When did employee engagement start: its history and future

Lydia Watson

Lydia Watson

Employee engagement is said to have started in 1990, the concept introduced by Kahn in his “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” article. Born out of academic management theory, the idea still underpins most major tech companies that offer employee survey platforms. 

Download our research into Organisational Fitness across 2000 UK companies

What is employee engagement?

You might have sent, or received, a fair few employee engagement surveys in your time - but do you actually know what it is? Some say it’s that intangible thing that makes your staff reply to an email they receive at 4.55pm before they clock off, or agree to an out-of-hours call without grumbling. But, as you might have guessed, there’s more to it than that. 

There’s about 101 different definitions (its origins are in academia, remember...), but it comes down to your employees feeling a “positive connection” to their work, and invested and enlivened by what they do. No small ask, right?

Why is employee engagement important?

No-one enjoys leading a disengaged team, or being part of one. Spending 40-odd hours a week in a negative, low energy atmosphere isn’t good for anyone - but crucially, it’s also bad for business. Employee engagement is important because it’s closely linked to successful organisations - with 20% more sales, better customer scores, 65% less turnover, and 41% less absenteeism on average. Keeping your employees engaged is a strategic move.

What causes low employee engagement?

Low employee engagement is caused by not enabling your employees to connect to their work. They need to find it meaningful, and have both the chance to succeed and for personal development. It’s more than them being generally ‘happy’ - which is why sticking plaster solutions like beer pong, beanbags, and early finishes don’t get the job done. 

Benefits of employee engagement

So we know what employee engagement is, why it’s important, and what causes low employee engagement - but is it enough? We don’t think so… but before we address that, let’s look back on the origins and development of the theory itself.

When did employee engagement start?

The first mention of ‘engagement’ in this sense came from Kahn’s 1990 article in the Academy of Management Journal, as we mentioned earlier. But what did his study actually cover? 

What is Kahn’s engagement theory?

Khan’s article focused on engagement and disengagement in the workplace - on one hand, the “harnessing” of employees’ self-identity to their work roles, and on the other, the “uncoupling” of this relationship. 

His idea was that your staff members have parts of their identity that they like to express through their work performance and tasks - where disengagement is the removal of that sense of self in their working lives, meaning their performance lacks creativity and energy and becomes “robotic"

Who coined the term employee engagement?

Although the concept of engagement came from Kahn’s work, he didn’t actually coin the term ”employee engagement”. And that may well be why the exact definition is still unclear - it’s still evolving, as it did from previous schools of thought in the first place.

First off,there was “employee satisfaction” - which didn’t focus on a strategic link to company performance - closely followed by ‘employee commitment’. The key was linking people’s relationship to work with business goals - and that’s why, in the same decade Kahn was published, an Institute of Employment Studies paper identified how customer retention and profits are connected to employee satisfaction, commitment, or - dare we say it - engagement. So what came next?

Employee Engagement Survey Guide

How has employee engagement evolved?

  • Employee engagement crossed over into business spheres, with analytics companies like Gallup creating dedicated 12-14 question surveys
  • Census surveys soon followed, from the likes of Aon Hewitt, sending extensive question sets (50-100!) every year 
  • A tech revolution followed from the early 2000s, with companies like Survey Monkey offering free tools 
  • The 2011 ‘Engage for Success’ movement, founded by David Cameron, promoting the link between engagement and profit
  • Now the market is full of employee survey platforms, most still focusing on employee engagement 

Employee engagement survey

Employee engagement trends: 2020 and beyond

There are now as many methodologies for engagement surveys as there are definitions of the concept itself. Long census surveys, short pulse surveys, quarterly check-ins - it’s hard to know which is the most effective. 

But honestly? We think the future of employee engagement involves going one step further. Qlearsite has introduced the concept of Organisational Fitness - a holistic approach to assessing your employees’ experiences, from their view on Leadership and Role Fit to how well you’re doing on Inclusion and Purpose. All because we know that your people are your advantage.

Employee engagement was a good start. But we can do better.


Download our Organisational Fitness Report

Topics: Organisational Fitness, Employee Engagement, Insights

We're proud to deliver value to these great companies

We’ll help you choose the right survey

I need to know how we’ve adapted to crisis


Responsiveness Survey

Get the fastest snapshot of how your business is currently doing. There are 4 key areas to understand, using honest employee feedback.

I need a way to stay close to our people


Open Door

Keep an open door to your people. Use continuous listening to let your teams update you with problems as they happen. All backed up by data.

I need to hear feelings about the workplace


Return to Work

Know how your employees feel about remote working, and the future of the workplace, so you can take the right actions as the situation changes.