What Is Employee Engagement?

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We’re not messing around when we say that employee engagement is probably the biggest thing you need to focus on as a People team.

It’s the difference between soaring productivity rates and a sense of stagnation. It’s having fifty people apply for a single vacancy, rather than fifty vacancies and one applicant. It can even tip the scales.

Yet for all its importance, companies frequently misunderstand what employee engagement is and what it looks like. So, let’s get a couple of things clear:

Employee engagement is not some lunchtime yoga sessions and a company foosball league.

Employee engagement is not giving your top seller of the quarter a free TV.

Employee engagement is not the open bar at the holiday party so that your workforce can drink their non-existent bonuses.

Because sure, free bars are nice once in a while and it’s good to encourage your workforce to get active.

But (and that’s a big ‘but’)...

An underpaid, understimulated, undermotivated workforce will still be underpaid, understimulated and undermotivated with the addition of free yoga sessions (they will just be a little more flexible). And there can only be one top seller per quarter—what about everyone else?

In short, employee engagement is far more holistic than that. It should be built into every interaction your organization has with its workforce—it’s not something fluffy you can add on at the last minute.

Here's what focus on employee engagement should look like: Matthew Stibbe, CEO of Turbine and Articulate Marketing explained, "employee engagement means more than the absence of friction, although apps like Turbine system can help to reduce the pain of paperwork for employees. Engagement also requires the presence of trust. Employees need to see that their employer is aligned with their values and is committed to their growth as individuals. That’s why we hired a chief happiness officer, joined the B Corp movement and became carbon neutral."

At the end of the day, your employees’ happiness and desire to do well for the company is a direct consequence of how you plan your employee journey, your internal communications strategy and so many more company processes that make or break employee engagement at your company.

This guide is designed to help you identify what good employee engagement looks like, and how to build it into your organization. We’ll cover:

  • What "true" employee engagement is, and some examples of companies that do it well
  • Why you need to measure it, and how to do that
  • How to improve it once the results are in

So, What Is Employee Engagement, Really?

To describe it as concisely as possible, employee engagement is the ongoing process of ensuring your workforce feels satisfied with their job, aligned with your organization’s values and supported enough to give 100% during work hours.

Obviously, making sure your employees are happy working for you, rather than ruing the day they ever accepted the job and furtively browsing during their breaks, is a worthy goal in itself. HR is all about people, so it makes sense that, if that is your role, you want the best for your colleagues.

Still, there’s more to it than that.

Employee engagement is important because it affects the performance of your company. Think back to that one job you hated—did you give as much to that role as you did to the ones you loved?

Now extrapolate this out across an entire company of unhappy, unmotivated workers. In toxic environments, productivity nosedives; depending on the type of organization you work for, this could mean a decrease in sales calls, poor customer service, missed deadlines or any other number of issues.

What Does Good Employee Engagement Look Like?

Keen to make sure your employees feel switched on and able to work their best? Here are six key foundations for an engaged workforce:

1. Pay them enough and give them a reasonable benefits package

You don’t have to be at the top of the table when it comes to pay, but you certainly shouldn’t be at the bottom either—ditto with benefits packages.

People go to work primarily to make money. If you pay peanuts, your workforce will only stick around for as long as they can find another job. They will feel unrecognized and unrewarded, and productivity will decrease as a result.

As an aside, offering competitive rates of pay is also a great way of ensuring you get the pick of potential applicants when hiring. We’re strong believers in the idea that any hire can be a good hire, given the right support, but being able to pick from people with great track records and glowing references is always a bonus!

2. Give them a thorough and welcoming induction when they join the company

First impressions count.

With this in mind, it’s important to give new employees a welcome that screams “we’re excited to have you here”, rather than giving them a fire safety talk and leaving them to it.

You could:

  • Assign them a ‘buddy’ in their team for the first week so they’re not left alone.
  • Arrange a lunch on the house—even if it’s just from the cafeteria, the gesture will be appreciated.
  • Present them with a small prize when they’ve finished their training.
  • Arrange a group induction with a senior executive once a month, so new starters can get to know people from other departments and ask questions to a C-suite representative.

3. Make sure they have regular contact with their line manager

Regular catch-ups with line managers are a great way to make sure employees feel engaged and supported in the work they do. They’re also a useful tool to stop small issues with workload, or integration within the team, snowballing into larger ones.

