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RTO Outcome: U.S. CEO Mission Accomplished

In hindsight, the outcome of short-sighted CEO Return to Office (RTO) mandates was somewhat predictable.

Less than one-third of employees now report they are engaged, enthusiastic, and energized by their work, according to the latest market study by Gartner. This research was showcased during their recent "ReimagineHR Conference" event.

Gartner defines engagement in three ways: Employees feeling energized. Employees find purpose in their work. Employees feel empowered to do valuable work. The problem: many are not engaged.

Employee Engagement Crisis Explained

"Despite organizations making investments in engaging their employees, our research shows that almost 70 percent don’t feel as engaged as they should be and aren't feeling a meaningful connection to their job," said Keyia Burton, senior principal analyst at Gartner.

Figuring out how to actually impact employee engagement is a huge priority because it has a significant impact on several key business outcomes. However, now that the damage has been done, what's next? And, why does it matter to CEOs and Chief Human Resource Officers (CHROs)?

A June 2023 Gartner survey of nearly 3,500 employees found that those who report being "energized and excited" about their work are 31 percent more likely to stay at their organization, 31 percent more likely to go above and beyond (discretionary effort), and they contribute 15 percent more.

The Gartner survey also revealed one of the main issues impacting ongoing engagement: employee dissatisfaction with what happens after they provide feedback on their experience, of their employer, and their workplace practices.

In fact, only one-third of employees believe their organization will act on their feedback, while 46 percent of employees wish their organization did more to address meaningful employee feedback.

"This perceived lack of action has created barriers that are preventing employees from connecting to and benefiting from engagement initiatives," said Burton. Many employers are simply indifferent.

According to the Gartner assessment, to successfully close the action gap, senior executives and HR leaders need to address three key issues that face employee engagement challenges today.

HR often uses employee engagement surveys to solicit feedback and then tries to act on that feedback by providing more via enhanced or additional solutions.

However, offering more in the form of recognition and development often feels like more work that needs to be done from an employee perspective. 

The June 2023 Gartner survey found that 40 percent of employees would prefer fixes to difficult processes over development opportunities.

To increase engagement, HR should engage in active dialogue with employees to identify and reduce work friction – the things that make employees’ every day harder – while also providing needed and desired development opportunities.

Organizations have spent a significant amount of time, effort, and money trying to increase and maintain employee engagement to no avail. Gartner's research revealed that one commonality is that managers are responsible for much of the engagement process.

A 2Q23 Gartner survey of 144 CHROs found that the majority of CHROs report managers are responsible for 10 out of 12 actions to engage employees. Yet only 19 percent of CHROs believe their managers know how to act on engagement feedback.

HR must do a better job of supporting managers in both planning to engage employees and executing those plans. This includes helping managers understand engagement data faster and co-creating engagement plans that require manager commitment to action with joint agreement on specific next steps.

"When organizations are effective at supporting managers in engagement action planning, they can increase employee engagement by 51 percent," added Burton.

Sixty percent of employees don’t understand what their organization is currently doing to increase engagement. Gartner analysis found that this is in part because "engagement" is an HR term that doesn’t resonate with employees.

Outcome of C-Suite and CHRO Remediation Efforts

Senior executives and HR leaders need to use a common, shared language to measure and talk about people and experiences, rather than engagement, with employees. 

"When HR takes action to make their engagement initiatives more relevant so that employees understand what their organization is doing to engage them, employee engagement increases by 49 percent," said Burton.

That said, I believe the application of RTO mandates has done irreparable harm to employee morale and trust across the U.S. workforce. These punitive mandates were often issued without any reasonable explanation or were supported by unverified remote employee productivity and performance data.

If employee alienation was the goal, then mission accomplished. Now it's a huge challenge to remedy this situation. Meanwhile, high-performance employee churn awaits employers in 2024 as the economic outlook improves.

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