Employee Engagement

What is employee engagement?

Fred Gulliford

Employee engagement is a pivotal part of organisational success. We all use employee engagement surveys to understand how ‘engaged’ our workforce is, but what does that really mean?

Once you know our employee engagement definition, read our free guide

It’s 2009. The world is still reeling at the height of the global recession. Lehman Brothers has collapsed. UK banks are being bailed out. Across the Atlantic, thousands of people are losing their homes in the sub-prime loans fiasco.

As the credit crunch wreaks havoc throughout Western markets, the UK government does something perhaps slightly unusual. It commissions a report on how engaged employees make for more productive employees.

Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement was published towards the end of 2009.

It confirmed what a couple of generations of human resources specialists and business thinkers had been asserting for some time: that engaged employees are more productive, creative and happy. It said:

Business and organisations function best when they make their employees’ commitment, potential, creativity and capability central to their operation.

Employee engagement isn’t fluff – it’s the most important thing an organisation can be investing in, especially when times are tough.

Learn how to increase employee engagement survey participation

Questions to ask about employee engagement

We’ll answer all you need to know on the topic. Discover our employee engagement definition, how to understand the level of employee engagement in your organisation – and what the benefits of improving employee engagement could be.

1. What is employee engagement?

  • Employee engagement: Attitude, behaviour or outcome?
  • Employee engagement definition: A dynamic – a positive feedback loop.
  • Is it just about happy employees and happy workplaces?
  • Is employee engagement still relevant?

2. Why do we still have an engagement deficit?

  • Employee engagement has always been seen as difficult to measure.
  • Traditional employee engagement surveys don’t speak the language of senior leaders.
  • Traditional employee engagement surveys often don’t ask the right questions at the right time.
  • The workplace has changed – and approaches to engagement need to change with it.

3. Employee engagement fit for the modern workplace

  • Where should leaders start with employee engagement?
  • What should leaders expect from employee engagement?

1.0 Our employee engagement definition

There are many definitions of employee engagement. There are various definitions of employee engagement by different authors, as you can read here – but the authors of Engaging for Success defined it as:

A workplace approach, designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values – motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of wellbeing.

1.1 Employee engagement: Attitude, behaviour or outcome?

Some professionals are nervous about the all-encompassing nature of these definitions. For example, David Guest, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Human Resource Management at King’s College London, has said: “…much of the discussion of engagement tends to get muddled as to whether it is an attitude, a behaviour or an outcome, or indeed all three.”

Our co-founder Peter Clark, says: “There’s an increasing amount of academic research that points to employee engagement being poorly defined.

“It’s been used with a lot of licence around personal definitions and experiences. But if you go right back to the beginning of employee engagement, it’s about the emotional connection and commitment of employees and their relationship with their employer.”

1.2 Employee engagement definition: A dynamic – a positive feedback loop

Over the course of the past decade, one thing has become increasingly clear about employee engagement. It isn’t simply an attitude, a behaviour or an outcome. Instead, it’s a dynamic involving all three of these things – and often, more besides.

Where employers trust their teams, listen to their experiences and what they need, make efforts to provide a workplace that prioritises their well-being and use their insights to make improvements, teams repay that trust. Successive studies show that in these circumstances, individuals commit more to the organisations they work for. They care more and they give more.

Clark says: “If people give voice to things that leaders can actually action and make a difference on, they can create change. People feel like they’re part of a process of improvement. They become more engaged, they trust more. Then the company grows in value, grows in trust – grows in what people always thought engagement would deliver. Which is better, healthier companies, full of productive, innovative people who are connected not just to their work but also to the agenda of the whole organisation at the very top level.”

1.3 Is it just about happy employees and happy workplaces?

Author of How To Be Happy At Work, Annie McKee, wrote in Harvard Business Review that emotional connection to work is important – and that it’s certainly important that employees feel happy. But she also notes that employees who are “too happy” are uncreative and prone to riskier behaviours – she cites an over-excited, boozy sales conference as an example.

To have good employee engagement, says McKee, you need three elements:

  1. A meaningful vision of the future
  2. A sense of purpose
  3. Great relationships

A sense of the company’s future that’s linked to an employee’s own future.

