Employee engagement: Because 2018 isn't 1990

For the past few years, an incalculable number of words have been expended on the woeful state of employee engagement, both domestically and worldwide. A prominent milestone in all the back-and-forth was Gallup’s pronouncement of a worldwide employment engagement crisis, noting, among other things, that the percentage of engaged employees in the U.S.—call it 33—has remained roughly the same since Gallup started measuring engagement levels in 2000. 

Boo. Not what HR professionals were longing to hear, for sure. (Aon has provided a much sunnier worldwide picture in its more recent report.)

These years have seen a vigorous discussion of just why this is, extending into the blubillion dollars that have been poured into engagement initiatives, the lack of consensus on how employee engagement is defined (indeed, the only consensus seems to be that there isn’t a consensus), and even if we’ve been missing the boat all along: engagement is just one part of a bigger picture; it’s all about the employee experience. At least one HR pro thinks the whole thing was bogus from the get-go.  

It’s a complicated topic, and an interesting and vital one, but we’re going to leave most of 2018’s problems for other blogs on other days. 

Instead, let’s talk about 1990. 

What was employee engagement like then? Trick question: There was no such thing as employee engagement in 1990. 

Ten years before Gallup started measuring employee engagement in 2000, professor William Kahn coined the term in an academic paper. Since then, according to the Incentive Research Foundation, we’ve done a 180 by shifting the focus from what the employee wants to what the company wants from the employee. Be that as it may, let’s consider 1990 as the first mile marker on the employee engagement journey. 

The wayback machine.

In 1990, the fax machine wasn’t exactly new, but it was still a pretty cool thing to have around. In 2018, we consider such technology (for those unborn in 1990, you actually had to get out of your chair to use it) just about ready for the Smithsonian. 

But if, in 1990, you’d taken the fax machine back to a typical office in 1970, you’d have been regarded as a wizard brandishing otherworldly wonders. 

So standards change. What happens when we use that same perspective with employee engagement? Consider (with poetic license) how different the givens of 2018 are from those of 1990: 


2018: We’re fully invested in employee engagement, and have been for 15 years 

1990: Some of our employees are getting engaged? 


2018: We strive to give our employees meaningful, fulfilling, purposeful work 

1990: We strive to give our employees a place to work 


2018: We’re mindful of our employees’ wellbeing, via ergonomic chairs, stand-up desks, scientifically designed lighting, optically friendly computer screens and comprehensive wellness programs 

1990: Just try not to show up hung over Monday mornings 


2018: We believe in a culture of frequent appreciation, encouragement and recognition 

1990: I told you “good job” just last year 


2018: Inspiring our employees to always be the best they can be, we’re socially and environmentally conscious and contribute to the community at large 

1990: On your break, try and throw the cigarette butts behind those bushes over there 


2018: We value family-themed corporate events, and are happy to host annual bring your kids/dogs to work days 

1990: Kids and dogs? Are you goofy? 


2018: We constantly listen to our employees via surveys, pulse checks and weekly 1:1s 

1990: We constantly listen for the “I just closed a deal” bell to ring 


2018: We offer casual Fridays, as well as Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 

1990: We offer casual Saturdays and Sundays

Light years.

Perspective is a tricky thing. Much of what makes up employee engagement today was barely on the radar when Kahn was writing in 1990. Taking that distance into account raises a number of questions without immediately apparent answers. 

Is it all relative? It is relative—2018 is light years beyond 1990—but does relativity necessarily matter? Seems to be little doubt that same as the fax machine, if you could offer the employee of 1990 the engagement opportunities of 2018, he’d jump all over them. Engagement would be 93 percent, not 33. 

Yet there are countless people working in 1990 who today would number themselves among the 67 percent disengaged. Have they changed, or have expectations? 

Is the present already the past? Yesterday’s wizardry is today’s table stakes. The quicker and higher you raise the standards, the more readily things are taken for granted. Engagement-wise, at the current rate the employees of 2025 will have as little in common with today’s employees as today’s do with 1990’s. How will we make sense of the numbers then? (Not to worry: AI will take care of all of that!) 

Is engagement really as bad as the numbers show? In that defined context, probably so. And 28 years from now, when they still haven’t changed much, employees will be amused at the Stone Age environment of 2018, with some blogger speculating on how eagerly they’d have seized the wonderful engagement opportunities available in 2046. 

How do we define failure, anyway? In 2000, engagement was poor. Today, engagement is poor. In 1990, many people were unhappy with their salaries. In 2018, many people are unhappy with their salaries. Yet only one is regarded as a misfire. 

The view from here.

It’s a tangle. Kahn himself says the problems haven’t changed. What can we say for certain? 

This, maybe: In the end, people are always going to be people. Despite a necessarily comprehensive approach, engagement will always be an individualistic notion. It’s a personal choice. An entirely reasonable hope for employers now may be that coworkers like each other, believe their company is doing more good than bad in the world, don’t dread Mondays, and show up for nothing less than an honest day’s work, in their own crazy ways. 

Another entirely reasonable hope may be that the above should instead be the bare minimum, and using that engaged 33 percent as a base to spring from, companies should remove obstacles, provide resources, build the proper culture and continue to seek ways to turn the human instinct to find meaning and purpose loose. 

So the discussion continues, as we wonder if we’re looking at the right things, the right way. Revisiting Kahn’s time either clarifies the present nature of engagement, or muddles it worse. One thing seems apparent, though: However and whenever you choose to measure engagement, things just aren’t the same anymore. 

Unless, of course, they are.