A new Gallup survey points to hard evidence of what many in HR will already suspect: attitudes to work in the UK have changed dramatically in recent years: 90% of employees said they felt no enthusiasm for their work or their workplace. Engagement and commitment look to have drained away, like sand through employers’ fingers.
How can this have happened? The survey authors point to the wider context, the mass of negative events leading to feelings of “worry, stress and anger” that have come in response to an “avalanche of negative news”. Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis; fears around climate change and damage to the environment; global conflicts; a lack of access to NHS services; concerns over diversity and equality. In other words, a sense of fatalism and lack of control. And perhaps most insidiously, after so many decades (or even centuries) of belief in the idea of progress, there’s a sense that things won’t always get better.
Another worry linked to the lack of engagement is that while in the past it would be a signal for employees to move on, now staff are staying put anyway, because they don’t feel anything will necessarily improve for them somewhere else. The potential for recession has made people cautious.
But it’s important that HR and employers don’t just blame the external situation for what’s been happening to engagement. It only means organisations need to work harder and be more attentive to their internal culture, and how it works for people through our difficult times. What makes it human. What’s really valued. Where the sense of belonging, the sense of purpose comes from. Because there’s no doubt that the past three years or more have accelerated trends towards detachment, more remote and hybrid working, more reliance on digital communications, more IT and AI across workplace systems. All different kinds of ways in which work has become less about people working together.
So there are straightforward solutions to re-building engagement and enthusiasm for work: by paying more attention to people’s relationships, how we work together, those essential feelings of trust and confidence; creating a positive everyday experience. In difficult times, work and workplaces should be the rock that people rely on, the foundation of resilience and sense of purpose.
In practice, that means a culture of good conversations, it means psychological safety and establishing the kind of workplace where people’s differences are harnessed, made a source of an organisation’s strength.
- Make space for conversations
Managers need to structure their communications and relationships with staff in ways that provide an important element of time, to mitigate against knee-jerk reactions and voicing of instant opinions. That’s why the face-to-face method needs to be used as much as possible. They provide a useful series of pauses to arrange and set up and deliver, ensuring time for reflection and a context where thought and behaviour will be different. And in support of this approach there needs to be work on ensuring people understand that face-to-face doesn’t just mean bad news.
Conversations only improve when they are a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event — being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of staff in terms of open conversations — and make it clear about support and development available; encourage senior managers and leaders to be the role models, and put more time and resources into supporting people to move towards dialogue with each other and away from escalating their negative feelings.
- Build up ‘conversational integrity’
Good behaviours are rooted in conversations. Every output from an organisation at some point started with a conversation, and it’s the quality of those conversations that improves the quality of the outputs.
This is what is called ‘Conversational Integrity’ (CI), made up of five capacities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening and situational awareness. These capacities or skills are all fundamental to human interaction, the real levers for what make an organisation or business perform better. If you want innovative people, then they need to be curious, and listen to others they need to feel able to take risks and trust their colleagues.
- Offer mediation
Being able to offer mediation early on — involving someone independent to support the conflicting parties in finding an agreement and reconciliation — allows a confidential conversations to begin without the need to resort to the more formal grievance and disciplinary processes. Employers benefit most of all from having an established service that people can turn to as the standard, informal route. Mediation then becomes part of the culture, commonly used and trusted, with nothing remarkable or uncomfortable about it – for either individual staff or their line managers. Less and less management time is needed; issues are picked up and dealt with early.
- Guarantee professionalism
Don’t make the mistake of using untrained managers as mediators. Experienced managers in an organisation can often assume they know best (they know the people, the situation) and don’t listen with an open mind. Instead they make assumptions and want to get to a black and white resolution as soon as possible. Without training, in-house mediators struggle to deal with sensitive situations, to take feelings into account, and only want to work with clear facts. In many disagreements, indisputable facts may be hard to come by. There has to be trust in the mediator — not only in their training and professional expertise — but in their impartiality. There can be no suspicion of connections or sympathies that make them unable to step back from a situation, or that prompts any kind of doubt in the minds of employees involved in the mediation conversation.