People have to feel that their work matters; that it achieves something.

Close, trusting and supportive relationships in your work culture are key to engagement.

McKee says: “It’s on individuals to find ways to live our values at work and build great relationships. And it’s on leaders to create an environment where people can thrive.”

1.4 Is employee engagement still relevant?

Gallup research shows that companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147%. The opposite is also true. Businesses with disengaged teams struggle with performance.

In separate research, Gallup also found that engaged employees in the UK take an average of 2.69 sick days per year, while disengaged individuals take 6.19 days sick annually.

This – along with much other research that links employee engagement to productivity, lower attrition, lower absenteeism, greater levels of innovation and better customer service – shows that engagement is as relevant in today’s workplace as it was 30+ years ago when business thinkers first started to talk about it.

2.0 Why do we still have an engagement deficit?

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence and information that shows a positive correlation between healthy businesses and engaged employees.

And yet, according to Gallup, 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged – and  only 30% of the US workforce is engaged. So why the disconnect? Why aren’t organisations across the globe rushing to invest in employee engagement, when the link between it and boosted business performance is so clear?

Employee engagement, it appears, has traditionally been a bit of a slippery fish. It has always been difficult to define. It has always been seen as difficult to measure. And while its effects have been clear to see in the rear-view mirror, they have traditionally proved very difficult to plan for and orchestrate.

But all that is about to change, thanks to the possibilities opened up by the most advanced data analytics…

2.1 Measuring employee engagement has not always been easy

Since employee engagement first captured the imaginations of HR teams and senior leaders back in the 90s, the tried and trusted way of measuring it has been through employee engagement surveys.

Many of these surveys capture useful information. But many still are of limited use.

Clark says: “When traditional surveys are presented to the board, they give a result – which will say how satisfied or committed a team is. A senior leader just thinks, yes, well I already know this. But what can I do with it?

“So sometimes they dismiss negative results, seeing them as grumbling. And sometimes they accept the positive results as validation – well, that’s a great team, they’re really good to work with.

What traditional engagement surveys are not doing is actually giving the leaders a framework to understand why people are grumbling – and how they can use this information to improve their business.

Qlearsite’s engagement framework on the other hand, gives senior leaders the why and the how of employee engagement, as well as the what. It goes way beyond giving satisfaction results, and links what teams are saying directly to behaviours. So absenteeism, for example, can be directly linked to insights from the workforce themselves.

In one example, it was used to investigate higher-than-expected levels of absenteeism for a UK company. Because the software incorporates natural language processing , people can answer open-ended questions in their own words.

What we found, quickly and easily, was that teams of sales people were working outdoors in uniforms that hadn’t been designed to cope with uncharacteristically harsh winter conditions. By investing in new uniform, the company was then able to turn the absenteeism figures around – and keep its teams safe and warm.

A traditional survey may have found that teams weren’t happy. In engagement 3.0, employee surveys link employee experience and insights to actions that can make organisations more productive and profitable – and boost employee engagement at the same time.

Learn how to increase employee engagement survey participation

2.2 Traditional employee engagement surveys don’t speak the language of senior leaders

“Lots of these surveys are revealing important elements of the employee voice, but they’re really struggling to connect that back into business leaders’ language – so business leaders don’t know how to convert that into meaningful change,” says Clark.

Instead of telling senior decision-makers that teams are “happy” or “unhappy”, surveys must do much more.

They should connect what people working in an organisation are saying to real and actionable opportunities. This could be anything from stemming attrition, through to identifying areas that can boost productivity and prompt growth.

When senior leaders can see – easily and clearly – a link between employee satisfaction and opportunities to improve the business, then they can do something with employee engagement surveys. And this, of course, means that the employee engagement survey becomes a much more useful and interesting tool for them to include in their planning cycles.

2.2 Traditional employee engagement surveys don’t speak the language of senior leaders

Senior decision-makers tend to implement new initiatives once every six months. Sometimes they do quarterly surveys and sometimes annual surveys. So if the survey results they get from don’t coincide with the planning phase of these activities, there’s little they can do with the information.

