Why We Fail At Employee Engagement In HK & What We Should Do

March 3, 2020
by
Sophia Man

Many organizations in Hong Kong struggle through a love-hate relationship with employee engagement.

They see the business value of a highly engaged workforce, aspiring to receive the “love” from their employees in order to directly compute it into a productivity measure.

Yet, they are often discouraged by the lack of positive results they find when analysing the sometimes elaborate and always well-intentioned initiatives to engage their staff. Despite the costly investment to improve engagement, many employees in Hong Kong remain disengaged.

According to the 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards (TM&R) and Global Workforce Studies (GWS) conducted by Willis Towers Watson, less than one-fifth (19%) of Hong Kong employees are highly engaged, while as many as 38% are disengaged.

Why aren’t we harvesting the desired engagement levels?

The question, while fundamentally important, often seems under-discussed or mis-diagnosed.

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there is an underlying message of paradox that we see generally across our clients.

In Hong Kong, strategies in many organizations merely aim to measure engagement, or offer generic solutions at the system level. They fail to have a lasting impact on nourishing the “engaged feelings” inside employees at an individual level. Many employees remain uninspired, as their personal values and the meaning they make of their work hasn’t been addressed.

Here we dig deeper into what we see as the three main challenges underlying this trend.

1. Organizations Equate Engagement Surveys as the Be-All and End-All Strategy

Conducting an engagement survey has become a norm these days. While it should be used to measure engagement level, the survey itself has somehow become synonymous as “the main tool” to engage employees in many organizations. Here we can see we are mixing up the measuring stick with the strategy itself.

Surveys are typically conducted once a year (or every other year) as a means of ensuring that senior management and front-line managers can demonstrate their overt intention to listen to their employees.

While the intention is good, the action often stops there. After the survey, the timeline to implement action plans is often loose, accountability is vague, and follow-up plans are unfocused. This leaves employees feeling more disappointed than engaged.

Placing an engagement survey as the figure of the picture, rather than the frame of the picture, risk organizations having the wrong focus point.

Although many HR leaders might say “Leaders and Managers should be engaging staff year-round, and we have other initiatives in place across the board – the engagement survey simply serves to test how we’re doing”, and this is indeed correct in theory.

However, the experience and reality for many employees is that the survey experience is the loudest, clearest message they get about engagement.

The very process of running a formal survey shifts conscious attention to the measurement of rather than the true sensation of engagement, which can only truly be measured through observation.

2. Organizations Do Engagement at Their Employees

Many organizations shower their employees with affection in the form of extra fringe benefits, treats, freebies and the odd ping-pong table. They give their staff Appreciation Day, Birthday Leave, Casual Fridays, free gym, drinks and snacks, standing desks, community days, team retreats etc., in the hope of being reciprocated with their engagement.

In Hong Kong, however, we tend to be a bit hard to please and have high expectations for our employers (the spoil factor!).  

While most employees are happy to receive these engagement benefits, they only serve to continuously escalate the baseline expectations.

These solutions are often an adrenaline shot to boost engagement – short-term and temporary- and are not enough to keep employees engaged.

They are a “top down” and “one size fits all” approach to engagement. While not bad initiatives, these perks haven’t had the impact on engagement rates and productivity that was anticipated, and often leave leaders and HR at a loss as to how they can maintain and continuously top.

Again, a savvy HR leader might say “We have asked our employees what they want, and we have aimed to deliver what we can”.

However, this relies on the assumption that employees themselves know what truly engages them. In fact, as humans, most of us are not aware or cognizant of how we find meaning and connection at work, and a large-scale survey will not allow us to tap into this.

3. Employees Often Do Not Feel Accountable to Engage Themselves at Work

A dynamic and healthy relationship has the right balance of give and take between the two parties.

With engagement initiatives in the workplace, however, employers often seem to take accountability to initiate engagement, pushing and sustaining the agenda, while employees expect to sit back and be engaged.

Many leaders and managers point this out with distain, aiming to solve by hiring staff who are naturally motivated due to their personality type, yet few business heads truly know how to create the conditions whereby “average” employees lean in to engage themselves.

Meanwhile, there are many individual employees who constantly feel “stuck” at work, regardless of their job role, pay and seniority.

They feel uninspired by their company, their managers and their work.

In the worst case scenario, they stay suspended in motion, unable or unwilling to take accountability for their own career satisfaction and success.

This group comes to be known as “parked cars” or “dead wood”.

They often do not feel motivated enough to engage themselves at work, not to mention to be engaged by their employers.

While on the other hand, those employees who do take accountability for their satisfaction in their roles may take control by changing jobs, continuously searching for a boss and company where they find a natural fit. These staff come to be known as “job hoppers” and experience the wrath of recruiters and the media everywhere.

But can we blame them when indeed they may simply be the proactive ones, willing to uproot themselves in the search of career satisfaction and engagement?

