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How to warm up cold employees: building engagement for disengaged team members

2 August 2015


How to warm up cold employees: building engagement for disengaged team members

Erin Lynch, Senior Associate and David Weiler, Graduate Associate

Cold winter days often highlight one of the greatest threats facing positive, productive organisations all year round: disengagement amongst employees. This article addresses identifying disengagement in your workplace, understanding the costs it has on businesses, ways to prevent it from affecting your high- performing culture and the benefits that come from engagement.

Engagement vs disengagement?

Engaged employees are easy for both managers and colleagues to spot in a workplace. They volunteer for new projects, actively seek out work, support colleagues, encourage a team approach and rarely raise criticisms or concerns without also providing a potential solution. Quite simply, they are passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organisation and display discretionary effort (above and beyond the bare minimum) throughout their work.

Disengaged employees can also be just as easy spot. They are often unenthusiastic about their work, shirk responsibility on projects, isolate themselves from team members, do not understand (or embrace) the company’s direction and lack initiative while complaining about the work they are doing.

When identifying disengagement it is important to distinguish between employee satisfaction and employee engagement. Employee satisfaction represents the extent to which employees are happy or content with their jobs and work environment. While this may be integral to engaging employees, it is not the same thing as engagement.

There are two primary features that, together, comprise employee engagement: engagement with the organisation and engagement with management.

Engagement with the organisation is an indication of how employees feel about senior leadership as well as the organisational levels of trust, fairness, respect and commitment to values. Engagement with management is a more specific measure of how valued employees feel, the quality of feedback and direction and generally the strength of the working relationship between an employee and their direct manager.

What does disengagement cost organisations?

A 2013 Gallup study found that approximately 3 out of 4 Australians are not engaged with their work.1 The cost of this disengagement to the domestic economy was estimated in the same research to be around $54.8 billion.

As disengagement spreads, retaining the top talent in an organisation becomes more and more difficult. The lost potential not only affects the bottom line of a company, it also hinders it from competing effectively in the marketplace. Engaged employees are more productive which inevitably has a positive impact on a company’s income.

If good workers continually leave a business it becomes increasingly more difficult for employers to guarantee work will be done to the necessary standard and almost certainly will prevent the company from exceeding expectations. The pressure put on remaining talent becomes unsustainable as more and more people leave. This means that one instance of disengagement has the potential to spread exponentially, often catching employers off guard and unprepared to re- engage employees in time. That is why it is crucial for businesses to be equipped to identify the symptoms of disengagement and to understand how best to engage employees.

How to engage employees

Just as disengagement can rapidly infect a culture, engagement too can be contagious. Like many topics concerning culture, the benefits are obvious but the real difficulty comes from trying to achieve it.

While some employers may consider the best way to motivate employees is through remuneration, leading organisations recognise that once an employee is paid around market value, a salary becomes largely ineffective at sparking passion in, and commitment to, one’s work.

Instead, leading organisations use these managerial practices to engage employees:

  • commendation for a job well done;
  • regular feedback;
  • opportunity for growth with new, challenging projects;
  • mobility across the organisation;
  • a clear direction for the company; and
  • encouraging employees to work together.

Performance appraisals, if done properly and regularly, offer businesses an opportunity to use the above methods to engage or re-engage employees. In practice the most successful performance evaluations focus on the future (while also not ignoring the past) by approaching each appraisal as a meaningful part of an employee’s career development. In fact, just recently Accenture announced that it was overhauling its entire performance review structure for nearly 330,000 employees.2 The company is moving away from a rigid annual review schedule to one that is done on an ongoing basis relative to the completion of projects.

This change reflects an understanding that in order for evaluations to be effective, they must reflect the needs of both employees and managers.

It is important to note that you can have adequately performing employees who are disengaged as well as disengaged employees who may have once been high performing but have become detached from their role for reasons that are beyond the business’ control. It is therefore useful to appreciate the difference between turnover and unwanted turnover. Facilitating the smooth exit of employees who have not responded to re-engagement strategies can be a positive step in addressing the spread of disengagement.

Warmed up workplaces

When engagement does spread through an organisation, employers will notice an improvement in:

  • productivity;
  • talent retention; and
  • customer loyalty.

Engaged employees are more productive because they put greater focus into their work and their motivation extends further than just individual gain. Productivity is also improved through a decrease in absenteeism compared to that of disengaged employees.

When employees are committed to their jobs for reasons more than just a pay check they are also more likely to stay with that organisation. Encouraging engagement helps insulate employers against losing their best workers and the cycle of disengagement which can quickly follow.

Finally, an engaged workforce leads to stronger customer loyalty through positivity and excellence in service. Clients notice the discretionary effort that passionate and committed employees display and appreciate being the recipient of work done above and beyond what is required. Customers who have had a positive experience with an organisation are often the best marketing a company buy.

Although winter often makes engaging employees a difficult task, it is also an opportunity to re-evaluate how an organisation will address disengagement in the new financial year. As your company gets ready for spring, take stock of your workplace and look for two or three small ways you can make it easier for others to feel engaged with their job; the results will speak volumes.

Key Takeaways

  1. Engagement is passion. Passion is contagious.
  2. Cash is not always king.
  3. Notice disengagement early ; re-engage immediately.

1. Gallup, State of the Global Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide, (2013).

2. Cunningham, Lillian, ‘Goodbye rankings: Accenture gives annual performance reviews the flick’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015 

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