“This is what makes asking at the right time important,” says Clark, adding, “It’s also critical to ask the right questions – questions that give senior leaders the insight they need to make effective change.”

There must be a focus on asking fewer, better questions that are intrinsically aligned to positive business outcomes. This is the biggest pitfall when using pulse surveys.

“Which means,” says Clark, “That you’re gathering information that helps to inform the best decision-making. And importantly, you’re also connecting the voice of an organisation’s people to leadership thinking.

“But if you don’t ask the right questions at the right time, and connect it to the leader’s vision cycle, those questions will never have the impact that they could otherwise have.”

2.4 The workplace has changed – and approaches to engagement need to change with it

Traditional thinking about employee engagement is now some 30+ years old. In that time, the workplace has changed – in some cases quite profoundly.

More people are working remotely – a trend that looks likely to continue and intensify as time goes on. More people are working flexibly. Attitudes to things like dress codes are relaxing and changing.

“It is probably time to apply some new thinking to the way we look at the term ‘employee engagement’,” says Clark. “There is now thinking that the term should include concepts like wellness, inclusion and work-life balance.

“And all of this becomes possible if you link these concepts to actionable data and provable business outcomes.”

3.0 Employee engagement fit for the modern workplace

Up until now, belief in the powers of employee engagement has remained somewhat of an act of faith. For true believers, there is evidence of its ability to transform everywhere.

There are retrospective studies that show irrefutable links between high levels of performance and engaged employees. But there’s been very little to show senior decision-makers how to make use of employee feedback.

But now – just when it’s needed most – there’s a better way to connect the voice of the employee with senior decision-making. With our engagement framework leaders have the ability to loop in all of their teams and ask them meaningful questions that integrate with existing data and feed directly into the decision-making process.

It is important to have focus when creating your surveys. When thinking about what to include, we like to make the distinction between questions that measure employee engagement and those that understand the drivers of company performance – what we like to call Organisational Fitness.

  • Engagement measures – questions that help you understand how emotionally invested an employee is with their work, and the environment they work in.
  • Organisational Fitness – questions that help to prioritise change and get feedback on what the business can do to improve.
Employee engagement survey framework

Understanding your priorities no longer requires a leap of faith. Instead, employee engagement provides actionable insights, costed outcomes and data-driven evidence to back up strategies and plans.

3.1 Where should leaders start with employee engagement?

There’s an easy way to start listening to employees in a more meaningful and business objective-aligned way. You start with an assessment of your entire business, which will give you deep insights and ideas for where to target resources and take immediate action.

It is important to then delve even deeper, targeting specific areas such as diversity & inclusion and drilling down deep into root causes – or indeed, testing out whether long-held management beliefs still hold true.

Finally, with advanced people analytics , you can identify patterns that are likely to project into the future – which gives you the ability to test the likely impact of strategies and activities while they’re still in planning stages.

It’s crucially important you then build this all into a regular listening strategy, so that the voice of your employees is always linked to, and instrumental in, your business planning.

Then, of course, you can share the results with your management teams – or through your whole organisation.

3.2 What should leaders expect from employee engagement?

In the new world of employee engagement, leaders can reasonably expect to boost productivity and achieve growth by actively listening to their teams.

They can also expect for employee engagement itself to increase – purely by listening to, and acting on insights from their teams. It’s an opportunity for senior leaders to kick-start the positive feedback loop.

“If leaders share results not just at the top level but throughout the organisation,” says Clark, “they spark a conversation at every level.

“The leadership team should set the tone right at the top of the organisation about what change they want to help sponsor and what they’re going to try to change and then make a request that their people support this.”

The results? Teams who know you listen – and that their views matter. And of course, an easy way to identify opportunities for growth.

Clark says: “In a modern world, intangible assets drive more value than tangible assets. We’re not building factories any more. What we’re building is people. We’re building things that exist in the ether.

“This makes it more important than ever to build rich insight from those people that can actually make a difference. Because if you are going to exist in a knowledge economy and do it well, you have to have the people who are creating the knowledge at the centre of your business strategy.”

To learn more about ways to effectively understand employee engagement, read our free guide by clicking on the link below:

Employee engagement survey guide

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