Everything you need to know about employee engagement

Employee engagement is not just a buzzword, it’s a crucial factor in achieving business success. The concept of employee engagement is a BIG topic, Google it and it brings back around half a billion results! This post is intended to answers the question ‘what is employee engagement?’. We provide an overview of everything you need to know about employee engagement, what it means and why it matters.

Why employee engagement is more than job satisfaction

Back in the 90s, us HR folks used to talk about employee satisfaction, the logic being that if employees are satisfied then they will be more motivated and work harder. However, satisfaction is not the full story….

We ran an employee survey for a Council several years ago and the results showed that everyone was really satisfied with their job and with the Council. There were two problems.

The first was that performance across the Council was low. Individually, people just did what they needed to and no more, and Council services were not rated well by residents. The second problem was that very few people left – the pay was good, the pension was good, and it was conveniently located for where most staff lived.

This meant that the majority of people came to work each day, did what was said in their job description, didn’t upset the apple cart and leave. Nobody was challenging how to do things better, bringing new ideas or shaking things up.

This phenomenon is known as ‘presenteeism’ or ‘quiet quitting’ where people turn up to work each day, but don’t actually contribute a huge amount to the organisation.

The idea of engagement began to emerge when people began to realise that employees simply being satisfied with their work does not actually always result in higher levels of performance and productivity, there must be something else. Satisfaction is still important, but it is a baseline, a starting point.

Why is employee engagement important?

Employee engagement is important because it directly affects a company’s productivity, profitability, and overall success. Engaged employees are more committed to their work and the goals of the organisation, leading to higher levels of productivity and job satisfaction.

They are also more likely to stay with their employer for a longer amount of time, reducing turnover rates and associated costs. In addition, engaged employees are more likely to provide excellent customer service, leading to increased customer loyalty and revenue for the company.

Overall, investing in employee engagement can help create a positive work environment that fosters growth and success for both individuals and the organisation as a whole.

Our definition of employee engagement

There are many definitions of employee engagement. As we have already outlined employee engagement is more than just job satisfaction or motivation, it is a state where employees feel valued, appreciated, and connected to their company’s goals and objectives.

We try not to overthink it and describe engaged employees as those who would say:

I feel committed to my work and committed to the organisation

Engagement is a function of how connected people are to their work and to the organisation they work for. People can have a high level of commitment to their work, but a low level of commitment to the organisation, and vice versa.

The sweetspot is where people have a high level of commitment to their work AND to the organisation. These people are likely to contribute lots and perform well, but they will also behave in a way that is consistent wit the organisation’s values and culture. They are likely to stick around and progress their career with the organisation.

These are the people you need to retain.

what is employee engagement

At the other extreme are people who don’t really care about their job and don’t really care about the organisation. These are the people most likely to leave to go to a completely different job, in a completely different organisation just for a slightly higher pay rate.

The tricky ones are the people who are either committed to their work OR to the organisation, but not both at the same time. Those who are committed to the organisation, but not their work will tend to coast along, not really performing, but not upsetting the apple cart. People who are committed to their work, but not the organisation are the ones who are likely to be seen as high performers, but are at the most risk of leaving.

With the retention crisis what we are seeing is people moving into the red box – low commitment to the job and low commitment to the organisation. They get to the point where they simply don’t care and leave.

The group most at risk of this is those who have a high level of commitment to their work, but not to the organisation. These are often high performers who will go to a different organisation if they do not feel as though they are being treated well.

Where you have people leaving from the green box, you will have a serious retention issue. These people are hard to find and will only join you where they feel certain you can offer them what they want.

What factors impact employee engagement?

We carried out our own research a few years ago to explore what factors tended to impact engagement across a range of organisations and we identified the same types of factors that most other research has found.

There is no single recognised model of engagement. You can tell this by the amount of literature on the subject and the number of companies who proudly present ‘their’ model of engagement. What’s more if there was a single model then all organisations would adopt the same model.

