Q&A With Mike Ettling: Advice On Overcoming The Employee Engagement Crisis That Will Blow Your Mind

Jeff Woods

02 Jun 2012 --- Young, industrial designers brainstorming together. --- Image by © Hero/CorbisOver the past decade, employee engagement has been somewhat stagnant – hovering 13% worldwide. As workplaces become more connected and virtual, tension is building among employees of all levels and types. Yes, people now have more freedom to work when and where they want. However, working across time zones with virtual teams decreases the opportunity to establish the kind of relationships that contribute to employee engagement.

Although many studies have tried to pinpoint the cause of the employee engagement crisis, the information we have now is just scratching the surface. What can leaders and employees do to create an increasingly digitized workplace that is engaging and inclusive for everyone?akIN3p4T

I had the pleasure of discussing this very question with Mike Ettling, president of the HR line of business at SAP. During our discussion, he shared insights into this increasing tension in the workplace and the role of technology and leadership to release it and unleash the full potential of the workforce.

Jeff Woods: As businesses continue to digitize their operations, the workplace is only becoming more connected. Do you feel that this will increase tension among employees and give them a reason to become more disengaged?

Mike Ettling: I do not think “tension” is the right word. Rather, I see it as a shift in balance. Each generation perceives this change slightly different. Millennials, for example, have grown up in a continuously connected environment. That is their comfort level and source of engagement. On the other hand, other generations – traditionalists, boomers, and some Gen Xers – may need more human contact to feel engaged. However, as technology continues to evolve, the contact is manifesting itself in different ways.

Even though more people are working from home, supporting technologies are evolving, and office spaces are closing, employees still need a place to connect physically. This is a fundamental human need that leaders need to keep in mind. Personally, I have not had a dedicated physical office for the last ten years of my career – even during my tenure as the CEO of a billion-dollar company and my current role at SAP. Although I am not a millennial, this working situation does not faze me at all. You can even say that I am very comfortable with it.

Unfortunately, not every leader is embracing this change. But, I think people can find their own “perfect balance” by using technology to create it. If you look at all the social tools available now – Facebook, Instagram, SAP Jam, among others – there are so many opportunities to create connections and, ultimately, that balance.

JW: How is technology closing that gap? One innovation that comes to mind is a way to connect with their online network to a physical location where co-workers happen to be nearby.

ME: I firmly believe that technology will play a larger role in how connections are made. If you think about it, the need for connections and relationships, as it relates to employee engagement, is coming full circle. Long ago, people connected naturally because they were at work. It was always a physical thing. Now, we have gone to this connected world where everyone is more remote. To regain the connection lost, we are using technology.

For example, most U.K. singles met their life partner at work prior to the digital revolution. Even though the workplace is moving to a virtual world, marriage rates are not declining. So, people must have found a way to connect and meet their life partners – whether through online dating or social networking.

JW: Sherry Turkle once coined the phrase “being together alone” when describing the sense of isolation in a virtual-only world. How can leaders make a difference in employee engagement, especially when dealing with this more disconnected world?

ME: To this day, I am still intrigued by CEOs who refuse to maintain a social presence – no Twitter, no social media, and no digital presence whatsoever. This is a fundamentally flawed perspective and a missed opportunity. As leaders, we must embrace these tools because they create significant engagement with our workforce people as well as the consumer community.

Social media controls 60%–70% of how thought leadership and awareness are driven in the HR marketplace. When you are conducting an analyst briefing, no one is willing to wait for the report to be released. Commentary begins as soon as the event is done, thanks to social media. And to stay relevant and control perception, leaders must engage in that social conversation. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many leaders.

The other thing that is just as important is engaging and leading people in a multimedia fashion. Use your HR technology, whether they are performance management portals, badges, or any other tools. Use public social tools like Twitter and LinkedIn to recognize people. No matter what you choose, the more you reinforce your vision and strategy with social media, the more impact and engagement you will realize. At the same time, traditional tools must not be tossed aside – such as skip level meetings, town halls, all-hands meetings, and one-on-one chats at the photocopier. These methods are still vital.

Good leaders not only apply a total multimedia approach when engaging and communicating with people, but they also follow the biggest golden rule: authenticity. If people are not engaged for the right reasons, all of your rhetoric will fall on deaf ears. Focus on doing things that build engagement and then decide what you need to do in terms of team motivation and driving the team. Because if you try to do it the other way round, it can be totally wasted.

JW: Some executives are entirely skeptical of the emergence of the connected workplace and their ability to manage a distributed workforce effectively and productively. What advice do you give to help them understand that this really is the future of the work?

ME: Four words: Get over your insecurity. You can work with distributed teams very effectively, but you also have to be more conscious of how you lead. You have to be more focused on making time for people. The key is scheduling those interactions and never missing an appointment. When people sense that they are not important, they feel adrift and gradually become more disconnected.

If you have grown up working with a physical team around you, you may think distributed teams as a burden. But if you have grown up having a distributed team around you all the time, managing a global team becomes second nature. Even though I did not “grow up” as a digital native, managing global leaders and team over the last 15 years have made me very comfortable with leading a digital workforce.

About Jeff Woods

Jeff Woods is Chief Product Strategist, Products and Innovation at SAP.