I recently stood in the operations center of a large information-technology deployment project as data flooded in from millions of remote devices. Visual analytics pulsed on monitors around the room, giving real-time measurements of the devices, their networks, and the servers collecting the data.

It was an impressive sight, but as I looked around, I had a disturbing realization: We had far more data about the inner states of the electronic devices than we did about the human beings sitting in the room. Were these people engaged? Were they happy, sad, frustrated? None of our fancy analytics had anything to say about this.

The dearth of “people metrics”

Most companies talk up their commitment to their employees, which they often call their “most valuable assets.” But in the world of business, we all know that what really matters is carefully measured. Based on the anemic to non-existent measurements of human well-being and engagement in most companies, can we conclude that these companies are as committed to their people as they are to their machines?

Here are some shocking metrics we all should know: In the US, 7 of 10 employees indicate that they are disengaged on the job. About 18 percent are so disengaged that they are actively sabotaging the efforts of their companies. This means that the human portion the average American company is performing at roughly 30 percent effectiveness. (Global engagement is only 13 percent.)

Meanwhile, if a critical computer server has a performance drop of even a few percentage points, our machine metrics immediately alert us and we work all night or through the weekend to resolve the issue.

Bringing people online is left to chance. When a manager blows up in a meeting and employees quietly swallow their fear and anger, we don’t measure any of the impact. When employees are required to work extra hours to meet a deadline, the effects on motivation and physical well-being don’t show up on real-time dashboards.

Managers might protest that they have “open-door policies” and they know how their people are doing. But Gallup has been tracking the disengagement metric for 15 years and, despite all the “most valuable asset” rhetoric from companies, this number has barely budged. Whatever we’re doing isn’t working.

How to kickstart a new wave of engagement

Fortunately, collecting “people metrics” can be less complicated and costly than you might think. Here are three ways to kick-start your people metrics tracking:

1. Survey more often

Too many companies still rely on annual employee surveys, which only provide one data point per year. Using free or low-cost survey services like SurveyMonkey, companies can ask for employee input quarterly, monthly, or weekly. Just make sure that you’re prepared to share and respond to survey results, or employees will wonder why they should bother responding.

2. Re-purpose surveys

One of the traps of surveys is that each one creates a list of action items for managers or owners — which can be exhausting. If you ask how your company can improve team spirit, employees will give lots of ideas and expect you to act on them. If, instead, you ask employees how their day is going on anonymous surveys (e.g., on a “lousy” to “excellent” scale), you can collect people metrics without the immediate expectation of action. TeamMood, for example, makes this process easy by sending a daily mood email that employees can respond to in a few seconds — and the current price is $1 per employee, per month.

3. Make results public

Employees are more likely to respond to daily mood surveys if they can see the results for their department or the entire company. TeamMood does this with dashboards, but even if you’re using a basic survey service, you can share results via email.

The benefits

By measuring, sharing, and responding to people metrics, companies can show employees that their wellbeing and engagement are important. Now here’s the really exciting difference between machine metrics and people metrics: When you ask people to provide feedback on their thoughts and feelings, they have to pause and reflect – and this develops their self-awareness. Self-awareness just happens to be the fundamental skill needed for emotional intelligence (EQ).

Emotional intelligence and employee productivity

Why should you care about EQ? Research shows a positive correlation between high EQ and higher levels of employee engagement and productivity. Scientists have used fMRI scans to show that simply noticing and labeling troubling emotions engages the parts of our brains needed to mitigate their impact. Research also shows that when emotions are embraced at work, creativity flourishes. Machines don’t have EQ and can’t develop it.

The next generation of EQ apps and pulse surveys can provide employees with regular EQ skill practice: Employees are asked to rate their levels of happiness, frustration, anxiety, etc., on a daily basis, which allows them to build their self-awareness muscles. These quick check-ins can be done in just a minute or two. Employees can graph their own inner states over time and notice, for example, if their anxiety level is trending upward or downward. After checking in, employees can then anonymously share their data with managers.

Here is another fundamental shift to keep in mind: With traditional surveys, the company owns the data. Newer EQ apps empower employees by allowing them to control their own data and then voluntarily and anonymously share it with the company.

The bottom line

CEOs and managers, the next time you see a slick analytics dashboard with colorful graphs and gauges, please ask this question: “Does this tell me anything about the human beings who are the lifeblood of my company?”

If not, it might be time to rethink your metrics strategy. If you are serious about nurturing employee engagement and wellbeing, you’ll need to start giving people metrics the same priority as machine metrics.

Brian Sherwin

Brian Sherwin, MBA, is an IT project manager who helps utilities build-out operations centers for multi-million endpoint smart meter projects. He is also a co-founder of Inside Feedback, an emotional intelligence technology company that works with businesses, schools and therapists. Find out more at insidefeedback.com.