The cultural nuances of employee engagement – how to do it right in India

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From thinking on behalf of the organization and consistently raising the bar to winning the talent war purely by retention, an engaged workforce has many rewards. But in India, just like most other things about our homeland, employee engagement too is a mixed bag.

A 2015 study by the Dale Carnegie Institute showed that Indian employees are generally more engaged than their global counterparts. 46% of Indian employees showcased high levels of engagement with their employers. The global average is just over 30%. Other statistics that stood out in the survey were:

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  • 61% of Indian employees are willing to work extra hours without expecting any over-time remuneration in return.
  • Employees from education and government sectors were the least engaged.
  • A whopping 58% showcased pride in the organizations they work for.

I don’t know about you but to me, these statistics point to something inherently dysfunctional about our work culture. The recentness of our open markets and the opportunities that came with it, inherently hierarchical structures and relationships, and a culture of meritocracy seem to have ensured that our workforce is just a little more about being “busy” than living fully-rounded lives.

We need to quickly realize that a whopping 54% of the Indian workforce is not engaged and 61% of the workforce is willing to be exploited by its employers. Just the fact that critical sectors like education and government show the least engagement is proof enough that all is not well with our work culture. Another study points to the fact that 46% of the Indian workforce reports high stress levels at work.

The cultural and economic reasons for these statistics will take some time to change. But in the meantime, organizations need to deliver a little more than brand name related pride, free F&B and weekend getaways in the name of employee engagement. In the process, employers must also raise the bar for how much their workforce is willing to innovate. This change will really be a win-win scenario.

So what can organizations do?

Emphasize on delivery of work and ideas, not hours

I relocated to India after a good half a decade in a culture that relentlessly claims its work-life balance is an entitlement rather than a reward. Hence, I could point out the flaws in our work culture more pointedly because I had a little more perspective. I was amazed at the sheer number of hours my own employer and a lot of my clients were spending at work and how little quality work was really being done in all those hours!

Every other employee seems to be working enough for at least a person and a half. So just getting the basics done is more than what one person can handle. There are so many stories of people being singled out for “leaving on time”. Every leave application is a long story of excuses from both sides of the table. How this culture encourages fresh thinking, one would never know.

Go beyond the obvious

Your employees may not have complained about their workload, thanks to your management style and/ or their culturally ingrained reverence for authority. But to blatantly, relentlessly ignore this obvious fact translates to exploitation. Correct allocation of workload, rewarding fresh thought and style, and encouraging work-life balance through sound HR policies.

The other is to go beyond the obvious as far as employee engagement initiatives are concerned. A session in mindfulness can turn out to be a lot more beneficial than a weekend getaway of drinking and dancing. Instead of holding your employees back on a Friday night in the name of monotonous engagement activities, let them go do their own thing to start a well-earned weekend.

The well-being of employees is the employer’s responsibility because it pays off in the form of innovation and quality work. Employers must deliver trust and purpose beyond the monotony of everyday tasks and rigid hours. All employees are entitled to a work-life balance, that comes on the back of high quality deliveries. Most importantly, an organisation's "solid" HR policies must come to life by walking the talk when it comes to benefits and perks.

Employees must change too. If we don’t collectively demand fuller lives that don’t revolve around endless to-do lists, we can’t expect to get it. Don’t settle, neither for 14-hour days, nor for meaningless engagement initiatives. Learn to separate the wheat from the chaff or stop complaining.