In our experience it is the extent to which these factors have an influence that varies from one organisation to another.

In our view it would be dangerous to try to model what other people do to create engagement in their organisations. Although most organisations face similar challenges, the industry they operate in presents unique challenges and the context they operate in will vary from organisation to organisation.

For example, at the moment, recruiting and retaining high quality employees is a challenge for several sectors – childcare, hospitality and healthcare (both care sector and NHS). Other sectors are facing skills shortages.

In addition, the challenges organisations face change over time. Who would’ve thought that most businesses would have been stressing over their energy bills a year or so ago.

Also, there is a bigger focus on things such as wellbeing and equity, diversity and inclusion at the moment.

For these reasons, engagement needs to be viewed, and measured, differently depending on each organisation’s specific context, challenges and needs. This is why all of our employee surveys are tailored to the organisation – there is no one size fits all.

Having said that, the two main things that impact employee engagement are the organisation culture and the employee experience. The organisation culture impacts how committed people are to the organisation, the employee experience impacts how committed people are to their work.

There are then several common factors that impact how people feel about the organisation’s culture and the employee experience.

This is our view on how the pieces of the engagement puzzle fit together. It’s a starting point to think about how to start defining an engagement strategy for your organisation.

what is employee engagement

Some of the factors are what we call the immediate ‘touchpoints’ that most employees have with their organisation. Most employees aren’t privvy to high level strategic discussions, or shifts in the market, they just come to work to do their job.

For most employees, the key touchpoints are as follows.

The job itself

Things that impact job satisfaction include:

  • working conditions (both physical conditions, but also things like working hours).
  • job content. Is my job challenging, meaningful, interesting, varied?
  • wellbeing aspects can play a part too such as work-life balance, flexible working patterns.

The line manager

Managers have a major impact on employee engagement:

  • do I have easy access to my manager?
  • does my manager support me when things are tough?
  • does my manager value my contribution, the effort I put in?
  • does my manager give me feedback about how I am doing and what I could do better?
  • does my manager welcome input from the team or are we just told what to do all the time?

The people I work with

Most employees have most interaction with their immediate colleagues. It varies, and lockdown had a big impact on how often people interact.

  • do I enjoy being part of the team?
  • do I feel part of the team?
  • do I get on with the people I work with?
  • do we support each other when times are tough?
  • can I rely on my colleagues to help out?
  • do I understand what our team is here to deliver?

These touchpoints are the biggest connection most employees have with the company. They are almost like the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – if employees are satisfied with each of these touchpoints, they will most likely feel satisfied overall and this will create a foundation to engage them fully with the organisation.

However, if they do not have a good experience of all of them as a whole, they can never be fully satisfied and, therefore, never fully engaged.

Beyond these touchpoints, other things start to have an impact on employee engagement, how much employees feel connected to the organisation.

These are the wider cultural aspects of how the organisation operates that start to impact the employee experience.

This is where factors such as communication within the company, individual development, reward and benefits and understanding the company values and purpose fit.

How to measure employee engagement

Measuring employee engagement is critical to developing a comprehensive understanding of workforce performance. The measurement process involves collecting and analysing data related to job satisfaction, motivation, commitment, organisational culture, and other factors that contribute to the overall level of engagement within the organisation.

The most common approach is to use an employee experience survey. There are different types of employee experience surveys across the whole employee lifecycle.

Employee experience surveys need to be carefully designed, but they will provide valuable insight into workplace culture and identify areas where improvements may be necessary.

Regularly measuring employee engagement ensures that an organisation can continuously review its strategies and create new interventions that will positively impact its employees’ engagement and ultimately lead to business success.

So, what is employee engagement?

There is no single unifying model of employee engagement that will apply to every organisation, but there are some common factors that apply to most organisations.

The trick is to make sure your employee engagement surveys are measuring the specific things that are relevant to your organisation, which is why we recommend ensuring your experience survey questions are tailored to your organisation.