What is employee engagement and how can it benefit my business?
It may seem like a simple question: What is employee engagement? We know it's a key focus for the vast majority of HR Directors, CEOs and CHROs. Both academic research and real-world findings highlight the correlation between high engagement scores and high productivity, job satisfaction, discretionary effort and staff retention.
Yet the debate rumbles on as to what employee engagement actually is. Even 30 years after William Kahn’s article in the Academy of Management Journal and more than ten years after the 2009 MacLeod Review pointed to more than 50 documented definitions! Here at Weekly10 we think of employee engagement as the level of emotional sentiment and commitment an employee has to their work, their peers, and the company’s goals and purpose. And here's why.
How to define employee engagement
Ask HR professionals to describe employee engagement and you’ll hear a range of answers, usually in one of two styles. It’s unsurprising that a 2018 study on CEO views of engagement found that many struggled to define it. And it's that there seems to be a huge number of different definitions of exactly what engagement is. Plus there are hundreds of vastly different approaches for how to improve employee engagement that are available out there.
The traditionalists out there define engagement quite simply as the level of enthusiasm and connection employees have with the organisation they work for. In many ways, it's a solid definition. However, it's a little light in helping us understand the levels and complexities involved within engagement.
So, we thought we'd help straighten things out.
Definitions have tightened although not yet down to a single agreed-upon state. In January 2021 the CIPD released findings following a year-long study looking at the prevalent definitions of engagement. Their findings placed all definitions into one of four groups. They’re useful but don’t go far enough.
1. Personal role engagement: Employees’ ability to express their preferred selves in their work, both cognitively, emotionally and physically.
2. Work engagement: Focuses on an employee’s psychological state. It has three dimensions: vigour, dedication, and absorption.
3. Multidimensional engagement: Like role engagement, it includes cognitive, emotional and behavioural aspects, but distinguishes job-focus from organisation-focused engagement.
4. Self-engagement with performance: A very rare definition based on how importantly employees regard high performance. It means helping employees to keep themselves engaged using their performance as a benchmark.
But that still hasn't answered the question
So, working with HR partners and our in-house people science team, we looked for correlations within the CIPD’s groupings and existing definitions and found:
- Employee engagement is a psychological state of being, focussing on the ‘human’ element of HR.
- Employee engagement is about passion, commitment and belonging.
- Employee engagement relates to the purpose, goals and conduct of an organisation.
- Employee engagement is both based on attitudinal and behavioural markers.
We like to make things simple. So here’s how we define employee engagement:
Employee engagement is the level of emotional sentiment and commitment an employee has to their work, their peers, and the company’s goals and purpose.
This gives us measurable variables (affection and commitment) and factors with which to measure against (our work, our employers, their goals/purpose, and our colleagues).
Are you really ready to have engaged employees?
But the first question any HR leader needs to ask before starting an employee engagement initiative is a simple yet perhaps not obvious one: Are we really ready for our people to be engaged at work?
You see, HR professionals and engagement specialists have been telling the world for the past decade that employee engagement is the key to business success.
Yet, we’re all guilty of failing to point out that employee engagement isn’t right for every company. After all, engaged employees demand more.
- They hold managers and leaders to higher standards.
- They push themselves and their peers to be better
- They care more.
- They expect your passion to match their own.
What works for one company, might not work for the next. Our culture, life events, motivations, individual outlooks and social groups all impact how we feel about work. It's a level of impact beyond the things that sit within the influence of employers and managers.
When it comes to improving retention, increasing productivity, or enabling personal change, there are no shortcuts. The best we can do is to apply some evidence-based rules of thumb in our approach. Take the insight, then measure and adapt as required.
What employee engagement is not
So let's have a quick look at some of the things that employee engagement is not:
Employee engagement isn't the same as employee happiness. Yes, an employee may well be happy, but that does not mean they care about your company or it's success.
Employee engagement is not the same as employee attendance. Yes, an employee may be reliable and always on time, but that does not mean they are being productive or upholding company values.
Employee engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction. Yes, an employee may be very satisfied with their remuneration. But that doesn't mean they won't accept a call from a recruiter on a tough Thursday afternoon. Or go over and above when needed.
The 4 benefits of engaged employees
Studies show leaps in productivity ranging from 22% (Gallup) to 38% (The Workplace Research Foundation). And that a 10% increase in investment towards engagement can lead to more than $2,400+ profit increase per employee per year.
Teams who have positive levels of engagement see a drastic reduction in the number of absences due to sickness. One study suggested that absenteeism could be reduced by 41%.
Engaged employees are more innovative. 44% more in fact. Whether that’s because they’re thinking more innovatively, are more open to sharing their thoughts around innovation, or a mixture of both isn’t fully understood. But what’s clear is that innovation increases in engaged businesses.
Lower staff attrition
Staff attrition is a key challenge for any company. Good news then that engaged employees are more likely to want to stay with you for longer and put off any potential job hunt.
Making employee engagement measurable
We can break down our definition into its component parts. And, at that point, we can see we have some clearly measurable variables in affection and commitment. We can also identify the factors with which to measure against (our work, our employers, their goals/purpose, and our colleagues).
Using frequent feedback process, such as an employee check-in, we are able to ask pertinent questions of our employees that investigate these variables on a regular cadence. Then using analytical tools such as sentiment analysis, semiotics and statistical models it is possible to quantify engagement.
Sure, under the bonnet there are multiple factors impacting each of these, from salary and environment to how autonomous we can be and how "good" our managers are. In this sense, engagement is comparable to a complex inter-personal relationship, such as a marriage. In a future blog we will be jumping into the factors that underlie this definition and what 'makes' employee engagement.
But what this definition does is it provides a solid starting block for any HR pro to take into all employee engagement activity moving forward. And that's something we can all benefit from.
This excerpt is from our latest best practice guide: Employee Engagement in a Remote-Working World. Download your copy using the form below.