“Retaining top talent starts with creating strong attachment points.” David Rowlee spotlights current and historic drivers of engagement, and how employers can measure, monitor and shape employee perceptions.

Retaining top talent starts with creating strong attachment points that can weather the inevitable ups and downs of business performance. Recent research backs this conclusion with the finding that employee engagement drivers change over time because they reflect larger macroeconomic or geopolitical trends.¹ Zeroing in on three unique points in recent history showcases engagement variations — and strategies for inoculating employees from demotivating forces during stable or unsettling times.

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Self-interest is strongest in a good economy

The year 2005 was marked by a brisk economy and relatively low unemployment. During this time, the key drivers of workforce enthusiasm and productivity were self-focused — with growth and development opportunities at the center of employees’ radar. Recognition, communication and feedback from individual work units and immediate supervisors contributed the most to a positive experience.

When the labor market is strong, career wellbeing support is exceptionally important because employees are more confident and aware of their value. Employers can capitalize on this environment by proactively creating opportunities for growth and rewards to show their workforce commitment and more successfully drive engagement. Structured performance reviews, awards, recognition and training — including leadership development — help keep people energized and immersed.

Organizations recently ranked as top performers in managing HR and healthcare costs had a strong tendency to use tactics that promote employee engagement and career growth. Namely, compared to other participants in a 2018 survey, they were far more likely to define clear performance goals, give timely and constructive feedback, identify development needs and create action plans. And more often, they linked employees’ efforts to positive effects on the organization’s strategy, mission, vision and values; supported them in developing and pursuing a career path; and provided interesting and challenging work.²,³

Economic uncertainty draws employee attention to broader priorities

During the Great Depression, a study assessed the attitudes of 4,430 employees and, in 1933, researcher Richard Stephen Uhrbrock authored an enlightening follow-up article. He concluded that communication from senior leadership was the most important factor in creating a workforce that feels stable, fulfilled and satisfied — at times when the economy is in turmoil.⁴ Fast-forward to 2009, when a full-steam subprime mortgage crisis was crippling an already hobbled economy and accelerating job loss.

Data collected from multiple 2018 engagement surveys showed a remarkable shift away from employee self-interest alone in 2005, toward inclusion of broader organizational considerations.¹ And, like the period of duress experienced more than 75 years earlier, a critical engagement driver was confidence in senior leaders as well as hearing from them. Communications were a priority in both good and bad times.

What mattered most to employees was being informed of their organization’s performance and the actions leadership was taking to achieve success. They also wanted to know that its products and services could stand the test of time. Their overall sense of security hinged on both the quality of output and their confidence in leadership.

There’s a clear message in these consistent findings for organizations striving to maintain a sense of stability and satisfaction in a turbulent environment: communication is their most powerful ally. A disciplined and targeted approach to this priority reinforces a shared understanding of vision, mission and values, and enables employees to feel connected to each other and their employer. Maintaining a regular cadence of communications under stressful circumstances — even in an emergency — simply requires altering and repurposing existing messages to fit the current environment and needs.

Top performing organizations stand out from their peers for communicating in a way that encourages trust and confidence.²,³ No matter what the state of the economy or its influence on employee stress may be, effective communication helps improve engagement outcomes. Without it, there’s an increasing possibility of employee burnout or even resentment that can lead to a toxic work environment. And with it, there’s the invaluable probability of increasing a sense of pride and job satisfaction that could even become contagious.

Today’s environment calls for a comprehensive engagement approach

Today’s macroeconomic and political environment is complex. The economy and job market is thriving, but political tensions in the U.S. and abroad are running high. So it’s not surprising that 2018 engagement drivers combine those that were identified in both a stable and prosperous 2005, and a fraught 2009 characterized by an economic slump.¹

This duality means that employees’ self-focus now coexists with their concern about outward organizational issues — and employers must cultivate engagement through multiple channels. Especially important is helping the workforce build toward a better, more secure future through career wellbeing opportunities, alongside a comprehensive yet flexible communication approach.

Reaching and sustaining the end goal of a productive, satisfied and loyal workforce happens more quickly and smoothly when employees’ perceptions and priorities are consistently measured and monitored. In any situation at any time, employers can determine what motivates and engages their employees to develop or refine an action plan that drives engagement.

They’re better equipped to shield their employees from the pressures of external stressors and prepare them for an inevitable economic downturn — while building and reinforcing a more resilient brand of employee goodwill and commitment. Ultimately, that’s how organizations compete more strongly and thrive.

This article is an excerpt from our 2019 Organizational Wellbeing & Talent Insights Report – U.S. Edition.


David D. Rowlee, Ph.D.
Managing Director & Practice Leader, Engagement Surveys

David oversees a team of highly skilled researchers and ensures the delivery of leading-edge measurement capabilities, advanced empirical analyses and innovative research studies to inform clients’ operations and strategies.



¹Gallagher engagement survey research, 2018
²Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., “Best-in-Class Benchmarking Analysis for Large Employers,” April 2019
³Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., “Best-in-Class Benchmarking Analysis for Midsize Employers,” April 2019
⁴The Journal of Social Psychology, “Attitudes of 4430 Employees,” November 1933