The concept of employee engagement is fairly ubiquitous in 2017. A simple Google search presents around 10 million results on the subject, and among those results are numerous studies, white papers, reports, and opinions. The concept was first applied to the workplace by William Kahn in 1990, who argued that engagement was the “extent to which people employ physical, cognitive, and emotional degrees of themselves during work-role performances”. Since that time the concept of employee engagement has been commonly used to discuss how invested and dedicated employees are to the cross-roads of their own responsibilities and the goals of the organization. Although study results have varied, most have indicated that there is a relationship between employee engagement and the effectiveness of an organization.
As leaders in career services, no doubt we spend a considerable amount of time focused on the levels of effectiveness of our organizations. We likely have our own key performance indicators (KPIs) and organizational measure to try to assess this. But, I was interested in looking at engagement factors more broadly in our field. So, in fall 2016 I carried out a national study of employee engagement in career services office with 227 participants from more than 40 colleges and universities across the United States. The participants varied on a number of factors, including institution type, staff size, years in the field and years in their current office.
Change is coming
I want to cut to the chase for some of the most important data points to contextualize the other data that follows. Of the 227 participants in this study,
40 percent of participants indicated they were unlikely to remain or non-committal about being in their current role within three years (very unlikely, somewhat unlikely, or neither likely nor unlikely)
33 percent of participants indicated they were unlikely to remain or non-committal about being in their current organization within three years (very unlikely, somewhat unlikely, or neither likely nor unlikely)
26 percent of participants indicated they were unlikely to remain or non-committal about being in the field of career services within three years (very unlikely, somewhat unlikely, or neither likely nor unlikely)
I won’t be able to delve into all the resulting data from the study in this post. But, these numbers imply that we should pay attention to employee engagement and satisfaction (and note that satisfaction and engagement are not the same thing!) to limit churn in the field. This potential for churn provides the backdrop for the rest of this post, in which I want focus on two particular questions from the study.
While employee engagement is a much richer concept than what was explored with these two questions, in some ways, these provide the most “immediately actionable” responses for leaders to consider. Those questions asked:
How likely are the following items to increase your level of satisfaction with the office in which you currently work (even if you are extremely satisfied with your current office).
What is one thing that your supervisor could do for you tomorrow that would improve your experience as an employee?
Where the second of these questions provided a free-text response option for participants, the first question gave participants a specific list of options and prompted them to rate each on a five-point scale in consideration of the potential to impact satisfaction within their current office:
Opportunity to work on higher quality projects
Greater input into organizational decision making
More flexibility in scheduling of my workdays
Better articulation of organizational priorities from leadership
Increased investment in my development
Better articulation of performance expectations from leadership
More praise for my efforts
Improved office culture
Cross-training on roles within our organization
Cross-training with university offices beyond my organization
Better performance evaluation processes
Improved relationships among the staff
Opportunity to serve on career services department committees
Opportunity to serve on division or university committees
Public acknowledgement of my accomplishments
Increasing employee satisfaction
Among the 15 options presented to the study participants, there were some clear “winners” and “losers” in terms of their potential to increase employee satisfaction. The options most frequently indicated as having the potential to increase satisfaction were:
Greater input into organizational decision making (80.44 somewhat likely or very likely)
Increased investment in my development (77.72% somewhat likely or very likely)
More flexibility in scheduling of my workdays (77.72% somewhat likely or very likely)
The options least frequently indicated as having the potential to increase satisfaction were:
Cross-training with university offices beyond my organization (21.74% very unlikely or somewhat unlikely)
Cross-training on roles within our organization (20.11% very unlikely or somewhat unlikely)
Opportunity to serve on career services department committees (19.57% very unlikely or somewhat unlikely)
So, what do we take away from this data? One obvious place for exploration is to better define what employees mean by “development.” More than three-quarters of the participants indicated that having increased investment in their development would be a potential motivator for satisfaction. Yet one could argue that all three factors ranked by participants as the least likely to increase satisfaction could be a part of an employee’s professional development plan. It is possible that the concept of “development” is being used either more broadly (“caring about me as a person” or “mentorship”) or more narrowly (“send me to conferences”). But, I believe this seemingly-contradictory set of data points may tell us that when we’re including people on committees or providing cross-training, we need to be intentional about how these are presented to our staff and placed within an overall context of development for that individual.
