Engagement…And Not With A Ring

Engagement is definitely a hot topic these days.  Not the type that involves announcements or wedding plans, but that involves the quest for that *thing* that will result in happy employees who are fully engaged each and every day at work.  There’s talk about employee development, rewards and recognition programs, and opportunities for advancement.   Articles, blogs, and research about engagement rule the day yet solutions seem to remain elusive.

Companies are struggling to figure out how to shift the engine that drives engagement into gear.   They recognize that engagement translates into retention and strong bottom-line numbers.  And while some may believe that it’s still a “soft” business issue, the reality is clear — happy employees translate into a successful business.  Sounds simple but as anyone in HR and Benefits knows, it’s anything but.

So what’s the problem?  Why aren’t employees engaged after that holiday party complete with lobster puffs and champagne?  Why isn’t company-paid life insurance and that health club discount enough?   What more do employees want?   Wait…maybe that’s the issue.  Engagement may have less to do with what employees want and everything to do with what employees need.  May sound like semantics, but it’s the nuances in life that make all the difference.

To drill down into needs, let’s make a few brief assumptions (and I do hate to make assumptions):

  • Life is not linear, therefore every day presents new challenges.
  • Workplace and family responsibilities often conflict.
  • Increasing productivity demands on employees along with ongoing demands from children and aging parents along with personal issues create obstacles.

While not the entire picture, it does show one thing — the marriage of work/life balance and employee engagement is a rocky one.  And while we can draw some other conclusions about employees through assessments (e.g. how many employees are using the smoking cessation program), one of the core things often overlooked is that employees are *individuals*, not a cluster of the same.  And as individuals, their needs vs. wants are individualized, making it even more challenging for companies to figure them out no less try to meet them.

A recent article in Forbes spoke about 28 research studies that focus on employee engagement, addressing core areas impacted by engagement including sales, retention, and profits.  Basically, the studies highlight the importance of engagement and the direct correlation to healthy, successful companies.  Yet what was not addressed was the correlation between a company’s understanding of the *needs* of employees — the real-life issues facing this mosaic of individuals — and how addressing these needs translates into engagement.

Like virtually every area of work/life integration, one size does not fit all.  Yes, there are some conclusions that can be drawn and some solutions — call them benefits, programs, perks — that can target a large swath of the workforce.  Yet even when solutions seem to be well developed and executed, the ebb and flow of daily living often quickly shifts employee priorities and needs … often without fanfare or communication to those who may be able to assist.  And this has a direct correlation to engagement.

Companies and the people charged with figuring out the solutions face challenges inherent in a diverse workforce.   Solutions require a level of “company engagement” not needed in prior years because the workforce is vastly different today.  On Monday morning — or any other morning, look at your employees and remember that each of them is shouldering hidden burdens and life demands that are in direct competition with your need (not want) for them to be engaged.

Asking employees, “What do you need in order to be more engaged at work” means being prepared to respond.  And as with other things in life, not all needs can be met … or met completely.  But it’s asking these needs-driven questions that brings engagement to an individual level.  And isn’t this what engagement is really all about?

A Discussion Whose Time Has Come

I love pets.  Dogs, cats…wonderful creatures.  They share our homes and make us laugh in YouTube videos.   They’re special members of our families.  I used to have pets so I get it.  Truly.  And I know that comparing a Collie or short-hair to anything else is probably unfair.  But life isn’t always fair.

In the world of work/life where companies are striving for employees be happy and productive, many are offering “pet insurance” to ease the financial pressures pet owners face.  The thinking is that employees will worry less about the vet bill and more about the looming client deadline.  I’m in favor of anything that helps an employee balance — or better juggle — their often competing life responsibilities.  Which brings me to the comparison.

I just read an article where the focus was parents talking to parents about what to expect when their child is diagnosed with autism.  Nothing new, as I’ve spent 14 years *listening* in corporations, online forums, parent support groups, and a host of other places where parents come together to share the “real scoop” on life pre and post an autism diagnosis.  I’ve heard most of it and with every story heard, I find myself shaking my head both in disbelief and admiration.

In this recent article, one parent said: “Be prepared to go into debt, borrow from family, increase your mortgage, take out a line of credit to pay for interventions…”.   Go into debt.  Borrow from family.  Take out a line of credit. Can you imagine being a parent who needs to take out a loan to get your child what he or she needs?  Sitting down with your parents to ask them for money so their grandchild can learn to speak … or make a friend?  Trying to decide whether you can keep working to pay off that loan or repay your parents (not to mention pay for all the *other* needs) when the time you’ll need to orchestrate your child’s daily and weekly schedule will take far more than two weeks paid vacation or short-term family leave?

