America, we have a problem. People aren’t feeling engaged with their work
NPR All Things Considered
When Tanvi Sinha first got into accounting 17 years ago, she worked from the office every day, even Saturdays in the busy season.
She enjoyed lunches out with colleagues and opportunities to learn just by listening and watching others. She grew professionally, aspiring to leadership roles.
Now that her company has made working from the office optional, Sinha wonders if newcomers to the field will ever feel as connected to their work as she has been.
“I’m pretty sure that their engagement would be affected,” says Sinha, now an audit manager with the accounting firm Matthews, Carter & Boyce in Fairfax, Virginia.
A new report from Gallup finds that large numbers of workers, especially Gen Zers and young millennials, are not engaged with their jobs. And that could make their climb up the career ladder harder, as well as hurt companies’ overall performance.
Employee engagement has fallen since 2020
The Gallup survey of roughly 67,000 people in 2022 found only 32% of workers are engaged with their work compared with 36% in 2020.
The share of workers found to be “actively disengaged” has risen since 2020, while the share of those in the middle — those considered “not engaged” — has remained about the same.
Engagement had been rising in the decade before the pandemic, following the Great Recession, but started to fall in 2021.
Younger workers have seen a bigger drop in engagement than older ones. Those under 35 reported feeling less heard and less cared about at work. Fewer Gen Zers and young millennials reported having someone at work who encourages their development and fewer opportunities to learn and grow.
“There’s a growing disconnect between employee [and] employer. You could almost equate it to employees becoming a little bit more like gig workers,” says Jim Harter, chief workplace scientist at Gallup and author of the new report.
Gig work by its nature doesn’t lend itself to loyalty or long-term relationships between employees and employers. Workers may feel less motivated to put their best selves forward.
“In the context of high-performance customer service, retaining your best people, that’s a problem,” Harter says.
Having actively disengaged workers can be highly detrimental to companies. Employees who aren’t getting most of their workplace needs met often share their negativity with other people, Harter says. That could bring down company morale.
Engagement is lacking among onsite, hybrid and fully-remote employees
Gallup measures a worker’s level of engagement based on a series of questions such as: Does the employee understand what is expected of them at work? Do their opinions seem to count? Do they have opportunities to do what they do best? Do they have a best friend at work?
While engagement dipped across a wide swath of workers, the biggest declines were among what Gallup calls “remote-ready onsite workers” — those who could do their jobs from home but are working from the office.
But Harter says there are troubling findings among those who are fully remote too.
More of them are falling into the middle category — somewhere between engaged and actively disengaged — which Harter equates to quiet quitting.
Meanwhile, workers across different categories — onsite, hybrid, and fully-remote — all saw declines in feeling connected to the mission or purpose of their organizations. Clarity of expectations was also lower across the groups.
And the share of workers who said their company cares about their overall wellbeing has fallen dramatically, from about 50% early in the pandemic, when many companies rolled out all kinds of accommodations for employees, to half that today.
Some companies are recognizing the importance of mental wellness
“I think companies are realizing that this is key — for people to feel engaged and connected at work,” says Frias, who is chief people officer at Lyra Health. “It’s not just about the work that people are doing. It is: how do you instill meaning in that work?”
Her company provides mental health services to other companies, focusing on individuals as well as organizations overall, and training managers to notice and respond to acute situations.
With all the disruptions of the pandemic, what worked in the past isn’t necessarily going to work now, and there really isn’t a playbook, Frias says. Workers today want to engage with work, but in a way that’s convenient and palatable to their lifestyles.
“It will be a journey and a ride,” she says.
Finding a balance when remote work is highly prized
As a manager at her accounting firm, Sinha has been trying to find the right balance.
She likes working from home and knows others do too. But she makes a point of being in the office two or three times a week, sometimes just for a few hours, and encourages her teams to find times when they can be in together, too.
“Pick a few days, come to work, mingle with people, talk to people,” she says.
It’s not just about being social. It’s about exposure to other parts of the business.
Sinha says audit teams used to sit in conference rooms together and go to client sites together, so everyone on the team knew every aspect of the audit. Now you may only work on your one part.
“That’s not a holistic picture,” she says.
Technology can help, Sinha says, and she does use video meetings to keep in daily contact with her team members. But there are pitfalls to not seeing people face-to-face, especially for those who have never worked in the office regularly.
“Some people who were hired during COVID — I mean, I went to work after a long time, and I couldn’t even recognize that this is the person,” Sinha recalls with a laugh, noting that was bad on her part.
Gallup scientist Harter says the the role of managers has gone up significantly in the pandemic. They’re the ones who can make sure employees know what’s expected of them and help employees feel cared for.
“Managers will figure out the idiosyncrasies of each person they manage,” he says. “They’re the only one that’s close enough to do that.”