One-on-one sessions are also a perfect time to provide feedback on performance and, if anything needs to improve, collaborate on a plan to do this. Line managers can also use these sessions to personally thank their direct reports for a job well done—which is so much more meaningful and personal than sending an email.

4. Make sure senior management are visible

Avoid an "us vs them" mentality developing in your rank and file employees by making your senior executives as accessible as possible.

This could take the form of monthly Q&A drop-ins, where anyone can turn up and ask about the strategic direction of your organization and offer any suggestions or concerns they have about this. Another good idea is to organize regular "careers breakfasts," where senior members of staff share how they’ve made it to where they are and use their experience to offer tips to others.

5. Recognize their achievements

When someone performs well, shout about it and let your workforce know that good work is noticed and appreciated.

Regular company award ceremonies are a great way to do this, though don’t limit yourself to specific occasions to call it out. Encourage your line managers to regularly shout about their team’s good work on the employee app and highlight high-performing individuals to department heads or senior management.

Some organizations also offer an employee-to-employee recognition service, which employees can send small tokens of appreciation (like Amazon gift cards, chocolate or bottles of wine) for a job well done.

6. Ask them for feedback regularly

There are two key reasons for this:

  • It shows your employees you care about their workplace experience and will work to make it even better. Asking for feedback is the number one thing you can do to show them their opinion matters to the company.
  • No-one knows your workplace quite as well as your employees. They’re the natural go-to group for suggestions that will make your company more conducive to a productive workforce and an attractive proposition for potential hires.

Got that down? Excellent! Now, if you want, you can add the fun stuff we mentioned earlier in. Sprinkle in yoga, lunchtime running clubs, charity bake sales, holiday parties and volunteering days as liberally as your budget allows—just don’t use them as the foundation for your entire employee engagement program. You’ll only be disappointed if you do.

Employee doing yoga as an employee engagement activity

The Results of Poor Employee Engagement

We really can’t stress this enough; you shouldn’t view employee engagement as a nice, optional thing to do if you have enough left in the budget.

Employee engagement doesn’t need to be expensive. On the other hand, issues created by poor employee engagement practices can cost your company thousands—and the rest.

These include:

  • Reduced productivity: people don’t work well when they’re unhappy. If teams are consistently falling short of productivity targets you know to be reasonable, there’s a good chance they’re unhappy at work.
  • Absenteeism: unhappy employees stay at home and use more sick days and mental health days.
  • High employee turnover: if someone hates their job, it makes them more likely to leave. Replacing employees is super expensive (think six to nine month’s salary, plus up to 213% of total annual salary depending on the seniority of the position), and as well as being a cost drain, the extra workload will put pressure on already unhappy employees whilst you find a replacement.
  • A poor reputation: a stream of employees leaving your organization and then telling their buddies about how awful it is to work there won’t do your reputation any good. Not only will you end up with a large list of vacancies, but you’ll also struggle to find people to fill them. With more job seekers than ever using online review sites like Glassdoor to screen companies before they apply, a poor reputation for employee wellness has never been so damaging.

This has the potential to spiral downward very quickly.

Employees are unhappy at work, so they ring in. This places more pressure on those who show up, as they’re now covering for an extra person. People leave, vacancies aren’t filled, and those left are under even more pressure. Eventually, more people reach a breaking point and the cycle begins again.

Breaking it, or making sure that your company doesn’t start to slip down it, is an essential task which requires time and dedication to tracking - and improving key metrics.

How To Measure Employee Engagement

First things first, measuring and monitoring employee engagement should be a continuous process.

It’s not just something you need to focus on when employee morale is in the doldrums and stop as soon as it reaches manageable levels... it should be a central part of the HR or People team’s day-to-day activities.

So. Before implementing any of the below, ask yourself:

  • How much time should we dedicate to this a week?
  • Who should be in charge of this area?
  • Who can manage the on-the-ground responsibilities associated with this?
  • Are there any tools (e.g a new employee app or updated intranet) that could help us manage this workload?

