Farewell, “Employee Engagement”?

There’s an interesting theme emerging and gradually taking shape at the moment. As the pandemic in the West recedes, for now, a “skills shortage” is creeping its way up the business headlines. Job vacancies, in general, are increasing at a time when logic would have suggested the disruption caused by the pandemic would have people rushing back, desperate for work. 

I wonder why that is? Have the skills disappeared? (seems unlikely) or has the demand for skills increased (probably – but that much?), or have the various support schemes distorted the market? Whatever the mix is, it seems that a year away from the “old normal” has changed things.

The global “employee engagement” market is apparently worth $75 billion. Even allowing for the difficulty in measuring it accurately, it is still a lot you’d think that for that much money would be enough to span a period of disruption in the market. Are employees really that fickle?

Well maybe. Employee engagement is a strange notion in many ways; the idea that you can contrive loyalty to an enterprise through some warm statements, a few goodies and expensive consultants. What the pandemic has reinforced is that most companies, under pressure, choose profits first. When it comes to employees versus shareholders, there’s no contest, especially when the government will foot the bill. It’s a statement of the reality of the relationship like no other.

I’m left thinking that “engagement” is an HR weasel word akin to dark marketing – selling beautifully crafted but illusory benefits with little substance. 

Perhaps, more accurately but more inconveniently, we could look at this through a lens of identity. 

The first act of life is to create a boundary, a membrane that is the cell’s identity. It defines an inside and an outside, what it is, what it is not. — Margaret Wheatley

We can think of the boundary between an employee and a business as a semi-permeable membrane. If the relationship is one way only, either the employee or the company suffers. It works both ways, of course (remember the days of whole investment teams moving en masse from one bank to another?). Still, the industrial model generally assumes the employer has the power. Maybe though, that is changing. The pandemic has enabled employees to experiment with their relationship with work, and that experiment is still evolving. 

The reality is that engagement is meaningless. It’s identity that counts. In a good business, the employee adds to the company’s substance, and the company adds to the essence of the employee. It becomes a substantive, symbiotic relationship where honest loyalty counts. Suppose an itinerant shareholder, in it only for short term returns, is valued more highly than an employee with years of commitment. In that case, no engagement strategy in the world will cure that breach in a relationship.

In a separate development, technology in the form of blockchain is promising to give people a different way of connecting to work that bypasses conventional, cumbersome corporations. It is early days yet, but as we know, the speed of technology development in the hands of independent people has a way of surprising us.

Taken together, I can’t help feeling that the veneer that the employee engagement industry may have run its course, and if organisations want a relationship with those who work for them, they need to rethink the way they go about it seriously. Platitudes have a seriously short shelf life.

And I’m sure we can find something to do with that $75bn.

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