Sep 20, 2013

Lots gets written about employee engagement, and lots of it sounds the same, but two things are pretty clear:

  1. Organizations everywhere think employee engagement is extremely important; and,
  2. Engagement numbers overall, for the American workforce at-large, are pretty damn dismal.

So, what if we’re chasing after the wrong thing here? What if engagement isn’t really as big a deal as everybody thinks it is, and in fact, there’s something else that is actually a lot more important?

Is engagement really passé?

Bloomberg Businessweek recently talked to John Hegel III, co-director of  Deloitte Consulting’s Center for the Edge, and he believes, Businessweek says, that “employee engagement as a workforce metric is short-sighted, a remnant of 20th century management thinking rooted in outdated notions about scalability and efficiency.”

So, if engagement is passé, what should we now want out of our employees instead?

According to Hegel, “today’s intensifying competitive pressures and fast-moving global markets … require that 21st century organizations need employees who are not simply engaged, but passionate about their work.”

Yes, you read that right. Engagement is out, employee passion is in.

Passion vs. engagement

But wait, you ask — just what is the difference between employee engagement and employee passion? According to the Businessweek story:

Employee engagement is typically used by organizations to figure out if workers buy into the company’s goals, if they like working for their manager, if they find the company sensitive to work/life balance issues, etc. That serves companies well when they want to scale and have workers “engaged” in the task necessary to expand their particular corporate silo.

The passionate worker — the metaphor Deloitte employs is “the passion of the explorer” — are those who view new challenges as opportunities to learn additional skills. That attitude becomes essential, the consulting firm maintains, because the typical work skill will be outdated within five years. “These people are driven to develop new skills at an ever rapid pace and are thrilled by it,” Hagel says. “Passionate people are the most agile.

Of course, one doesn’t just go out and hire a bunch of passionate employees, although the report does suggest that company’s shift their hiring from a focus on specific skills to recruiting people who exhibit a passion for their jobs. The real boost will come from creating a workplace that encourages passion in employees through physical design, new technology, and management policies. Few companies have recognized this need, and fewer have moved in this direction — especially organizations with 1,000 employees or more, according the research.”

Although I like the notion of pushing for more “passionate” employees, I wonder: will it be any easier to drive more “passion” in workers than it was getting them to be more “engaged?” And, won’t we have just as many issues trying to define passion as we did employee engagement?

Want more employee passion? Just pay a nice, big salary

Those are all logical questions, but one more thing: passion in workers kind of breaks down as you might expect it would. As Businessweek reports, “The research finds that the least passionate workers are in customer service (5 percent), accounting/finance (7 percent), human resources (7 percent), or manufacturing (7 percent). The most passionate workers are likely to be in the management and marketing functions (17 percent and 16 percent, respectively).”

I’m not terribly surprised that customer service, accounting, and HR aren’t very passionate about their work, but I am puzzled that even among the most passionate workers (in management), only 17 percent fit that description.

Hmmm, maybe passion IS just as hard to get a fix on as engagement is.

By the way, the Businessweek report also noted that, “Of people who earn more than $150,000, 44 percent are passionate, vs. just 15 percent or fewer in lower-income brackets.”

So, there you have it; just pay people a really nice salary (something north of $150k), and volia, they’ll be a lot more passionate about their work than the schlubs down in the lower pay ranges.

Really? That’s the big key to employee passion?

Despite all the difficulties in defining engagement, at least it’s not as brazenly mercenary as what it takes to encourage more “passion” from employees.

Challenges of a flexible workforce

Of course, there’s more than employee passion in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Negative feedback? It can actually be beneficial. John Butman, writing over at the HBR blog network, says that, “An idea that advocates any kind of change is likely to receive some amount of negative response. When you’ve invested time, energy, and passion into your idea, this rejection can hurt. Your first impulse may be to lash back, to rebut the rebuttal. But a better response is to let the backlash unfold a bit: It is likely that negative feedback will be the most useful in further developing your idea.”
  • Keeping Millennials happy is simply good business. Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman, writing in The Miami Heraldsays that “Today, Millennials … want to integrate their work and personal lives even more than previous generations. They want their workplaces to be like second homes, their co-workers to be their friends, and their bosses to be their workplace parents or mentors. While the big push in creating social workplaces has centered on ice cream-making contests and costume competitions, experts say the future is going to require a more strategic approach to building a “fun” culture that encourages camaraderie, loyalty, and dedication.”
  • The challenges of managing a flexible workforce. Fast Company gives some good to tips to help manage a flexible workforce and to make sure that at-home employees keep innovating. Besides the obvious (“hire well,” and “be firm if need be”) is this — Stop thinking either/or. “There’s this thought that telecommuting means you’re never in the office. In reality, flexible arrangements work best if people split their weeks — some time in the office and some time away. That gives you time to collaborate and innovate, but also time to execute on ideas in peace and quiet.”
  • Big health care changes at Trader Joe’s. The boutique grocery chain Trader Joe’s recently announced that it would “end their health insurance benefits for employees who work less than 30 hours a week, sending them instead to the new public insurance marketplaces with an extra $500 to help purchase coverage. According to The Washington Post, “As for what Trader Joe’s decision means for the health-care law, that’s not totally clear …  On the one hand, it likely makes the health law more expensive: Trader Joe’s is essentially shifting the costs it used to pay for health insurance onto the federal government. On the other, bigger marketplaces are good for the health law. More subscribers make it more likely that insurers will want to sell and, if Trader Joes’ employees tend to be younger, they’ll likely help hold down the cost of premiums there.”