. If your employee doesn’t feel aligned in all of these key ways, they’ll start to dissociate from their role.

Their work isn’t being recognized

Employees who are giving their best work to an employer may never get credit outside those walls. It’s important to make sure they’re getting credit inside the organization, at least. If you can recognize your employees more publicly—on your website, on social media, or during team meetings or events—that’s even better.

Since 69% of employees say they would work harder if they were better appreciated, there’s a business case for making an effort there. Appreciation can look like a quick email 1:1 or a more public shout-out for larger successes. Giving out spot rewards and celebrating them together is an effective way to do this, as well.

Feedback is lacking or unconstructive 

It’s hard to feel engaged with something you can’t evaluate. If your employees aren’t sure that they’re doing a good job, how can you expect them to engage with the work they do? Setting clear expectations and providing consistent, positive, constructive feedback will help. 

After all, 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once per week.

Take note of your employees’ varied responses to feedback and you can begin to cultivate a dialogue between managers and employees. 

They experience too much failure, conflict, or bottlenecking

If your employees are trying to work efficiently and effectively, but find themselves blocked or rejected at every turn, they’ll stop trying. Few people have the grit to continue working hard at something that doesn’t make sense, feels convoluted, or takes too long.

Survey your team to find out what would make their workday easier. If answers don’t pour in, you may want to take responses anonymously, observe anecdotally, or inquire 1:1. 

They don’t trust their leaders or the company 

Typically, if an employee trusts their managers, supervisors, or bosses, life at work is good. When there’s trust in the workplace, especially from those “higher up” in the org chart, your employees know that they can speak freely. This trust effectively defuses all of the other primary causes of burnout or disengagement. When employees feel that they have an outlet for frustrations, fears, or concerns, they voice them, and voicing concerns is the first step to making things better

They’ve already made plans to exit 

If your employee is considering another job offer, or even just scouring the market for new work, they’re going to mentally check out of their current job. Considering that 82% of employees are open to new employment, and half of those are looking actively, that’s a problem.

Not everyone that’s open to new work is actively looking and not everyone who is looking will disengage, but some will. Similarly, not everyone who wants to leave will find work right away. In fact, you may retain a disengaged, flight-risk employee for years before replacing them with someone more enthused to work for you. 

7 steps for reengaging disengaged employees 

If you’re concerned that one or many of your employees are disengaged, there are solutions. Many employees just need to be communicated with to feel heard and seen. Start here:

Step 1: Build trust

1/3 of employees don’t trust their employer. While building trust isn’t the easiest first step, it is the most important. You can’t share feedback, ask questions, or offer help effectively if they don’t trust you.  Building employee trust might look like:

  • Doing what you say you’re going to do
  • Honoring employee opinions and ideas 
  • Giving your employees an outlet to use their voice
  • Providing flexibility and space to demonstrate mutual trust
  • Cutting out gossip, hearsay, and presumption
  • Demonstrating transparency and a willingness to share

Step 2: Ask questions

If you want to know what would re-engage your employees, ask them. Once you’ve built trust and demonstrated that you want to hear your employees out, do that. Ask questions that will help you understand the types of tasks your employees like and dislike, how they’ve felt in previous roles, what management style they prefer, and how they prefer to communicate. Employee engagement isn’t really hackable; it’s honestly just a study on human nature. Everyone is different, and sometimes, all it takes is for you to acknowledge that for them to re-engage. 

Step 3: Model engagement 

Picture it: You’re 8 years old and your parents just told you to eat all your vegetables. Now, picture that they’re eating chips and candy right in front of you. If your parents don’t eat their vegetables, how likely are you to eat yours? Sure, your parents could discipline you into eating them against your will, but how long will that really work? 

If your employees are expected to stay in the office, engaged at their work stations, and producing new output constantly, managers should too. If supervisors are coming and going constantly, taking loud personal phone calls, or scrolling Facebook at work, employees will follow suit. While constant output and continuous Facebook scroll are on opposite ends of the spectrum, it might be wise to aim for a healthy middle-ground that everyone can achieve. 

Step 4: Shake things up a bit

When was the last time anything surprising, exciting, or new happened in your office? If it’s been a while, start scheming up a mini-event, half-day workshop, or volunteer day. Investing in professional development and learning is also a great way to mix up the workweek. You can commit to something like this one Friday per month or host a lunch-and-learn every Tuesday. Businesses with a strong culture of learning see 30–50% fewer disengaged employees than those without. 

Struggling to think of engaging activities for the different personalities at your org?

Catie might have some ideas for you.

If events and schedule changes feel too big right now, consider placing a tiny surprise on your team’s desks or even sending an unexpected, encouraging email. Find a way to surprise and delight your workers every now and then—or risk stagnation. 

Step 5: Know their flow

Your employees are unique and they come to you with different experiences, preferences, and skills. Your leaders and executives likely set preferences for the ways they communicate, what tools they use, and how they spend their time. Why relegate that natural human preference and control to those of higher authority?

89% of employees have cited disjointed or frustrating digital communication as a chief cause for low morale. Grant all employees an equal, high level of autonomy and watch what happens to both productivity and atmosphere. 

Step 6: Give a little extra

Employment is essentially an agreement to trade effort for reward. We know that increases in salary and other forms of compensation don’t correlate 1:1 to better output or more engaged work. In fact, half of employees would sacrifice up to 30% of their salary to work at a job they enjoy. Still, there is a relationship between what we give and what we get. 

Instead of compensation, think of other ways that you can help your employees balance work and life, ease their commute, or eliminate an errand. Consider implementing Summer Fridays, allowing some remote work, or starting an employee recognition program.

In a world where 87% of employees expect their employer to support them in balancing work and personal commitments, it’s wise to offer perks, benefits, and permissions that make that possible. 

Step 7: Celebrate!  

Your company is doing big things. Your wins are at the hands of every employee who contributes at  your organization. How often do those disengaged employees even know what initiatives their work contributes to, let alone the results of those efforts? Pull back the curtain to show your employees (and your consumer audience) just how big their work really is. 

When employees see their work in a vacuum they may miss just how wonderful they are, and we can’t have that! 

Disengaged employees could be your secret weapon 

Every employee is a part of the magic that makes your organization what it is. They’re the front lines between you and your consumers, your vendors, your partners, and the press. Their insights will inform the decisions that move your business forward. Their work will scaffold the next generation of your success. 

Re-engaging disengaged employees is about more than business success, though. To build a future where people can be healthy, happy, and successful, we must prioritize them in that order. 

Zestful: recognize and reward your employees—minus the admin work.

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