A Poor Economy is Not Necessarily Bad for Employee Engagement

During 2008 and 2009, employee engagement reached the lowest levels in over a decade.  Not surprising, given layoffs, pay freezes, and overworked employees.  It appears we’re all doing more with less today, and these factors have certainly taken their toll on engagement.
That’s the bad news.  Now the good news.  Levels of Employee Engagement actually increased in 2010 after tanking during the previous 3 years.
DecisionWise has been measuring employee engagement for nearly two decades via employee engagement surveys.  Engagement dipped slightly in 2007, then took a dramatic nose-dive in 2008 and 2009, due largely to the tremors and aftershocks of a poor economy.  Measured on a 5-point scale, only 69% (and as low as 45% in some industries) of employees during 2008 and 2009 responded favorably to questions relating to their levels of engagement.  This left nearly one-third of all employees who could be classified as disengaged in their jobs.

A Poor Economy is Not Necessarily Bad for Employee Engagement

However, of the nearly 7 million engagement survey responses gathered in 2010, DecisionWise found that 75% were now favorable—an increase of 6 points (about 8%) from 2008 level, and up nearly 12% from 2009.
Why the increase?  Is it because the economy has taken a significant turn for the better?  That depends on your data sources.  Regardless, we can say that there are several factors we believe have led to this increase.  We’ve outlined a few below, but are curious as to your thoughts.

  1. Selective hiring. Because of job scarcity, organizations are better able to hire individuals who are more intrinsically motivated, versus simply settling for those with a pulse.
  2. Less dead wood. While many would (justifiably) claim that organizations trimmed employee numbers beyond the fat and into the muscle of the organization, the fact remains that many organizations terminated many employees who were “just getting by”—those disengaged employees that did little beyond simply showing up for work.
  3. Gratitude. While it would certainly be inappropriate to hear, “you should be grateful you have a job!” many employees simply have a greater appreciation for the fact that they are working.  Effort once spent in whining has now, in many cases, been re-channeled into solving problems.
  4. Teamwork. Doing more with less has forced departments, functions, teams, and employees to work together in more effective ways than they have in the past.  This results in fewer silos, and has forced a greater degree of cooperation and professional working relationships.  These relationships have been shown to be key factors in creating an engaged workforce.
  5. Challenge. The more-with-less phenomenon has also led to employees being forced out of their comfort zones.  Rather than simply producing widgets as in the past, an employee may now have to play a part in the design, production, sale, and repair of the widget.  This creates greater challenge and innovation, and often results in greater fulfillment at work.
  6. Knowledge. Those who have stuck around have gained greater knowledge about the organization, the products and services, the job, etc.  Where organizational knowledge was previously exiting the company at an alarming pace, the door has closed somewhat.  This means that people remaining with the organization tend to be more knowledgeable about their jobs and are less likely to stumble.
  7. Organizational Direction. Where organizations were previously caught chasing fads and “the next great idea,” employees often reported lack of understanding about the direction of the organization.  Survey responses today indicate that employees are much clearer about organizational direction, as well as their importance in that direction.
  8. Growth and Development. During the “good times” employees relied on the organization to provide them with development opportunities, which typically took the form of training courses.  With limited funds, employees have been forced to seek more targeted, individualized development, and take more responsibility for their own careers—a trend which has resulted in greater ownership and, consequently, engagement.

Are we out of danger?  Not by a long shot.  We’re not out of the woods in terms of low levels of engagement.  In fact, this creates a new set of challenges… “How do we avoid a mass exodus out of the organization when the economy really does turn around?”  But that’s another, equally important, discussion.
We’re curious as to what you are seeing.  What are some of the explanations you might see for this increase in employee engagement?
Related Blog Post: Employee Satisfaction vs. Motivation and Employee Engagement
Related Post: Growth and Development Opportunities in Tough Times
View a sample Employee Engagement Survey

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