Creating relationships between employees and employers that are meaningful and sustainable as well as productive requires an understanding of both how to engender and maintain engagement in the first place, but also an understanding of the darker side of high levels of staff engagement – and how to deal with its consequences.
Work places demand engagement
Employee engagement, involvement, commitment, motivation, even love are the holy grail of a good employer: if they can create an environment in which their employees feel attached to their place of work, find personal and well as professional fulfilment in what they do during their working hours, they are more likely give more, present their new ideas, follow things through, do things with a smile, stay longer at work and so on. So, an ‘engaged’ employee makes a difference to the bottom line (or lines) of an organisation, however they are defined.
From an employee’s perspective, commitment to your job, your profession and to your place of work, perhaps to its cause or purpose is also self-evidently a good thing. If you are lucky enough to have a job that you like, even love, you are more likely to feel more fulfilled during the working day. At the very least the day will pass quickly and better still, your commitment may lead to rewards in terms of career progression and pay.
It is not surprising then that good employing organisations are increasingly using techniques to assess employee engagement, using a variety of proprietary and in-house survey tools. For example, an international NGO asked transform to carry out a survey of staff across a range of issues, including their jobs, their organisation, management, development and benefits. The question underlying all of these was engagement. The results were disappointing and evidenced a somewhat fractured relationship between staff and their organisation following a long change process. But the survey also pointed to what needed to be done. Six months later, a retest showed much higher levels of engagement, following the implementation of the necessary changes.
So, isn’t high engagement always a good thing?
Greater labour mobility (end of jobs for life, portable careers, experience gathering, etc.) and the desire by both employers and employees alike to deepen their relationship with each other for mutual benefit have led to what sociologists call work intensification and so-called work ‘extensification’.
You don’t need to be a social scientist to have noticed how involved people can get with their work. Both the work itself and the relationships forged within the work setting can fulfil a need for meaning and even intimacy in some individuals. Work intensification of this nature can fulfil needs that other relationships fail to provide. The trouble is, for some, it’s a relationship that can be exclusive, even to the extent that work becomes the mistress that is impossible to serve to anyone’ satisfaction.
While the term may be unusual, work extensification is a familiar idea: constant availability for work by means of emails night and day, trains journeys for working (rather than for resting between work), Facebook Twitter and blogging (no irony here – I’m editing this piece while on holiday!), and so on. In this way, the pressure mounts and that pressure can damage. The result can be a heady mixture of anxiety and love and the outcome a dysfunctional relationship which may feel good for the employer in the short run, but exhaust the employee before long and can put great pressure on other aspects of life which are not so demanding. A dysfunctional relationship with work can also lead to trouble at work.
This phenomenon is not unusual in organisations that profess to pursue a noble cause, be that in human rights, health or other areas of the social sectors. It is also not uncommon in the corporate world too, many of which also seek to engender a sense of cause around their goals.
Falling in love with work is good, but keeping the love young requires some sensitive work on both sides – and a little emotional distance to really see what’s going on that may not immediately be visible.
- Do you have examples of work intensification and work extensification in your organisation? What is the effect of them be that positive or negative?
- What in fact is the deal in your organisation? Is it primarily transactional – you contract with each other around what each asks for and what each party offers the other? Or is it also relational: staff and employers are working together to build mature and sustainable relationships?
- What’s your experience of creating more mature relationships with your employees?
- Can you see any signs of the shadow side of high employee engagement in your organisation? And if you can, what should be done about it?