Better Working through Science

Deidre Huntington
4 min readNov 20, 2019

The American workforce is facing a crisis of unhappiness, disengagement, and complacency. There’s a lot of research out there but the main point is the majority of people are not happy at work. And this isn’t just a woo-woo feelings problem. This costs employers real money — up to $350 billion per year due to lost productivity. And on top of that, an organization’s reputation can pay the price of unhappy and disgruntled employees (just look at Glassdoor reviews). Today’s job seekers are weighing an organization’s reputation as heavily as salary and benefits which means culture and happiness matter more than ever.

So enough with the bad news. The good news is we also know that happy employees are productive employees. A University of Warwick study found that increased happiness at work led to a 12% increase in productivity. News flash: a happy and positive work culture makes people better employees! Well then, how can employers create a happier and more productive workforce? There isn’t a silver bullet but one place to start is an intentional and science-based engagement strategy.

Employee engagement is a business strategy

Employee engagement is a phrase that gets tossed around and can mean different things to different people. It can mean team building at an annual staff retreat (trust falls, anyone?) or ping pong tables at the office or a satisfaction survey. But these are tactics (with debatable merits), not strategies. Meaningful engagement comes from an organization’s culture and commitment from leadership.

Culture is critical to employee productivity, happiness, and engagement, and it’s a lot more than just unlimited PTO and a coffee bar. Those things can make people happier but employees need to be more than just happy. They need to feel valued, empowered, productive, and recognized. In order to create this culture, employee engagement has to be a pillar in an organization’s strategy. Leadership must value it, prioritize it, and devote resources to it like they would any other business strategy.


One good place to start thinking about employee engagement is basic human psychology and what motivates people. But let’s back up a step. First, organizations must realize their employees are human beings. It’s a wild concept, I know. But seriously, these are people with emotions, needs, desires, and much more that can’t be ignored 9–5, Monday through Friday. Employers have to account for the whole person and find ways to meet their needs beyond just a paycheck if they want improved productivity.

  • Start with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This theory posits that we all have five basic needs, some that must be met for basic survival (a paycheck), and others that can be grown to achieve self-actualization (kick-butt A+ performer). This seems like a good way to approach the needs of employees, too. Remember, they’re humans! A 2017 Gallup report suggests that organizations can look to meet similar needs through performance development of:
  • Basic needs
  • Individual needs
  • Teamwork needs
  • Personal growth needs

The fulfillment of each need is the foundation for fulfillment of the next, and so on. So, if an organization is moving to a new management framework and wants to get staff informed and excited, they must meet basic needs first. Does the design team have the most up-to-date Adobe Creative Cloud necessary to do its job? If the answer is no, the odds are pretty low the team is going to give one hoot about the new matrix organization.

  • Move onto basic concepts of organizational psychology. People go to school for many years to study this but basic concepts and theories can be used to build effective employee engagement strategies. The American Psychological Association defines organizational psychology as “the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace,” which sounds very clinical and official, but gets at the core of staff engagement. Why do people do what they do? What motivates them? What crushes their soul? Answering these questions can help employers craft strategies that will resonate with staff.
  • Build an authentic strategy. Again, employee engagement can’t be a one-off thing that comes up annually. It has to be a living, breathing pillar of an organization’s strategy with the ultimate goal of driving improved performance (and a really cool side effect of happy people). This also requires absolute buy-in from all levels of leadership. If an engagement strategy or tactic is forced, inauthentic, or counter to the organization’s culture, staff will sniff it out in a heartbeat. In short, leadership must have a genuine interest in engaging their staff to create and execute an effective strategy.

Using both a human-based and science-based approach can help organizations score an effective engagement strategy and win brownie points with staff for feeling seen and heard.

Parting Thoughts

Creating a productive and happy workforce is no longer a “nice-to-do,” it is a business imperative to stay competitive in a rapidly changing environment. Employees have become more discerning and have more choices when it comes to where they work. Organizations who want to attract (and keep) top talent and improve business outcomes can no longer ignore employee engagement — their staff certainly isn’t.