It may seem unlikely that one report could offer valid insights on everything from employee engagement and performance management to matrixed teams and work flexibility.

But that is exactly what a new study from Gallup manages to accomplish.

For its in-depth look at the 2017 “State of the American Workplace,” Gallup used data collected from more than 195,600 U.S. employees via the Gallup Panel and Gallup Daily tracking in 2015 and 2016, as well as more than 31 million respondents to the company’s Q12 Client Database. This is the third version of the report, which was first launched in 2010.

The key statistic that drives much of this latest iteration of the report focuses on employee engagement in the United States—or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The report notes that only 33 percent of American workers are engaged at work, meaning they love their jobs and try to make their company better every day, according to an opening letter from Jim Clifton, Gallup chairman and CEO.

“At the other end, 16 percent of employees are actively disengaged—they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build,” Clifton wrote. “The remaining 51 percent of employees are not engaged—they’re just there. These figures indicate an American leadership philosophy that simply doesn’t work anymore. One also wonders if the country’s declining productivity numbers point to a need for major workplace disruption.”

The report offers many suggestions for how company executives and managers can lead that disruption in positive ways, and it’s worth reading all 214 pages. However, specifically for the purposes of the 1MFWF audience, it provides some excellent insights into the role work flexibility can play in those changes.

For example, Gallup found that, from 2012 to 2016, the number of employees working remotely increased from 39 percent to 43 percent. And that trend is expected to continue, the report says, as today’s workers expect flexibility. In order to attract and retain the best talent, organizations will need to offer those options.

The report notes that employees have little belief in their company’s leadership, and at the same time have positive feelings about the labor market. That means they’re willing to seek a new job if their current position doesn’t offer what they want, and they’re relatively confident they’ll be able to find something better.

Furthermore, when Gallup asked workers to indicate which attributes were most important to them when considering taking a job at a different organization, “greater work-life balance and better personal well-being” was second only to “the ability to do what they do best.”

“Work-life balance has various meanings that often include tactical and philosophical components for employees,” the report says. “Increasingly, people want to be able to adjust their hours and schedules as needed and work remotely when they can without compromising work quality or productivity.

“A Gallup study on benefits and perks finds that 51 percent of employees say they would switch to a job that allows them flextime, and 37 percent would switch to a job that allows them to work off-site at least part of the time. That is why it’s critical for employees to know how an organization ‘walks the talk’ on greater work-life balance and well-being.”

This is also important for company leaders to remember when they’re deciding which of the thousands of possible perks and benefits they should offer. As the Gallup report says, the perks employees really care about are the ones that give them greater flexibility and autonomy.

Many organizations are taking note of this fact, as an increasing number of companies offer work-from-home and flexible working arrangements. The report cites a 2016 Society for Human Resource Management benefits survey; it showed that 60 percent of companies offered some telecommuting options—a threefold increase from 1996.

“Working remotely is also increasing across most industries that Gallup has studied,” the report says. “The finance, insurance and real estate industries experienced the greatest surge in time spent working remotely, followed by the transportation, manufacturing or construction, and retail industries. The community and social services; science, engineering, and architecture; and education, training, and library industries are on the other end of this trend: While employees in these fields still spend time working remotely, a smaller percentage are doing so today compared with a few years ago.”

The Gallup data shows clear benefits to flexibility, with employee engagement rising when workers spend at least some time working remotely. The optimal engagement boost comes when workers are off-site for 60 percent to 80 percent of their time—in other words, three or four days out of the typical workweek.

“This pattern emphasizes that remote working has the greatest returns on engagement when employees maintain some degree of balance: working remotely most of the time but still getting face time with managers and coworkers,” the report says.

Interestingly, people who work remotely 100 percent of the time have about the same engagement rate as the overall employee population, at 30 percent. These workers’ engagement is hindered by a lack of relationships with coworkers and reduced development opportunities, the Gallup report says.

However, managers can improve that rate if they are more “intentional” about their work with remote employees. For example, the report says, they should be deliberate about how they communicate with telecommuters, establishing “an environment of trust and accountability while still giving remote employees a feeling of independence.”

“Managers must also be deliberate about cultivating a social environment in a digital world by helping remote employees feel connected to their team and organization,” the Gallup report says. “If possible, they should encourage remote employees to be in the office for team and companywide meetings, events and celebrations. When it’s not feasible for employees to be physically present, managers must make an effort to include them and help them get to know their coworkers.”

Good advice there, and it’s just a taste of the guidance offered throughout the report. Any executive or manager who is serious about building a culture that enhances employee engagement and retention will learn a thing or two by studying the ideas presented by Gallup.

What part of the Gallup report is most interesting to you? Are you surprised at the relatively low engagement percentage for U.S. workers? What impact do you think flex offerings could have on those numbers? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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