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May 2, 2023

How Proactive Support Lifts Employee Engagement

For more than two years, employees have slowly — and sometimes reluctantly — returned to their workplaces. Leaders have been trying to instill a sense of normalcy within their organizations, even as team members grapple with new and ongoing challenges. But in many situations, a critical element is still missing: personal, proactive support. Let me explain…

Today’s world is a challenging backdrop for us all. Inflation is hitting everyone’s pocketbook. The economy isn’t healthy. And geo-political instability remains a constant. Meanwhile, daily life goes on. No wonder employees sometimes seem distracted. Whether people are dealing with challenges with work, family or other areas of their lives, they often need support from their employers.

But today’s workers expect more than just generous healthcare plans and personal time off. They are looking for flexibility — not only to work from home, but to focus on family matters when necessary. They’re interested in professional guidance. And they want the kind of transparency and feedback that will help them thrive professionally and personally. In short, they’re looking for genuine, proactive support.

Where did this start? Let’s take a closer look:

The Rise of Quiet Quitting

The tumult of recent years led us all to re-examine professional norms. Workers began openly asking deep questions like these:

  • “Do I need to commute to an office each day, when I can accomplish more by working from home?”
  • “Is my current job as personally fulfilling as I would like it to be?”
  • “Does my employer give me what I need to excel in my role?”

Not surprisingly, we saw the Great Resignation wave in 2021. And that gave way to last year’s “quiet quitting” surge, when some workers decided to contribute only the minimal level of effort necessary. This trend caught-on fast. In fact, by the second half of 2022, more than 50% of U.S. workers had joined the “quiet quitter” ranks, according to Gallup.

The Next Wave: Conscious Quitting

But dissatisfied workers can’t remain quiet for long. Indeed, as former Unilever CEO, Paul Polman predicted early this year, “An era of conscious quitting is on the way.”

To get a handle on this shift, Polman commissioned a survey, called the Net Positive Employee Barometer. The results reveal that a majority of U.S. and U.K. employees are dissatisfied with corporate efforts to improve societal wellbeing and the environment.

Nearly half of respondents said they would consider quitting if their employer’s values didn’t align with their own. In fact, one-third have already quit for this reason — with even higher resignation rates among Generation Z and Millennial workers. Here’s why:

  • Younger workers believe they should rethink their commitment to an employer if the organization doesn’t demonstrate important values. Primarily, this includes Generation Z employees (born between 1997 and 2012). They’re highly socially aware. And by 2025, they will comprise almost 30% of the global workforce. They have also normalized the idea that workers can make demands on their employers.
  • Boomers and Generation X workers are also questioning workplace norms, although they’re less vocal about it. These workers were raised to “dress for the job you want”, “go above and beyond,” and “always be respectful.”

So we’re seeing a natural generational transition, hyper-accelerated by COVID and the Great Resignation. Workers are challenging the status quo. They’re looking for employers to meet them where they are and give them what they want.

But employers need to realize engagement is not one-size-fits-all. Multiple generations are involved, with different people at different points in their careers.

Proactive Support Starts With Awareness

If an employee is tuning out, do you know why? If you’re unsure, it’s time to dig deeper. When an employee performs at 85% capacity, their behavior could be about your organization, about their own circumstances, or a combination of factors. Regardless, it deserves an honest assessment. For example:

  • Is your infrastructure designed to encourage employee success?
  • Do you provide the kind of culture and resources that help people perform at their peak?
  • How well do the employee’s skills and knowledge fit their role?
  • Is the individual struggling with a personal crisis, such as a divorce?
  • What other factors may be influencing the employee’s behavior?

Employee engagement depends on an environment that promotes work-life integration. Unlike so-called “work-life balance,” work-life integration acknowledges each employee as a whole person (not just a 9-to-5 version). In daily life, this means employees are free to run an errand or tend to a family member during work hours, if needed.

This kind of freedom comes when employers trust their people to make wise choices about how to get the job done.

Mapping the Work-Life Territory

To empower people this way, HR and business leaders must clarify employee roles and responsibilities, and be sure they’re aligned with broader objectives. To get started, consider questions like these:

  • What are your company’s goals?
  • Do these goals cascade down and across your organization, so teams and individuals understand how their role (and associated responsibilities) contribute?
  • How do employees feel about their objectives?
  • Do you sense a gap between expectations and employee buy-in?
  • Are you actively listening to employees? Do you understand their mood, morale and daily experience?
  • How do you gather input and confirm employee sentiment?
  • Do you demonstrate that you’re paying attention?

How Proactive Support Works

Engagement is never perfectly consistent. In any given year, engagement will dip at some point for some people — even among high performers. This may be a response to work challenges, the organizational environment, or even personal issues, such as caring for an ill parent.

An environment of open, honest communication and support should offer enough elasticity to account for these dips.

Likewise, an individual’s capacity for engagement evolves and changes over time with their role. For example, a recent college graduate’s engagement “peak” is likely to look different than someone with 20 years of business experience.

If a dip in engagement does require intervention, start by gathering input from the individual, so you can identify the root of the problem. Often, you’ll find that an engagement drop coincides with an energy drain in the work environment. For instance:

  • Is the employee’s valuable energy being spent on the wrong things?
  • Are people required to do “focus work” in a noisy, chaotic office?
  • Have collaboration or communication tools become a distraction?
  • Are low performers or disgruntled team members creating a dysfunctional group dynamic?

Look for other signs that deserve further investigation. If a vocal person is suddenly quiet during meetings, take note. If someone stops volunteering for projects, take note. If someone is less responsive to requests than usual, take note. Talking with a core group of people (including an employee’s manager, the HR team, and co-workers) can provide a view into an employee’s contribution to the company and can shed light on issues that may not be obvious.

During the Dips: Stay Flexible, Observe, and Act

Whenever you diagnose disengagement, you’ll want to treat it with a direct approach. Earlier, I mentioned keeping a pulse on employee experience. One-on-one employee/manager meetings are key here.

A manager might say to a remote employee, “I’ve noticed a change in your availability recently. It’s been difficult to reach you over the past few weeks. Is something happening that I can support you with?”

Keep probing. Does the employee seem unaware of an issue? Is contact or communication eroding with others on the team? Could the organization take steps to help the individual re-engage? If not, does the employee no longer seem to believe in the company’s mission?

Once you know the answers to questions like these, it’s important to follow-through quickly with affected employees and leaders. The worst thing you can do is nothing at all. Unanswered issues tend to arise in pockets. But negativity can be contagious, and it can spread rapidly across an organization.

Final Thoughts on Proactive Support

Success in the future of work requires more buy-in than ever. Workers want to feel good about supporting their company’s mission. They want to believe their company trusts them and supports them, in return.

Relying on a holistic, proactive approach to the employee-employer relationship will earn you the kind of buy-in that keeps your team members engaged and motivated.

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