In terms of exactly what to measure and how to measure it, there are two key areas you need to focus on:

  1. The data that already exists in your company
  2. Data that you actively go out and collect

Existing Data

This is data that your HR team won’t have to set up any new processes for; it (should) already be monitored by various departments. The key here is collating it, as there’s a good chance that inter-departmental silos mean that you won’t necessarily be able to access it right away, let alone see the big picture.

We’re talking about:

  • Absence rates
  • Employee turnover
  • Number of complaints to line managers
  • Number of complaints to HR
  • NPS scores
  • Customer reviews
  • Customer retention
  • Sales
  • Turnover
  • Social media engagement

There could be a myriad of reasons why customer satisfaction has dipped, so take a look at it alongside some of the other metrics listed, over an extended period of time.

For example, do NPS scores dip when employee turnover is highest? Do customers write poorer reviews when absence rates are particularly high? Start to compare ‘result’ metrics (like sales, turnover, customer satisfaction and customer retention) with employee wellness ones to see whether you notice any patterns.

From there, measure, measure, measure! Set up dashboards with all your chosen metrics so that you can track and compare them at a glance. You can then measure employee engagement via its direct consequences—absence rates going down and productivity going up is a sure sign that your efforts are working.

All of the above help to paint a picture of where you are with employee engagement, but they aren’t the only weapon in your arsenal. So, once you’ve got those dashboards up and running, move onto...

Data Collected By Your HR Team

What’s the best, most efficient way of understanding your employee engagement levels?

Just ask them.

Regular, anonymous employee engagement surveys are the most efficient way of doing this. You might see these referred to as "pulse" surveys, and they are so much better than the traditional annual long-answer survey for the following reasons:

Response rates tend to be higher. It’s much easier to encourage employees to complete three quick "rate on a scale" questions with an optional "any further comments" box than three pages of long-answer questions that they don’t have time to do.

You can keep them focused on one single issue each time. This gives your HR team a much better chance of addressing feedback successfully and sharing what they’ve done to address their colleagues’ concerns.

They encourage constructive feedback. The issue with running an annual survey is that employees see it as their single opportunity to get everything off their chests. It’s difficult to respond to 12 months of grievances from an entire company in any meaningful way, particularly if the topics covered range from disagreement with the company’s strategic direction or low staff retention to dissatisfaction with the options offered in the cafeteria.

How To Run A Successful Pulse Survey

1. Identify a topic you want to base your survey around

As an HR team, you’ll probably have a good idea of any pressing concerns. Common examples include:

  • Relationships with line managers
  • Visibility of senior management
  • Workplace facilities
  • Pay and benefits
  • Advancement opportunities

...though this is by no means an exhaustive list!

2. Come up with some quick answer questions

Keep it quick, and never go with more than five questions per survey.

These should be ‘answer on a scale’ or (to really simplify it) "yes or no." Examples include:

  • On a scale of one (lowest) to five (highest), how adequate is are the car parking facilities at your site?
  • I have catch-ups with my line manager at least once every fortnight (Y/N)

3. Distribute it out in a format that people will see

Don’t use email if most of your workforce doesn’t spend a lot of time at a computer, for example. An employee app might be quicker, easier and reach more people.

Whatever channel you choose, make sure you emphasize that it will be anonymous—otherwise employees might be worried about potential consequences for negative answers.

4. Send reminders

They don’t have to be naggy—just a quick reminder of when the deadline is, and how much of a difference their feedback can make.

If you’ve run previous surveys, you might also want to emphasize what you learned in those, and what improvements you made as a result so that your employees are reminded that real change comes about as a result of their participation.

5. Analyze the results

Look at what employees liked, and what they think needs improving, and draw up a list of priorities based on this.

How To Improve Employee Engagement

The best (and arguably only) way to improve employee engagement is to listen to the feedback your workforce gives you and act accordingly. Sure, you can be proactive and identify what to improve off your own back, but this isn’t nearly as effective.

Improving employee engagement is 50% action, 50% communication.

Obviously, you need to act on your findings from pulse surveys and existing data analysis in the previous section. That’s a given.

Where many companies fall down, however, is that they don’t communicate the results of their surveys, or the improvements they plan to introduce as a result, to the wider workforce. It’s essential to signpost what changes you make, particularly as major changes don’t happen overnight, so that you maintain employee trust. If employees can’t at least see signs of improvement as a result of their feedback, they’ll stop engaging with your efforts.

