Engagement and the Employee Experience

August 25, 2021 Maggie Labarta

Workforce recruitment and retention is a current focus for organizations in every sector of the COVID economy. Human service organizations, which were often financially constrained to begin with, are especially affected and many report it’s a crisis. The workforce shortage means that employee engagement and the employee experience are more critical than ever to recruiting and retaining talent. The recent ContinuumCloud 2021 Work Tech Report for Behavioral Health and Human Services Organizations found that only 36% of those surveyed gave their organization’s engagement strategy an above average rating, despite a majority reporting a good to very good work experience. Engagement, in particular, has also been shown to affect quality and productivity.

The internationally used 12-question Gallup Employee Survey points to key areas of engagement that may shed light on these findings. Three of the survey’s questions (1, 6, 11) – 25% – ask how organizations set expectations and provides feedback while engaging employees in that process, as we discussed last month. Setting expectations clearly and cooperatively, providing honest periodic and frequent feedback (including praise and constructive criticism), and discussing development opportunities are key components of engaging employees and fostering retention.

Another set of items (3, 7, 9, 10), accounting for another 30% of the items, ask about the team-employee relationships. They make clear that belonging – teamwork, respect, mutual concern, and accountability – is essential if employees are to feel engaged. That engagement, in turn, generates improved quality and client experience. Ted James, MD, MHCM (Director of Academic Affairs for Surgery/Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School) has been working on these elements across hospital systems for years. At a recent presentation, he stressed the potential impact of having well-functioning teams, rather than individual employees in professional silos.

To create a team environment, Dr. James highlighted the importance of a shared sense of purpose, language, and interdisciplinary respect – where each member’s voice is heard and respected. He notes that this allows everyone to function at the top of their area of expertise. In this way communication improves and workflows can be streamlined. As COVID has shown, technology is an important part of the communication process within and across teams, with administration, and in service workflows as more and more service delivery has become technology dependent. No wonder the 2021 Tech Report notes that 50% of those surveyed cite communication as an area for potential improvement. Microsoft’s recent report on this topic (2021 Work Trend Index: Annual Report) cited the disruptive impact of email, text, and other messaging on a streamlined workflow. Managing communication around tasks rather than a constant ongoing flood, integrating communication into the client services and administrative flow in a less distracting manner are critical to keeping employees focused on the mission – client care – and on working effectively within their team to generate engagement and retention. Lastly, tools (Gallup item 2) matter. The Tech Report and Dr. James noted the importance of having tools (e.g., documentation and reporting tools) that do not interfere with efficient workflow and that foster communication. The 2021 Tech Report reflects frontline staff’s dissatisfaction with current electronic record tools, an ongoing challenge that is difficult to address, but that can perhaps be improved with teamwork and redesigned (team-based) workflows.  

In these stressful times, Dr. James also emphasized the importance of a positive work environment, mutual peer-support, and a sense of belonging as key elements of effective teamwork – all essential to creating a sense of safety and being cared about at work (Gallup items 5,12). And he highlights the importance of leadership that supports these by promoting staff wellness (making time for wellness, mental health days, work-life balance), talking about mission and vision, conducting regular “check-ins” with team members.

By attending to these core elements of engagement and measuring the impact of engagement strategies organizations can boost their retention – and thereby the likelihood that staff will become their best recruiters at a time when everyone is competing for talent to meet ever growing service demands.

About the Author

Maggie Labarta

Maggie Labarta is Founder and Consultant at Impact Non-profit Consulting, having previously retired as CEO of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. Labarta holds a Ph.D. in Clinical and Community Psychology and has extensive experience in both administration and clinical practice. She also has particular expertise in strategic planning, data and analytics as management tools, and organizational development. She provides consultative services for numerous community organizations.

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