Which brings me back to pets.   I realize this may not be popular with the “pet set,” but if — as a former HR Director with a choice to make — I had to choose between supporting the needs of employees with children or pets, children win.  Hands-down.  Before the barbs are tossed, it’s important to say that in an ideal world, every employee’s needs would be supported so that everyone would be fully productive and engaged.  But this isn’t the ideal world and choices are part of the equation.  Companies grapple with decisions about where to put their limited benefits dollars and how many choices to offer employees when benefits options are included.  But — and my shield is poised — there’s a huge difference between helping an employee pay for a flea treatment vs. helping an employee raise a child.

Children who will attend college, work in companies, pay taxes.  Children who will make contributions to science, technology, performing arts.  Who will move from dependent children to independent adults poised to purchase the products and services your company produces or provides.  No one would ever want less for a child.  And no one would ever dare limit a child by a diagnosis.  Yet the future for these children rests on their parents — current working parents facing choices that defy description.

So it’s baffling to me that smart, forward-thinking companies seem to place more importance on helping employees care for their pets than to raise their children.   Is it a lack of understanding or a reluctance to get involved?  Or is it a preconceived idea that children with autism will not reach the expectations that many consider to be “typical” of children moving into adulthood so why bother?  No, it can’t be that.

A number of years ago, I worked with parents who sold their home and moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment turning their second bedroom into a therapy room for their child.  They also sold their second car and carried their “change of season” clothes packed into large plastic containers in the trunk of their car.  And just recently, I met parents who are in the throws of bankruptcy because they used every penny they had and maxed out their credit cards to support their child’s needs.  Life-altering choices are being made by employees every day to help their children.

Companies play a pivotal role here.   The same subsidies offered to employees trying to adopt should be offered to employees to help offset the staggering costs of therapies or home-interventions.  Discounts on legal support should be extended to employees in need of a special education attorney to secure a private school for their child.  On-site health fairs should include experts in special needs and special education to enable employees to access supports and resources easily and more cost-effectively.  With health and stress-reduction being core areas of focus in the workplace, few things compare to the financial, family, work, and personal pressures on an employee raising a 6-year-old or 13-year-old with autism.

I have nothing against pets.  Really, no problems at all.  But a problem does exist when supporting tails that wag or fluffy balls that purr seem to take priority.  A disconnect exists — companies are striving and competing to achieve “best company” status yet are overlooking the growing number of working parents desperately needing a lifeline.  Pets and children can live together beautifully both at home and in the workplace, however when a choice needs to be made, the child has to win every time.

Your Archenemy Could Well Be Your Ally

No words can adequately describe the level of sadness and horror I, like so many others, feel for people and families across the Mid-Atlantic states — particularly New Jersey and New York — who experienced such loss this week when Hurricane Sandy blew into their lives.  Every news report, every picture, and every person interviewed continues to bring the realities of this enormous tragedy into focus.

Earlier this week when President Obama met Governor Christie to tour the ravaged areas of his state, something really big happened.  Two people from different backgrounds, with different viewpoints and perspectives, and striving for different goals came together and worked as one.   They viewed what was happening through one lens…through one heart.  Watching them praise the other for their leadership was truly something to see.  It showed us how people can indeed focus on a goal without the noise that often accompanies it.

As I watched the news reports of the hours they spent together, I realized that this was a great lesson about life.  And in my wheelhouse, “life” revolves around business, working parents, and children.  It involves companies and their employees, parents and children’s schools.  In both of these scenarios, you often find individuals with very different ways of looking at the world.  Many with very different needs and expectations as well as paths to achieving what, in some situations, could be regarded as similar goals.

I often find that employers fail to recognize that their greatest asset — not on paper or in an annual report but in practice — is their people.  People with complex lives, juggling work/life issues, and facing challenges that often leave them feeling overwhelmed.  I also find that schools often fail to recognize that a child’s parents are the most critical players in any education matter.  Teachers have the instructional expertise, which is one perspective, yet parents have a far more holistic perspective — knowing their child best.

From meetings where employee evaluations are conducted to IEP meetings where a child’s educational goals are discussed, people working on different sides of the table (or from different perspectives on a common issue) can learn from what Barack Obama and Chris Christie did this week…they more than simply reached across the aisle … they forgot that an aisle even existed.   And, just as importantly, it showed us that those who may once be regarded as an archenemy — or someone who simply does not see things as we do — could well turn out to be the ally needed to move mountains.