Reacting To Pulse Surveys And Other Data

Whether you’ve noticed that your absence rates are soaring way above your industry average or carried out a highly targeted pulse survey, the principles here are the same.

Firstly, sit down with all relevant stakeholders and agree on a workable course of action. Involving stakeholders here keeps things grounded—it’s tempting to offer your workforce the moon on a stick when they’re unhappy, but this isn’t realistic. Avoid promising things you can’t deliver on—broken promises won’t be taken well by your employees, no matter how ambitious they were.

Interpreting data from an employee engagement survey

If, for example, your employees have stated they want more lunch options, it’s wise to check with the catering team whether they have the resources to help with this, rather than promising everyone a world buffet straight off the bat.

Secondly, it’s super important to track these improvements against realistic KPIs. Change in organizations is gradual, so make sure your targets reflect this and avoid the temptation to try and go from 0 to 100 in three months.

If none of your employees are having regular one-to-one contact with their line managers, an example target structure could look like this:

  • 3 months in: 20% of all employees having regular catch-ups
  • 6 months in: 40% of employees
  • 9 months in: 60% of employees
  • 12 months in: 80% of employees

You could also consider how you roll this out. It’s much easier to coordinate regular catch-ups for office-based positions, so you could focus on getting a full 100% in the first three months for office-based teams as a quick win. Whilst you do this, you can sort out the infrastructure for non-office and remote teams to be able to do this further down the line.

Finally, think about any tools that might help you meet these targets and/or address employees’ concerns.

There’s now plenty of workplace tech to help with a range of issues, like employee apps to help communication, productivity software to help meet targets, and advanced CRM features that make meeting customer needs much easier for frontline employees.

Check with your finance team what sort of support they could offer here. They’ll be looking for a solid return on investment before shelling out the dollars though, so make sure that if you’re making a direct request for new software, you build a solid business case about why you need it.

Communicating Your Plan Of Action

The golden rule: never assume that your workforce will notice your efforts to improve things without you signposting it.

Your workforce is busy, and meaningful change takes time—so even working at your hardest you’re not going to make everything perfect right away. To really show your employees that you’ve taken their feedback on board, you’ll need to be explicit.

Work announcements about your planned improvements into your internal communications strategy. If you’ve conducted a pulse survey, share the results. This is a gesture of transparency that people will really appreciate—and emphasizes that you’re taking employee feedback seriously.

When announcing any improvement plans, consider:

  • The channel that would work best: would more people see it via email, on a noticeboard or via an employee app?
  • The frequency of your communication: how frequently should you update your employees on the progress you’re making towards these goals.

You could also consider providing updates in person at company meetings, as this adds a welcome personal touch.

Small Things Alongside Big Things

Whilst big, organizational changes take time, there are smaller things you can do for your workforce in the meantime.

Reworking the employee journey so there are more obvious routes for internal promotion takes time. Upgrading the coffee machine, setting up a couple of lunchtime clubs or getting a pool table for the break room does not.

Implementing a couple of easy-to-manage changes (either that your workforce has specifically asked for, or just off your own back) emphasizes your commitment to improvement whilst you’re working towards the more structural stuff. It’s not a substitute, but it is a good reminder to your workforce about what you’re trying to do.

Some Companies That Do Employee Engagement Well

Looking for inspiration? Here are a few examples of companies that have dedicated themselves to the highest standards of employee engagement.

  • John Lewis: the UK retailer considers all its staff "partners" rather than "employees" and gives them a stake in the business. Customer service levels are consistently high, and the company is frequently ranked as one of the country’s best retailers to work for.
  • Virgin: Richard Branson has always been vocal about putting employees first; as such a "listening culture" runs through Virgin’s corporate philosophy. Perks like unlimited holidays emphasize to employees that the company trusts them, and values them enough to treat them well.
  • Hilton: the international hotel chain breaks down barriers between senior management and rank and file operations staff by sending them on a three-day program working across their hotels. The result? A senior management team who understand the realities on the ground and the challenges employees face.
  • Salesforce: Salesforce combines a strong sense of corporate responsibility with a benefits package few can rival to attract and retain top talent. Employees can expect 56 hours of paid volunteering time, strong stances on equal pay and workforce development, and a $100 per employee per month "wellness fund," which can be spent on anything they want.

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