Employee Engagement: Everything You Need to Know

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Engage employees and carry on – a message every HR professional needs to hear as the transformation of work continues.  As a strategy, employee engagement has always been a chief concern for human resources and leaders within any given company, but no one could have predicted when the concept was first introduced nearly 30 years ago, that it would have the impact on the business’ strategy that it does now. 

Having said that, engagement isn’t just about getting better results for the business, it’s about ensuring the company’s longevity.  And given recent statistical data, it’s become a financial imperative.

That’s an astonishing number, one that should spur every HR professional to place more focus on their organization’s engagement strategy.  Low engagement from employees can and will have a negative impact every part of the business from recruitment to retention.

In the guide below, the HR Exchange Network explores the topic of engagement in more detail.  It takes a look an in depth look at what engagement is, the current state of affairs, effective strategies and a prediction of what is to come. 

What is Employee Engagement?

If one were to ask HR professionals from different companies to define engagement, there is a high likelihood different responses would be received.  Some might take a numbers approach while others would take a psychological approach or a different approach altogether.  As is often the case with other HR concepts, the definition really lies in the “eyes of the beholder.” 

The term was first coined by psychologist William Kahn in a 1990 study titled Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.  In the piece, Khan studied two different workplaces:  a very structured and formal architecture firm and a casual summer camp.  From his observations, he defined engagement as “the harnessing of organization members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances”.

Additionally, Kahn outlined three psychological conditions that allow engagement to exist:

  1. Meaningfulness – Is the work meaningful enough to the employee that he/she engages with their full-self?
  2. Safety – Is the work environment such that a person can bring their full-self without fear of criticism?
  3. Availability – Is the employee mentally and physically able to express their full-self in the work environment?

Kahn further stated those individuals who are fully engaged with the organization will take ownership of their work and will be loyal to the organization.  Additionally, he says engagement isn’t a constant.  Any number of experiences can cause engagement to change.

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Of course, Kahn’s original definition has changed somewhat over the three decades since it was first coined.  Instead of engagement being focused solely on the person bringing their full-selves to work, it’s more about the employee’s willingness to go “above and beyond” to benefit the organization.

Impacts of Engagement

What we’ve learned about engagement since its inception has colored the approach HR professionals and leaders have taken.  An increase in engagement marks a positive impact of the business and a decrease marks a negative impact.

Source:  Building a High Development Culture Through Your Employee Engagement Strategy - Gallup

What are HR Leaders Saying?

To understand more about employee engagement, here are a few quotes from HR professionals on the topic and associated issues.

“High engagement through amazing culture and opportunities for your teammates is one of, if not the main drivers, in increasing teammate retention.” Atrium Health’s SVP of Workforce Engagement Sebastien Girard said.  “High retention and high engagement results creates less pressure on the organization and HR.  It also means higher expertise, higher tenure, accelerated growth, and stronger productivity.”

“There is a direct correlation between the level of engagement an employee demonstrates and the amount of discretionary effort they are offer,” World Travel Holdings senior vice president of Human Resources Debbie Fiorino said.  “An engaged employee is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests. This translates to a greater experience for our customers, which generates a loyal following. Loyal customers translate to revenue and profits.”

“I would say that engagement is harder to achieve today than it was 20 years ago, or in the past, because we are less engaging places to work. We used to have an ethos where employees would come to an organization; they would commit to an organization, build a career there and want to stay for life. The company would equally make a commitment that it would develop a career for life,” ICON plc executive vice president of strategic initiates Don Kraft said.  “Companies would look out for people, protect them and invest in them. Over a period of time, we have invested less and signaled a reduced commitment to people. As a result there are many people, including a generation of young people, in their 30s and under, who have watched their parents, and perhaps themselves, impacted by these things. They are saying, "I can’t, and therefore I won’t, count on my employer."

Engagement Ideas

HR practioners globally are looking for the right engagement “recipe”.  As is often the case, the “recipe” is different for every company in every industry.  As a result, it is often difficult for HR to know where to start.  There is something to be said for looking at other companies, especially those that are similar, for inspiration, but the best place to start is internally.  Here are five different strategies and theories as to how to increase employee engagement across the workforce.

1. Flexibility

Offering employees an opportunity to set and design their own schedule feels counterintuitive at first glance.  Most HR leaders are conditioned to believe giving an employee the ability to set their own work hours will cause a decrease in productivity.  A fair amount of research suggests the opposite is true.  Employees given the freedom to set their own schedules are often more productive and happier employees.  They are also more engaged in the workplace.

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2. Required Tools

When an employee starts working for a new company, he or she will expect to have the needed tools to complete their job responsibilities effectively.  If the employee has access to those items and can work as expected, employee engagement will flourish.  Deloitte calls this “enabling infrastructure.”  Without the necessary tools, employees will disengage. 

3. Employee Surveys

Employee feedback is important.  Even more important is the need for leaders to listen to the feedback and act on that information.  This isn’t to say every leader has to do or put into practice every employee suggestion, but they do need to consider the feedback.  Additionally, the leader must be transparent about the feedback and whether it will be put into action.  According to an engagement report from Aon, this approach to feedback helps an organization quickly address problems, but more importantly it makes the employee feel valued.  Thus, it increases engagement.

4. Manager selection

It’s been said before:  employees don’t leave companies.  They leave bad managers.  Managers and leaders are critical to engagement success according to Gallup.  The right leader knows their success and the organization’s success is linked to the engagement of the employee.  Hiring the right external candidate or internal candidate for a manager role; one whom possesses the ability to manage people effectively can have a positive impact on engagement rates.

5. Training and Development Opportunities

Investing in employees’ by offering training and development opportunities provides the atmosphere for workers to become more engaged.  A lack of these opportunities typically translates to the employee not feeling valued by the company and will thus negatively impact the chance for engagement.  Employees who are not invested will not support the company in any way other than making sure they can protect their job.  At least until they can secure other employment.

Measuring Engagement

When it comes to measuring engagement, there are several schools of thought on the issue.  Some suggest an organic approach.  Gathering data through conversations such as one-on-one meetings or team meetings.  Others suggest a formal approach like engagement surveys that happen once or twice a year.  These surveys can provide a wealth of data that helps indicate what engagement initiatives are working and how engaged employees actually are with the organization.

Engagement surveys differ from other types of surveys.  According to SHRM, engagement surveys measure “employees’ commitment, motivation, sense of purpose and passion for their work and the organization” while other surveys, satisfaction surveys for instance, measure workers’ “views, attitudes and perceptions of their organization.” 

The most important piece of measuring engagement isn’t the measurement itself, however.  It’s all about how the results are shared and how the findings are put into action.  If leaders have access to this information, share it and then don’t capitalize on it, they can expect engagement scores to suffer in the future.

The Future of Engagement

Engagement will continue to be a main focus moving forward.  As eluded to earlier, this is directly related to the fact the workforce is transforming.  Today’s newest workers and their successors care more about personal growth and purpose than just getting a paycheck from employers.  They want to make a difference while growing and building relationships with the organization and co-workers.

But changes in the workforce aren’t the only catalyst for the increased importance of engagement.  It shares the spotlight with technology.  Technology has revolutionized the way people work and engage with that work and one another.  And technology, like engagement, is constantly in flux. 

All of this points to the reality engagement continues to play, as it will in the future, a large role.  Engaging these workers will be critical to future success, not only of the organization, but so too for the employee.  Now more than ever before, the organizations and their futures hang on the success of their respective employees.

NEXT:  Talent Acquisition:  HR’s Guide for Finding the Best Talent


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