Bosses play a key role in employee engagement. But could organizational models be keeping managers from spending the right amount of quality time with employees? Or, if these horizontal structures are the right choice, should employees be given greater authority?
We all know the cost of disengaged workers—lost time, lost customers, lost innovation and lost revenue. But, you can’t have a discussion about how to reengage the millions of disconnected workers around the world (or even just the 3 … or 14 … or 45 in your own office) without first talking about the causes of disengagement.
Two real-world examples of employee disengagement
Take Bobby, who works in the marketing department of his company, handling social media and other promotions. He produces content, responds to customers’ comments and handles a multitude of other responsibilities. He offers idea after idea to his busy and overwhelmed supervisor, who doesn’t find much time to respond. Not only that, Bobby’s boss admits to having only a basic understanding of what works on social media. Bobby feels powerless to make decisions on his own.
Or Denise, who works for a health care information company. She works closely with customers as they submit information. The system that’s currently in place has flaws—customers often have trouble submitting files, sometimes they don’t follow the directions, they often wait until the last minute (or beyond) and they complain steadily. After one especially difficult weekend handling customer needs, Denise comes in to talk with her boss only to find she’s gone on vacation for 10 days to St. Moritz without letting all of her subordinates know. Denise is trapped with an ineffective system where she’s constantly redoing work and dealing with a load of angry customers.
The main barriers to employee engagement
Employee engagement experts will tell you that some of the leading culprits of disengagement—the things that cause employees to feel their long hours, effort and ideas go unnoticed or wasted—are:
- Inefficiencies in people or processes
- Seemingly endless reworks
- Poor leadership
- Frustrating levels of bureaucracy
- Unclear and unwritten employee goals
- No positive challenges for the employee to strive for
- Not enough variety in the work
Most of these things point the finger at middle managers and leaders. And, to a lesser extent, the employee who eventually gives up out of frustration. Add to that, the rapid pace of change in everything from business technology to work trends to an increase in the cost of a soda from the break room vending machine. It all adds up.
The rise of flat organizations
Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leadership and management grew steadily leaner when flatter organizational models became vogue. The recession of 2008 – 2012 saw continued drops in middle management numbers as companies scrambled to keep salary budgets in check and stay afloat. This tightening led to many bosses holding both managerial and individual responsibilities—a load that can lead to competing uses of time.
Many leadership experts and coaches believe these flattened corporation models can work, but only if front-line workers are given more responsibility. If you’re stuck with the traditional management role of checking, controlling and intervening, it can take some impressive hoop jumping to have as many as a dozen direct reports.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to figure out the perfect ratio of subordinates to managers. There are always extenuating circumstances that can change the work dynamic. A boss supervising people with sharply different duties likely reaches his or her capacity faster than a manager overseeing workers doing similar jobs.
How much time is enough … how much is too much?
Back in 2014, Fast Company wrote about a survey of 32,000 workers and part of the poll was about employee engagement vs. the time spent interacting with their direct manager. By interacting, they included face-to-face time, emails, phones calls and even time spent in meetings with each other.
“In most cases, more time with the boss is a good thing. As people rose from one to six hours spent with their direct leaders, they became 29% more inspired about their work, 30% more engaged (that is, likely to recommend their company as a great place to work), 16% more innovative, and 15% more intrinsically motivated (finding something interesting in most of their tasks).”
It seems that anything over that sweet spot of six hours devolved into a feeling of being micromanaged among the respondents. That leads me to add one more bullet to the above list:
- Quality time spent with leader/manager
Employee engagement—could it be that our flattened organizations have crossed the line? Could the problem be solved by pulling back a bit? Or should employees just be given more responsibility so they can tackle and solve challenges with more autonomy? As always, the trick is to find your own sweet spot. Then, keep your eyes open to ensure your employees show outward signs of engagement. If you pay attention, you’ll see it.