Employee Engagement: a Practical Guide for Employers

Anna Roberts

Jun 2016 ⋅ 7 min read

Employee engagement has become HR's favourite buzzword over the past few years. In 2013, research showed that US companies spent approximately $720 million a year on attempting to improve employee engagement, with the same study suggesting that that figure will eventually rise to $1.5 billion.

Some HR professionals would argue that figure is perfectly reasonable. After all, it's been estimated that disengaged employees cost the US economy $450-550 billion each year. $1.5 billion is a drop in the ocean.

However, for all this talk of employee engagement, there's a problem: how is it actually defined?

The HR world hasn't agreed on a standard definition of employee engagement, or how to measure it.

Generally, different organisations' definitions tend to mention 'emotional commitment'. However, other definitions talk about commitment to company values, individual motivation at work, wellbeing and job satisfaction.

As you can see, it's a all bit woolly. What is that $720 million actually being spent on?

Plenty of people have tried to simplify these definitions. Here's our attempt:

Employee engagement is when an employee believes in the company's values and goals to such an extent that they are highly motivated (and productive) at work.

Why bother with employee engagement?

man head-desking at work

Studies have shown that there's a correlation between high levels of employee engagement and productivity. There's also a correlation between engaged employees and low levels of absenteeism and employee turnover.

However, this research only shows correlation — not causation — so we can't claim that employee engagement directly leads to increased productivity.

Common sense and our own experiences tell us that if we're happy at work, and understand how our efforts benefit the company and its customers, we're more likely to work hard.

Conversely, if we go to work knowing that our own values are completely different to those of the company, we're less likely to care about the work we do.

If we don't care, we become bored. If we're bored, we coast through work days doing the bare minimum or look for work elsewhere.

In practice

Now that we've stumbled our way through the theory, we're on to what really matters: how employee engagement works in practice.

If your company has decided to take employee engagement more seriously, your first step will probably involve speaking with your employees about how they view their work.

Of course, this immediately presents problems. Employees will be cautious about being too negative - they won't want to get sacked, disciplined or denied a pay rise.

Additionally, staff will be reluctant to mention issues they have with specific managers or colleagues in case it causes drama or tension within their team.

For those reason, anonymous employee engagement surveys have become a staple in many workplaces.

Employee engagement surveys

laptop showing graphs with survey results

If you've worked for a medium or large company, you'll be familiar with employee surveys. Here's how to create and distribute surveys that are actually useful:

  1. Ditch the generic questions. 'Do you have a best friend at work?' 'Do you like your manager?' - generic questions which give answers that tell you very little about engagement.
  2. Be more specific. 'To what extent do you believe your current work contributes to the company's wider goals?' 'What reason would you give if you were to quit your job tomorrow?' - these questions are far more probing and give you information that is immediately practical.
  3. Know what you're measuring and trying to improve. Given the many elements of staff engagement, determine which aspects you most want to improve before writing your survey. Retention? Motivation? Employee referrals? Alignment with brand values?
  4. Avoid survey overload. Respondents will become lazier with their answers when they're 10 or 20 questions into a survey. Carry out surveys frequently, but with only a couple of questions at a time.
  5. Make them truly anonymous. Staff won't answer honestly if they know you're checking respondents' IP addresses or trying to match responses with individuals based on the answers they've given.
  6. Act on the findings. Take a close look at the answers you're given and see if there any recurring themes or problem areas. If you don't sort them out, respondents will wonder why they ever bothered with the survey.
  7. ...but be wary. On the other hand, if you take action to correct all the negative feedback you've received, employees may become wise to it and might even try and exploit the survey system. During the next survey, maybe they'll pretend they aren't happy with their current PC so that you'll upgrade it.

Where does engagement begin?

engaged employees

Now that you know how engaged your employees are, you can take action to try and make improvements.

There are two schools of thought here: some HR experts believe this type of huge change can only be triggered from the top of the organisation. Others believe that it is the employees who must lead the way, as executive-lead engagement efforts will only further isolate disengaged employees.

