Want to Increase Engagement? Think Community

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Chair Of The Month

Rita Hilton, Ph.D., is a principal at B-leading in Place Solutions and a certified executive coach and strategic organizational development consultant. Here, she shares why HR and other leaders must work to create richer senses of community in their workplaces.

For some time, “engagement” has reigned as the top buzzword and organizing concept in the workplace. It has manifested as the drive to engage employees in their work (from the human capital side) and in the space they inhabit (from the design side). We’ve all encountered employee engagement surveys, engagement initiatives, and executives pondering the topic.

I’m about to commit heresy in a magazine devoted to workspace design by referring to the well-known Hawthorne effect,

In reviewing the results of a study conducted from 1924-1932 to test for quality of lighting in a facility, researchers concluded that the actual level of lighting itself was irrelevant. Workers under experimental conditions performed better simply because they felt someone was paying attention to them. If, by Forbes’ definition, employee engagement is the “emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals”, and employees do not appear as engaged as employers would prefer, is it possible the challenge is being mis-formulated? Maybe the appropriate starting point is: “What are employees engaged in, and how do we create more opportunities for this that align with our productivity needs?” Not “How do I make you want to play my game,” but “How can the richness of activity and interactions going on be promoted and harnessed towards mutual interest?”

Aim for community instead of engagement

A growing challenge facing employers in the 21st century will be understanding and supporting multi-faceted community in the workplace. Employees should be excited about their organization’s mission, but this alone is not enough. They must also experience interaction with their colleagues and their organization, and make sense of that as a fit with their lives. In order to provide engagement at this level, workplaces must recognize and promote community. How does space play into this? Two rising trends with implications for work places and productivity will continue to play out: technology and diversity.

  • Technology

    Virtual interaction facilitated by technology brings many benefits (e.g., locational flexibility, decreased commute and travel costs, reduced baseline corporate footprint), but also downsides. Technological innovations that increase opportunities for mobility and remote work can be excellent for enabling flexibility for workers, relieving commute pressures (on people and roads), as well as reducing space and travel costs for companies. This comes at a price, though, as communication and connectedness can suffer. There is substantial evidence that live, in-person interaction cannot be replicated without co-location, which has non-trivial implications for businesses dependent upon knowledge workers. How do you engage employees remotely? Few organizations are likely to make moves as draconian as Yahoo’s about-face on remote work in 2012.

  • Generational and other diversity

    Millennials, as a population, tend to be values-driven and comfortable changing jobs. Their expectations appear to be quite distinct from those of generation X. What will be the distinctive characteristics of generation Z, and what are the workplace implications? Sources of diversity will prove valuable reserves of productivity for employers if they find effective ways to: 1) meet each group where they are; and 2) bring them along towards common organizational goals. In order to accomplish this second step, increasing interpersonal familiarity is essential. Humans need to interact directly with “others” in order to respond at the human level and perceive similarities as opposed to psychologically threatening differences. What conditions are conducive to fostering this in the absence of continuous co-location? What conditions allow device-distracted, always connected workers with diverse backgrounds, skills, and worldviews to have effective strategic conversations?

SHRM (the flagship membership organization for HR practitioners), in a recent report on workplace satisfaction and engagement, looks at four variables as drivers of satisfaction: career development, employee relations and management, compensation and benefits, and work environment. The factors comprising ‘work environment’ include: Job Security, Organization’s Financial Stability, The Work Itself, Feeling Safe in the Work Environment, Overall Corporate Culture, Relationship with Co-Workers, Meaningfulness of the Job, Contribution of Work to Organization’s Business Goals, Variety of Work, Organization’s Commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility, Organization’s Commitment to a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce, and Organization’s Commitment to a “Green” Workplace. Space comes in almost as an afterthought — and as it relates to values, not daily experience or productivity. In order to maximize employee engagement, this must change. Given current economic realities and new challenges posed by technological innovations and shifting workplace demographics, I believe it will. The same report indicates that 5 of the 10 top factors driving employee satisfaction have to do with relationships and corporate culture. In related commentary on “where HR is going wrong,” Dana Wilkie points to aspects of individual happiness and attitude. The evidence is there from the HR side. What people get out of the workplace in terms of relationship and identity matters. Part of the answer is step back and take a different perspective: focus on community in the workplace.

There is significant evidence to suggest that employee engagement affects productivity. The next step is to realize that engagement and community may well be alternate sides of the same coin —but one is from employers’ viewpoint, the other from workers’.

What can HR and other workplace leaders do better?

We must attend to community as it manifests (or doesn’t) in our organizations. Consider it along multiple dimensions: internal and external; location-fixed and virtual; and shareholders and value-creators (yes, really). The picture generated will likely be complex. That’s ok: it will position you to meet people where they are (and keep them with you). How would I approach this?

Apply systems thinking: don’t be consumed by building systems

HR, by definition, has to care about processing and ensuring legal, equitable systems. Often, relatively limited resources remain available after recruitment, benefits management, and employee relations functions are covered. How can HR and design professionals be empowered to address community in the workplace? On a routine basis — not just at design and redesign — collaborate to observe in real time, see how people are (or are not) interacting with the resources available to them, assess influence of those dynamics on performance (not just perceptions), gain insight into how positive dynamics can be leveraged. Consider these insights in light of trends emerging on the edge in your workforce demographic and organization/industry. Suites of differentiated options — workspace, benefits, resources, etc. — can then be composed to both foster a common community and meet differentiated communities’ interests.

Seek evidence, not just metrics

Data is essential — but data comes in more forms than we are sometimes inclined to admit. (Jerome Groopman has made a career highlighting this not-always-obvious reality.) Complementing the familiar “knowns” of I/O psychology — e.g., competency models, within-person variables—with situational-specific insight on workplace community(ies) would go far in allowing the HR community to collaborate with clients as increasingly effective strategic partners. What are the various communities operating in the workplace — formal and informal — independent of workgroups? What cohorts could benefit from improved community ties (e.g., working parents)? Are the effects of having workgroups distributed in unconnected space different than having virtual teams? Does rate of organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) change by space configuration or location?

There are organizations out there headed down the path already. Deloitte has a sophisticated system for supporting women across various lifecycle phases. High-tech companies in Silicon Valley are legend for community spaces (campuses) they’ve created. Many companies offer employees paid time to volunteer in local external communities; many have “corporate social responsibility” plans.

The challenge is to transform examples into a trend. In order to increase engagement, think community. Leaders — HR and other — need to know much more about how individuals interact in real time with others and resources in workplace community, how communities can be encouraged to intersect in the workplace, and how design can be deployed to get desired outcomes.

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