If we place this contradiction aside for a moment and focus on the other two highly-ranked factors, we can find a good place for reflection in our own leadership practices.
Organizational decision making is complex, and even as leaders of our organizations we do not always have full control over all decisions that affect us. However, with a full 80 percent of respondents indicating that being able to provide input would increase their satisfaction, this is an obvious area for you to consider your practices. Considering the earlier indication a third of your employees plan to leave within three years, providing greater opportunities for input could very well mean the difference between retaining employees and losing them.
With regard to the other highly-ranked item for potentially increasing satisfaction, I will criticize my own survey design. By including flexibility in scheduling of workdays as option, I failed to provide internal consistency for the responses, meaning where one participant may have been thinking of their start and end times, another may have been thinking about how they actually spend their time (i.e. number of appointment slots, etc.). As such, it’s a bit harder to unpack what we can take away from this being highly ranked. But, if nothing else, it should let you know that your employees may be thinking of some of these issues in relation to their satisfaction in the workplace. You may be limited in your ability (or desire) to make changes in these areas. But, in places where you do have the will or the way, it could be fruitful for employee retention purposes.
Give it to me straight
In responding to the prompt, “What is one thing that your supervisor could do for you tomorrow that would improve your experience as an employee,” participants were not shy! While some responses mirrored the options provided in the previously-discussed question on increasing satisfaction (i.e. “invest in my development” or “give me more flexibility in my schedule”) many of the suggestions were unique to the question and worth sharing for your consideration for your own context and relationships with your employees. A few categorized examples, quoted directly from the suggestions offered by study participants, included:
Suggestions related to leadership/managerial activities
Clearly, specifically articulate our goals
Set clearer expectations
Be open about things going on within the organization
Make staff meetings interactive, rather than top-down announcements.
Listen to what we need. Tends to advise on overall strategy but overlooks what we need help with at the present moment.
Suggestions with a personal/relationship focus:
More feedback and one-on-one time
Make me feel valued
Asking “how are you doing” or “what do you need from me?”
More critical feedback
Get to know me as a person and not just as an employee
Provide more opportunities for individual feedback sessions
Suggestions related to office culture, structure, or policies:
Continue to build office morale and clarify roles within the office
Writing a simple note/email to communicate appreciation for something I did well
Continue strong communication within the team
Hold co-workers more accountable for their decisions, actions, and duties in the office
Everyone should block 1-2 hours per month for “time to think”
Stop being so hierarchical
Of course, many participants gave high praise for their leaders, with responses like “I have great leaders at my organization” and “I am very happy with my supervisor and with my role!” Others had blunt advice for their leaders, including ”get out of the way” and “have a little more faith and let me take the lead and do my job without their hovering.” Not surprisingly other participants indicated factors that may not be feasible or realistic for your context, including pay raises, increased leave time, and better parking.
The bottom line
A third of surveyed career services professionals plan to leave their current organization within three years, and a quarter of them plan to leave the field entirely during that time.
To support employee satisfaction, provide ample opportunities to give input into organizational direction and be intentional about investing in employees’ development (and make sure they understand cross-training and committee work is a form of professional development).
There are many things leaders can do immediately to improve employees’ experiences in our offices. You can’t accomplish them all at once, but be attentive to those easy wins and simple adjustments.
This post only scratches the surface of employee engagement in our field, and I am still analyzing the data developed during the study. If this concept interests you, I encourage you to comment here and seek me out at NACE in Las Vegas, where I’ll be presenting full results of the study.
Gary Alan Miller currently serves as Executive Director of the Career Center at Hofstra University. Gary has provided keynote, preconference, plenary and breakout sessions at NACE, SoACE, EACE, NCACE, SCACE, GACE, NASPA, MNYCCPOA, and MCEEA. In October 2009 he gave one of the earliest career services association keynotes on the use of social media in career development for NCCDA. Gary was a finalist for the 2013 NACE Innovation Excellence Award in Research for a study completed with his former-UNC colleague Katherine Nobles on career center innovation. Resultantly, the pair contributed a chapter in Leadership in Career Services: Voices From the Field (2013, Contomanolis and Steinfeld). In 2015, he and Katherine published an eBook titled Collaboration in Career Services. Connect with him on Twitter.