In most cases, a combination of the two approaches works best.

First of all, here are some ways to approach employee engagement from above:

  • Executives and leaders should renew their commitment to company values. If your senior staff don't believe in the values of the company, then you can't expect junior staff to pay attention, either. Lead by example. You might even need to work from scratch and redefine company goals and values so that they better match current conditions.
  • Reassess workloads and the scope of each role. Staff may resent the amount of work they have to do - either too much or too little. Technological advances may mean that some staff might be more useful in other teams or departments. Speak to the staff in question to determine the best approach for adjusting their workloads.
  • Eliminate barriers between executives and junior staff. Encourage senior staff to spend more time with junior workers in the office or on the shop floor. Start conversations, get to know individual employees and their motivations, and show that the top-tier of your business aren't holed up in some distant office with no regard for employees.
  • Change your mindset. If your organisation is traditionally rather sceptical of HR concepts such as engagement, wellbeing and employee satisfaction, it's time to start thinking a little differently. The costs of ignoring poor employee engagement can be crippling.

In the long term, employee engagement strategies should be driven by employees - not dictated by the boss! However, employees can only work within the framework established by their superiors. Here's how to create a framework that does just that.

  • Discuss engagement approaches within each team. Every team will have different needs, preferences and motivations, so each team should have their own engagement strategies. Managers can lead discussions but employee input should be listened to and acted upon.
  • Have an open door policy. Employees must feel comfortable communicating their concerns with their superiors. You could also collect feedback and suggestions at any time with an online, anonymous mailbox.
  • Hire employees who are a good fit. Employee engagement and company culture are closely related. When hiring, ask candidates about their preferred working environment and the extent to which their values align with the company's. This approach will help you create a business filled with like-minded employees who will strengthen your company culture and identity.
  • Share data and insights. Employees will be more engaged at work if they better understand how their work contributes to the company as a whole. For a start, leaders should embrace 'open book management', where financial information is made available for all employees to view. This fosters understanding between employees and the employer. Employees can also challenge themselves to scrutinise the books and improve next year's numbers.

Common Challenges and Pitfalls to Avoid

too much paperwork

Using the information above and from elsewhere, you might think you're ready to put some kind of employee engagement strategy into practice.

Before you do, it's worth understanding the potential pitfalls and challenges you'll face along the way.

Firstly, revisit that fuzzy definition of employee engagement. Even the experts can't agree on what it means. Be certain about your own definition, and decide how you'll measure the results of your strategy. If your initiative loses focus, it'll lose most of its potency, too.

Next, be prepared to encounter sceptical employees. Some staff will see your engagement drive as an attempt to control their emotions or turn them into personality-less cheerful corporate clones.

It's also vital that senior staff are onboard with this significant initiative. By deciding to improve employee engagement, you're ultimately committing to spending money on a concept that may not bring any tangible benefits. It should be no surprise if some of your senior managers aren't convinced. Be prepared to fight your corner. If you hope to lead from the top-down on employee engagement, everyone must be onboard.

You should also set realistic expectations. Don't expect all your employees to love their jobs after six months. Instead, set achievable targets based on your goal(s) - and remember: you're never going to win everyone over.

Also, remember that employers will never have control over all of the variables that affect an employee's engagement at work - you can't do anything about family problems or health worries.

Finally, understand that high levels of engagement don't necessarily mean you'll see improvements in productivity. There may be another limiting factor - perhaps employees are lacking in training or equipment needed to complete certain tasks.

Final thoughts

Overall, management should inspire employees to make decisions and changes that benefit the company as a whole. It is usually up to the employer to show that this type of action is possible (and desirable) in their organisation.

While tools such as employee engagement surveys and suggestion boxes can provide pathways to help improve engagement, engagement levels are ultimately down to an individual's attitude and individual circumstances.

In practice, tackling employee engagement is a difficult task - but it's a task that's made significantly easier if you take the time to set goals, targets and a plan of action to meet them.

After more practical HR tips and advice? Look through our blog archives!