Employee engagement is enough to make any leader roll his eyes. We all know the data--and it isn't good. Employees aren't engaged. They hate their work. And with the recession showing signs of ending, the talent war will pick back up again. If you're an HR leader, you're questioning the solution.  But the answer isn't at work.

Scores of thought leaders have their own approach to increasing employee engagement: from engagement surveys and action plans to pulse feedback and brand ambassadors. Companies rely on perks and office space to keep employees happy.

These solutions might help address problems in the short-term, but never to seem to solve for the long-term state of engagement in the workplace. And that's because we only focus on engagement at work.

Employee engagement isn't a work problem. It's a life problem.  

When employees are disengaged, sure, the work influences are strong. It could be a difficult boss, unchallenging work or a culture that doesn't foster positivity. It makes sense that we dig into the work data, but that's only part of the equation. 

Employees don't shut work off when they leave the office. They also don't shut the rest of their life off when they leave home.  Everything influences everything else:

  • Relationships influence decisions at, and about work
  • Personal issues can impact behavior at work and at home
  • Work can strengthen or weaken commitments to other activities

This means the key to solving your employee engagement problem could be outside the office.

When we do workforce, engagement and culture assessments, sure, we look at all of the available workforce data. This includes performance data, applicant data, demographics, satisfaction and engagement data--anything the organization can make available. But we don't stop there.  We also look at:

  • External values: what does the employee spend their energy on outside of work? 
  • Internal values: what does the employee value personally--what values govern their life choices?
  • Relationships: who has a say or plays a key role in their life decisions and actions?

When you understand the complete scope of the employee's life, you have a better sense as to what may strengthen or weaken employee engagement.

Better yet, when you collect that data in an unbiased, safe and confidential way, you get a truer sense of the why.  Asking an employee if they have a best friend at work is one thing. Understanding why or why not, what best friends talk about, whether they spend time together outside of work, and what they do during that time gives you much better data to act on.  And in an action planning session with their co-workers, you can be sure they won't be completely honest. But in a confidential focus group or interview outside the office, they'll share the real truth.

For example, a recent client wondered how to engage their employees more when it came to collaboration. They thought if employees would collaborate more and be more innovative, it might strengthen engagement. But in our research we found most of their high-performing employees spent all of their time outside work on individual hobbies: cycling, cooking, running, gardening. No surprise they weren't as keen to jump on the collaboration and teamwork bandwagon. It wasn't the answer to disengagement.

You can continue to look internally and complete survey after survey with your employees. But if you're only looking to work for the answers, you may never find them.

Susan LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps  companies build cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about how we can help you build a workforce that’s aligned with your company culture and develop an employer brand that will allow your business to scale the right way.

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