Employees vote with their feet, and this is why the behaviour indicating attrition is a noisy measure, but highly correlated to engagement.

The Opportunity

If we want to ramp up the engagement level in the workforce, both organizations and employees obviously need to approach engagement differently.

But how?

True career engagement, by and large, is an inside game. It is an emotional bond and commitment that employees have for their organizations, their professions, their teams, and their bosses. Therefore, to have any chance of boosting engagement, we must ignite the flames of engagement from the inside – the heart of the employees.

Engagement Starts with Finding Meaning in What We Do

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, engagement at work is a form of self-fulfillment for employees (the highest level of need to achieve). Without meaning in the “doing”, there is the slow death of self-fulfillment. Instead of doing engagement from the top down “at” employees, organizations must first instill in the organisation structure some opportunity for employees to connect with their own values, define what success means to them, and explicitly connect those personal realizations with the tasks of the role and mission of the business.

Therefore, we need to create an ongoing narrative dialogue with our staff, actively giving them opportunities to articulate why their work matters, why the value working in their role and team, and what they are proud of in the organization.

Only when employees know their own “why” can they clearly connect it to the “why” of their business, and express engagement in their own terms.

And it is when employees are constantly inspired to recognize and identify with the meaning of their work, the mission and values of the organization, they will be motivated enough to engage themselves at work to achieve their full potential, working beyond just the pay check and benefits.

This sounds logical when you think about it – right? But HOW do you do it, and at scale?!

A Culture of Trust Promotes Engagement

Employees’ emotional commitment is also conducive to their trust in organizations, particularly in their leaders and managers. Compassionate leadership, therefore, builds trust and promotes engagement.

Compassionate leaders lead with both mind and heart. They see what employees see and feel what they feel. They know their employees simply cannot feel engaged if they are only asked about how they feel once a year (in the form of a survey), and understand engagement is more than a score.

Hence, they have an ongoing communications strategy to bond and build trust with their employees.

The leaders encourage their team members to share their own thoughts on a regular basis, articulating in a personal forum how they connect their own values with the objectives of the team or business, and in return these leaders show a genuine interest to listen actively, and to communicate openly.

Leaders and managers who have a mindset of engagement for themselves are able to create the forum for dialogue where staff can find their own meaning too.

When employees feel that their leaders truly “get them”, through active and empathetic communications, they naturally develop an emotional commitment with the company that is hard to replace.

Not all leaders and managers are this way inclined, but by approaching engagement with a targeted coaching, mentoring, and workshop approach to values-based exploration, the organisation can help its leaders to make the connections that they in-turn can pass on to their teams.

This trickle-down effect in engagement takes time, and requires a disciplined approach, but means that organisations can hyper-personalize engagement at scale through the management network.

Solving Engagement Issues at the Core Helps Sustain the Business as a Whole

Instead of applying different band-aid interventions to “fix” the surfacing engagement issues, we should aim to identify and address the underlying causes.

When employees feel that their work is not recognized, for example, they often need more than free lunches and “job well-done’s” from their managers.

Instead, managers should dig out the causes of “work un-recognition”, by understanding how employees feel performance management and career development are being handled and communicated, then implementing actions that address the causes.

Only by addressing engagement issues at the core we will speak to the heart of the employees.

Here, we recommend the use of Design Thinking principles to root-out insights, and re-shape the employee experience to be based on engagement as a guiding principle.

By workshopping trends seen through the engagement survey, and via close collaboration with managers on the ground, talent teams and leadership can completely re-shape initiatives to get to the subconscious level of employee engagement.

In making these bold efforts, businesses truly have a chance at enabling human capital to impact productivity and sustainability.

Using Influencers and Coaching to Franchise Engagement

And you might say “Well, it can’t all rest with Managers and HR – you said this was an inside job!”. And that’s true.

We have seen that by identifying influencers within your organisation – those who have the widest networks of connections and who use their platforms to share information and sentiment to impact their colleagues – HR and leadership are able to infiltrate the employee base and encourage engagement from the grass roots.

If influencers receive coaching, have opportunities to workshop their values and are given multi-media internal channels to voice the meaning they find in their work, then engagement has a chance.

When employees see others finding their individual meaning, and using their voice to articulate their career satisfaction and success, it drives others to go on their own quest and make their own meaning too (or simply borrow someone else’s – so in this case, give them enough positive role models!).

The coaching method, by nature of its hyper-personalized approach, is money well spent in connecting individuals to their higher purpose and then setting them free to rub off on their colleagues.

Hence, for the above reasons, it is time we stopped making engagement efforts that just touch the surface of the issue and yield little results.

Beyond all the good intentions, process, formality and “the doing” of engagement, is an opportunity for both organizations and employees to look within themselves, facing heart-to-heart, which is where the real engagement lies.

Let’s re-set and make the difference, should we?

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