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A recent Towers Watson report found that 26 per cent of workers have a bad case of disengagement.Jupiterimages/Getty Images

There's a scourge in the world's offices and factories.

A recent Towers Watson report found that 26 per cent of workers have a bad case of it, with many more suffering milder symptoms. A Price Waterhouse Cooper report on human capital suggests this same malady is hitting veteran Western workers who feel that economic turmoil has limited their employment mobility – while at the same time it's driving Asia's young workers to serial job-hopping.

The problem: disengagement. And getting a handle on how to prevent it could be an important factor in giving Canada a global competitive edge.

"Of course, a paycheque is important," says Richard Yerema, "but financial perks are not the only variable to performance." As the managing editor of Mediacorp's annual ranking of Canada's Top 100 Employers, Mr. Yerema is privy to Canadian firms' efforts to engage their work force with initiatives such as professional development opportunities and leadership programs, as well as efforts to promote work-life balance and general health.

These are all good starts, says Douglas Reid, associate professor of strategy at Queen's School of Business, but he isn't seeing Canada leading the global pack when it comes to creating engagement. Neither is Towers Watson; its survey indicates that 67 per cent of Canadian workers are not fully engaged in their work. Canada needs to become more focused on encouraging what's known as discretionary voluntary activity: inspiring and supporting workers to do things above and beyond their job descriptions.

"It's not about just being attentive," explains Dr. Reid. "That's mindfulness, which is also important but not the same thing. Engagement is about doing the things you don't have to do. It's about spotting a problem and doing something about it."

Bob Twerdun believes that "people don't come to work wanting to be unsuccessful." He's senior vice-president of human capital at MNP, one of Canada's largest business consulting and accounting firms. "People want to be successful. They want to feel like they're contributing."

The employer's role, he says, is to show their workers what success looks like, and then "give them the tools to close any gaps." Those gaps might be guiding a fresh university grad in applying their education to delivering the kinds of financial statements needed by clients. "What we have to do is give them the professional development and professional experience to gain that expertise over a three- or four- or five-year period."

The key to encouraging engagement, says André deCarufel, is to "create change that is tangible." Dr. deCarufel is an associate professor of organization studies at York University's Schulich School of Business, and executive director of the Joint Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA program. We've all seen a shiny new thing or philosophy get trumpeted in with great fanfare – think Steve Jobs unveiling the first iPhone – but Dr. deCarufel says that's not enough. "The CEO gives his big rousing speech," he says, "everybody gets a T-shirt and a balloon and everyone's excited – for a week. It might create engagement, but that ultimately gets swamped by other factors."

To maintain that excitement over the long-term, and parlay it into more than a brief spike in performance, he says, requires that people "see and feel the effects of these changes in the daily work that they're doing."

He points to a study he did with a general hospital that had recently transitioned into a long-term care institution. The physiotherapists, who were accustomed to a high turnover in their acute-care patients, were now working with – and getting to personally know – the same seniors day after day.

"The physiotherapists didn't need convincing that the institution's goals and culture had changed, because they could see that patient quality of life was now a priority. It was right in front of them, every day. And I think that's something that's often missing from employee engagement initiatives: You listen to the big speech, then you go back to your daily work, which hasn't changed much."

Dr. Reid of Queen's notes that, when it comes to the engaged workplace, not all sectors are created equally – and he warns against confusing engaged employees with happy employees. "The fact is that some workplaces are going to have a stronger ability to [foster engagement] just because of the nature of the work." Health-care workers, for example, have a professional culture that includes an obligation of "doing what is right," regardless – or sometimes in spite of – the working conditions created by management. "Is that an engaged workplace? Yes. Is it a happy workplace? No."

The vacuous buzzword of 10 years ago is getting closer to becoming a science, but there are still bones of contention. The relation of engagement to profit, for one, is still very much a matter of opinion. The Towers Watson study compared engagement scores with operating margins, concluding that the higher the engagement, the higher the margin. Dr. Reid isn't convinced the relationship is so cut and dried.

"Productivity is a complicated phenomenon," Dr. Reid cautions. "Engagement gets you to a lot of good things, but it doesn't directly predict things like productivity – it indirectly supports the notion that you're going to get better results, but it doesn't simply say 'Here's productivity in a nutshell.' Would I prefer to work in an engaged environment? Yes. Would I bet that one would find higher productivity in an engaged company? Yes. But I can't say that A causes B."

"It's not automatic that engagement leads to performance," agrees Schulich's Dr. deCarufel. "I'd say it's a moderate relationship: There are many determinants of performance, such as the reward structure – but engagement can make a difference."

One thing that seems certain, though, is that the engaged employee is easy to spot. "It's really as simple as coming to work, wanting to come to work, and being happy to come to work," says MNP's Mr. Twerdun. "Other than the social aspect, I don't like golfing at all, so I'm disengaged after six holes – and people can tell I'm disengaged because I'm not playing well and I obviously don't want to be there. It's the same in the workplace. You can tell when someone is engaged. It's evident."


"An engaged workplace is a place where people feel they're making a difference," says Queen's School of Business strategy professor Douglas Reid. "It's important to keep those people, to grow them, to rely on them, to share the rewards with them. That sounds very warm and fuzzy, but I don't mean it to: The alternative is the kind of work-harder-or-be-fired workplace – and those really aren't the kinds of places people want to be involved with." Here are the Top 5 actions for creating that engaged space.

1. Recognize that engagement is not a cosmetic treatment. "You need to inspire people, but at the same time you need to make it real and sustainable over time after the rah-rah has worn off," says Schulich School of Business professor André deCarufel. "If there aren't tangible changes, people tend to think 'This is the flavour of the month. We'll keep our heads down and it'll blow over.' "

2. Make work about problem-solving, not control. "It's important to understand the concept of letting people be entrepreneurial," says Bob Twerdun of business consulting and accounting firm MNP. "Give them the tools to allow them to be successful, and allow them to follow their own paths – within parameters, of course – and they'll figure out the choices to get to their end goal."

3. Become obsessive about quality. "It's about more than just zero defects," Dr. Reid says. "Quality is a signal about the values of a company."

4. Make the employee more important than the shareholder. Dr. Reid cites the philosophy of Herb Kelleher, whose Southwest Airlines posted an unmatched streak of 71 profitable quarters: If you take care of your employees first and foremost, they'll take care of the customers and that will make for happy shareholders. "That thinking doesn't honour a lot of the things in contemporary management discourse," Dr. Reid says. "When you ask people their opinion, and you listen to them, sometimes they're right – which means you have to admit you're wrong."

5. Free motorcycles for everyone. "We hear that one all the time," laughs Mike Harwood, human resources director of Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada. The company was named one of Mediacorp's annual ranking of Canada's Top 100 Employers for 2013, and Mr. Harwood reports that job satisfaction scores climbed from 85 per cent in 2004 to 97 per cent this past year. That change is the result of projects like an interactive portal site to encourage dialogue on company issues – but, alas, no free motorcycles. Employees are, however, encouraged to borrow from the in-house pool of demo models.

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