PROVIDENCE – A group of Rhode Island business leaders recently held an impromptu meeting and the main topic of discussion was how a lack of employee engagement is affecting workforce attendance.

One business owner said the issue is at such a critical level that it could be costing the state’s manufacturers about 25% in productivity.

Karl Wadensten, CEO and president of Richmond-based manufacturer VIBCO Inc., said engagement is a serious issue at his company. Wadensten said the problem is not generational, it’s about a lack of engagement for his company that employs about 100 workers.

Wadensten said he has offered an incentive to each of his employees at the company’s annual Christmas party in the form of a $50 bonus if they complied with 100% attendance for the year, meaning that whoever is scheduled to work on any given day shows up to work, not including sick or vacation days.

For three straight years, Wadensten did not pay a single $50 bonus to any of his employees. Wadensten said he thought that a “team spirit” concept would play a role in leading to compliance but the tactic did not work.

“Most of us are suffering from lack of engagement, leading to inconsistent attendance in our workforce,” Wadensten said.

Wadensten said the state’s manufacturers can train their workers for skilled positions in short order, so that is not an issue. The problem is workers are not engaged enough to commit their time to a company and that impacts productivity, he said.

Wadensten said that during the pandemic his attendance was better because there were less distractions since people were cooped up with no place to go. Then when things started to open back up in March people wanted to travel and cash out their PTO time. “There was a pent up yearning to travel,” he said. “So we went back to pre-pandemic times.”

Coryndon Luxmoore, director of product design for pet health at the online retailer Chewy Inc., said he agrees that the issue is reaching a critical level. He said his wife, Jennifer, is facing staffing and supply challenges at her Providence-based coffee shop called Sin Desserts.

“She got a phone call today from Gordon Foods, where they are literally not going to be able to service her with delivering supplies because her account doesn’t charge enough each week,” said Luxmoore. “And they don’t have enough drivers to support anything but their largest accounts. They are literally cutting off customers because they don’t have enough drivers.”

Luxmoore said his wife is having difficulty staffing the front of the house at her coffee shop as well. “So, there is definitely a fundamental problem out there,” he said.

“I think this is an acceleration of a trend that has been happening across multiple industries for quite some time,” Luxmoore said. “There is a real hunger and need for a rebalancing of the relationship between the employer and the employee. And we’ve reached the point right now where [there is] a combination of wage stagnation and the breaking of the historical employee/employer relationship.”

Luxmoore said businesses have a huge opportunity to reshape workplace policies to create happier employees to drive engagement and positive results. It’s a challenge that company leaders must face and address with how they manage their businesses, he said.

Mike Ritz, executive director of Leadership Rhode Island, said engagement is a problem across the board for the entire country. His organization hosts educational workshops and programs for business leaders.

Ritz, who has served in his position for 12 years, said the issue around engagement boils down to the mindset of today’s workers, as well as how well a manager handles their needs.

Today’s workers are seeking more fulfillment in their careers, over an interest in making money, he said. And, due to the advent of remote working, managers need to shift from managing workers in-person to the virtual space. This creates issues for managers who are not equipped to do that, Ritz said.

Ritz said Gallup, the polling organization, published a book in 2019 on the subject called, “It’s the Manager: Moving from Boss to Coach.” The book highlights the fact that “people stay at their job because of their boss,” he said.

The book’s description notes that, “While the world’s workplace has been going through historic change, the practice of management has been stuck in time for decades. The new workforce – especially younger generations – wants their work to have a deep mission and purpose. They don’t want old-style command-and-control bosses.”

Ritz said a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that one in five employed workers in Rhode Island do things that can be harmful to their employer, ranking worst in the country, such as being liable to spread negativity to coworkers or not being invested in the company’s goals and objectives. He said the state is known for its disengaged workforce, “They were basically miserable in their jobs,” Ritz said. “That’s why we were ranked dead last.”

Three years later, Rhode Island moved up to No. 15 best in the rankings but despite the improvement, Ritz said engagement is still a major issue.

One of the problems, Ritz said, is that the younger generation would rather work less while spending less money. They would also rather work somewhere where they feel like they’re living up to a higher purpose rather than working to just make the boss richer, he said.

“It’s not going away any time soon,” he said.

Update: Adds paragraph eight with additional comments from Karl Wadensten.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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