The Death Of Employee Engagement And What Comes Next

When I was 14 years old, I remember sitting in the driver’s seat of an early-1990s Datsun in my grandparents’ 80-acre field in the Rocky Mountains. My dad was in the passenger’s seat, my knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, my throat was tight, and I had sweat forming on my forehead. I was about to learn how to drive for my first time. Stick shift.

“It won’t go anywhere if it isn’t in gear — we have to be in gear to be engaged,” my dad said. “Clutch in and move the stick to the ‘1,’ slowly remove your foot from the clutch and add a little bit of gas with your right foot.”

A few stalls later, I managed to get the hang of it and proceeded to do some fast-to-me celebratory laps of the field.

In reflection, being engaged is a term that has stuck, and one that came up over and over as I entered the workforce and learned more about myself and the people around me.

Am I engaged? Are the people around me engaged? I’ve always found it so peculiar to think of people being engaged as it was seemingly binary: Are we in gear and moving or are we not?

While 2020 has been full of lessons and learnings, a couple things have stuck out. The first is that while we are far more complicated than I ever expected, there are certain things that we all need: to feel safe, to be fed, to be trusted, to belong and to be loved.

As the world has seemingly ground to an unexpected halt in many ways, family, health and safety are what we gravitate to — perhaps out of necessity, sure, but regardless, that what matters most to us.

What if, when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, this is one of the things that didn’t go “back to normal”? What if, when we got back to the office and yesterday’s problems were lessons learned from today’s successes, that we focused less on the engagement of people and instead, focused on fulfillment? Do our people really have the things we need to be our best — to be fulfilled?

Instead of asking, “How are you?” what if we asked, “How is your wife, Jenny?” or “How are your kids, Jake and Kevin?”

Instead of asking, “What’s new?” what if we asked our people how happy they were on a weekly basis and whether they feel they belonged at work? If they trusted their team? If they feel like they’re making a difference to the team?

The second lesson of 2020 is that the future has yet to be determined. As more information comes to the surface, iterations and adjustments have to be made on an ongoing basis. Projections change, information is uncovered, and actions are taken. Imagine, though, that we made sweeping decisions about the actions of COVID-19 in January, February, or March, even. And that we only made such decisions once. Imagine where we would be.

Isn’t that what we do with engagement? Don’t we check-in once a year via a survey to see how our people are doing?

We can do better. Consistent check-ins, learning and action. This isn’t engagement anymore; this has to be something bigger.

The days of employee engagement are behind us. We aren’t a vehicle we put in gear, a button we press, or a machine we turn on; it isn’t that simple. Perhaps it never was.

Instead, we should be looking at employee fulfillment. Does what we do matter and are we making the best of the time we’re working?

Recently, I was on my ninth webinar of the week and giving the lecture was a senior vice president from a very reputable Fortune 500 company. While I was expecting something polished and perfect, what I got was a working mom who was delivering great material with her four-year-old on her lap. It was snowing and playtime outside was moved inside. And, while there were clear instructions “not to bother mommy until she comes out,” 20 minutes in I could hear the bang on the door and the 2020 equivalent of BBC Dad unfolded in front of me.

Was being engaged important? No, it isn’t that simple. In the Q&A though, when she was asked about balancing work and being a parent, I could hear the smile on her face through a quivering lip when she said “I’m doing the best I can, and while it certainly isn’t always perfect, it doesn’t have to be.”

Gone are the days where we focus on engagement. There is no clutch and gas pedal for people: There is much more. We need something more to truly care about our people and the lives they live.

Let me be the first to welcome you — and invite you to — the focus on fulfillment, in life, and through work. It would seem that there isn’t much of a separation between the two anymore.