By Melissa J. Anderson

The most surprising finding to come out of BlessingWhite‘s recent employee engagement survey revealed that after years of lower employee engagement levels, things are looking up. “The levels are actually slightly higher than they were in ’08, and that’s consistent with other firms’ surveys,” explained Mary Ann Masarech, Employee Engagement Practice Leader at BlessingWhite.

But not for everyone. According to Masarech, the survey, which polled nearly 3,000 North American respondents (and over 10,000 worldwide), engagement levels of people working in IT continued to decline. Only 24% of IT employees are fully engaged in their work.

She explained, “BlessingWhite works with clients around engagement and leadership, and we weren’t surprised that IT came out as the least engaged in our recent Employee Engagement survey. In fact, it happened in our 2008 study as well.”

Why IT Engagement is Down

“Our research has shown that employees who are farthest away from the decision making are oftentimes the least engaged. Alignment is an important part of how we measure engagement. It’s not only job satisfaction, but also how employees feel they contribute to a company’s goals, and their understanding how their job fits in with the larger picture,” Masarech explained.

She continued, “And that’s what folks in IT struggle with the most.”

“We absolutely think IT is critical – for example, with the recent shutdown of the Internet in Egypt, many global companies couldn’t do business for days. When you consider how we all do business, IT is such a critical part of the equation. If it’s not functioning efficiently, we’re not going to get what we need. It’s the engine running today’s companies.”

“Retention is another problem. Regretful turnover happens when engaged employees leave. They’re highly productive and when they leave, there’s a big hole. But when disengaged employees leave, it may not be a bad thing,” she said.

“We call that productive attrition; you don’t necessarily want disengaged folks around. But our research indicated that even though IT employees are less engaged, they aren’t more likely to leave than the workforce at large. That leaves employers with a productivity issue if they can’t help the disengaged turn that emotional corner.”

Shared Responsibility for Engagement

“We see engagement as a shared responsibility.” Employees, managers, and executives at the top are all part of the equation, Masarech explained.

“Managers should actually have conversations with employees about what engages them. What are the challenges they are facing? What do they like and dislike about their job? Do they understand how their daily work affects the firm?” By helping employees get a better grasp on where they fit in the organization and why they are important to the firm’s success, managers can help improve engagement levels.

“But people in highly analytical roles, like those in IT, are often more introverted than extroverted. They could be sitting next to one another, but prefer to communicate by email. Managers in IT may have been promoted because of their technical experience, and they may not be particularly comfortable with managing people instead of projects. They often make the assumption, that ‘of course my team knows where they strategically fit in the organization.’ But what we find is that, a lot of the time, this is not the case.”

Management training around communication can go a long way in improving the engagement of their team, she added.

Trust and Engagement

Another significant factor affecting employee engagement is trust. The study revealed that IT employees are much more likely to trust their immediate manager than their company’s senior leaders (with 76% saying they trust their manager, and only 48% saying they trust senior leadership). Masarech pointed out that these levels are similar to other fields – employees are more likely to trust the people they see and interact with every day than they are likely to trust people they don’t know well.

But, she said, in the IT department this may be compounded by the types of skills people naturally possess. “IT professionals are analytical troubleshooters. They are trained to find problems, to find bugs in the system. When they take that filtering ability and turn their scrutiny upwards –they can easily find faults in senior leadership. It’s up to senior leaders, therefore, to build trust by communicating the rationale for decisions and doing what they say they will do.”

Masarech also pointed out that measuring employee engagement isn’t enough – organizations have to take action on the findings, and communicate that those actions are directly related to employee feedback. “In North America, respondents who said their firms ran a survey but saw no visible follow up action had lower engagement levels than people who said their company had done nothing at all about engagement.”

She continued, “Everybody likes metrics, and a survey is good way to gather information, but if you don’t follow up with tangible action based on your findings, you lose credibility.”