Employee engagement technology not a panacea for HR woes

Employee engagement comes in many shapes and forms, leaving employers to scratch their heads at the best way to motivate their workforce. A good starting point? Better communication.

Engaged, empowered, energized -- what every employer wants in the quest for a productive, agile and innovative workforce. We are told employees who exhibit these traits are better retained and create more value to the company and its customers. In today's markets, there are lots of tech vendors ready to sell you something to address your engagement "problem." But is technology really the answer? Would more fun or modern technology make employees happier at work? Can employee engagement technology create greater relevance for a worker's job in addition to making the work less tedious or more accurate?

Start at the beginning -- with the candidate experience

An employee can become disheartened with an organization at any stage during his or her employment, even before that employment begins. Enhancing the candidate process in hiring through less onerous application processes, gamification, mobile apps and personalized experiences is a start. Candidates most frequently walk away from applications that look too long or too hard to bother with, and they rarely apply for a position on their initial review of a job requisition on a company's career site.

Communication and the tone of that communication during the application process is critical. Even though recruiters say they know this, few have ever tried to apply for a job at their own website and do not know what their application technology is telling applicants.

Ensuring an applicant knows his or her application is actually received, with the possibility at least of being reviewed is essential, yet candidates still report that they feel their application falls into a black hole: Was it received? Was it reviewed? Am I in the running? When will I know? When the online application process creates such angst, it is harder than ever for the applicant to feel any affection for the organization.

While technology has made the interview process much easier, replacing expensive and time-consuming live interviews with video interviewing, not all candidates are comfortable in front of the camera and may disengage at this point. It is also exceedingly difficult to remove bias in online interviews.

Although companies are eager to be "engaging" at every point in the career cycle, many are less aware of the many points at which an employee can get turned off -- sometimes before their first day of work. Research shows that the new hire is most engaged when the offer letter comes, and although that excitement may wane from that point if there is no positive or welcoming news from the organization, he or she is second-most excited on the first day of work. Alas, it is generally downhill from there on.

How is employee engagement measured?

Measuring engagement -- not easy, by the way, in that it is difficult to define -- can be expensive, time-consuming and often drowns in trivia. Employee engagement technology vendors abound in this area that will help you tailor their many canned questions to your particular needs -- which, in general, are not much different than those of any other organization. Today's tools are often themselves more relevant and timely than in the past: They will give you analytics by divisions, departments and geographies -- all useful -- and you can get actionable insights for managers to help them better attend to their teams -- which may or may not be useful. But does this trickle down to the employee who is less than energized about coming to work?

Better perhaps to measure what changes in an organization after the engagement survey; if nothing changes, the effort has been for naught. And note that in some cultures, employees will always answer with what they feel is the "correct" answer, which is what their manager would want to hear.

In the search for an effective employee engagement technology, onboarding software abounds. While it may eliminate the need for HR or managers to repeat the mission and values of the company to new employees, canned onboarding can be less than compelling, and sometimes disingenuous, presenting a rosier picture of the organization than the employee will ever see, which can do more harm than good.

Where is email on the engagement curve? One hundred and twenty-eight billion: This is the estimated number of business emails sent and received every day, according to research firm The Radicati Group. And McKinsey & Company said that the average professional spends 28% of the workweek reading and answering email, totaling 2.6 hours spent and 120 messages received per day. Reading -- with or without responding -- may sap an employee's enthusiasm and take time away from "real work."

Managing performance review processes is another area that often leads to both disengagement and attrition, especially when software stack ranks employees in a way that ties to bonuses or pay raises. More useful in some cases may be the tie-in of performance management to career pathing to employee education. That's a big step, which can be enabled by software, but the effect on employee engagement has yet to be validated.

Fifteen technical turnoffs to an engaged workforce

  1. Onerous online applications for jobs in the organization that discourage applicants.
  2. Cryptic or less-than-friendly auto-generated responses to a candidate's application.
  3. Unfriendly or unhelpful online onboarding.
  4. Lack of a computer or job-related network access on the first day of work.
  5. Work-related software from the Neanderthal era -- providing worse experiences than the employee would have in his or her personal life.
  6. Inability or frustration in locating data needed for work within the corporate system.
  7. Email from a supervisor over the weekend or after dinner time on a weeknight.
  8. Inbox that is flooded with too many CC-ed conversations.
  9. The yearly engagement survey that inquires about work happiness, where nothing is reported back to employee for months or done about the results.
  10. Wellness software with points and suggestions that are impossible to do in the employee's workplace setting.
  11. A Friday night email or text from a supervisor to report to him or her the following Monday morning first thing -- without any explanation.
  12. Career readiness software -- where there is no possibility of ascendency in the organization -- and the employee knows it.
  13. Stack-ranked performance management software.
  14. Online courses for professional growth -- but not giving employees time to take them.
  15. Coursework that relates only to yesterday's skill needs rather than future-focused education.

A new approach to learning and development

Career pathing is fairly recent in the software toolkit for HR professionals to create engagement in their workforce. Available in many flavors, such tools can help the employee ascertain through skills, interests, preferred behaviors or settings and other factors what kind of job he or she may be best suited for -- a job which may or may not exist in the current organization. Software that looks at the career route successful professionals in the organization took to get to their current jobs, such as education, career moves, skill growth and professional affiliations along the way, may lend guidance or prove disheartening to an aspiring young professional, but may mislead in that the career ascendency of any leader may rely much more on serendipity and luck than the software would have one believe. An employee may amass the same degrees and skills, work for the same amount of time in what appears to be prerequisite jobs and never ascend to the position to which he or she aspired.

Employee education and reskilling are especially critical today. Future workers exit schools with, at best, skills for yesterday's work environments, not tomorrow's. Candidates are lured and employees retained by the promise of on-the-job education, especially in technical areas. On the administrative end, software for course scheduling and registration all exist and are a requirement, but are we able to capitalize and capture skill acquisition in the context of the on-the-job, just-in-time, just-enough, in-the-context-of-work environment that prevails today? This is a great goal and likely relevant to engagement. How is it best addressed, the outcomes measured and recorded, the results accommodated in the career path plan and the performance evaluation? Can we apply AI to individual learning styles and blockchain to results management? Can we add concern for lifecycle employee data integrity to HR's concern for data privacy?

This is not a hypothetical issue: Today's post-boomer workers approach learning as a continuous prospect, not a one-and-done event. They foresee job movement over their careers and the need for continual growth. For corporations to engage them, and for their own good, they will need to be committed to that view of lifelong learning. Furthermore, the concept of purpose is a much larger force for the post-boomers in the workforce than it perhaps was for their parents: they want meaningful work that they can be proud of; they want to create value not only for themselves but for others and the planet. To this end, their employers can play a great part toward their engagement and retention -- through means that do not necessarily involve employee engagement technology.

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