Employee engagement is a phrase that we see and hear in every management journal and social media story, in theory books on great management and optimising your business, and first hand from people’s own experiences at work. But is it just the latest in a series of ‘how to’ trends, or does it have some valid benefits for those organisations who choose to focus on it?
Companies need to take time to ensure that they understand the meaning behind employee engagement before setting out a strategy or plan. It’s different to employee satisfaction, which focusses on how an employee feels about their specific role. It’s different to employee motivation, which focusses on the employee’s stimulus for work, the triggers that make them react in a certain way. And it’s different to employee happiness, which is an outcome of the work environment, the nature of work, and employee wellbeing.
So, what is employee engagement?
Employee engagement has been defined as “a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.” (McLeod and Clarke’s Engage 2009). More simply, it’s about your employees’ attachment to the organisation and to their work – appealing to their hearts and minds; ensuring that they have the opportunity to connect emotionally, as well as intellectually, with the organisation’s purpose and values; and that they enjoy being at work and doing their work. As a result of the combination of all these factors, they are more inclined to offer discretionary effort, going above and beyond where it matters, because it matters to them.
A CIPD factsheet suggests that there are three main dimensions, and it is important to consider all three:
- Intellectual engagement – thinking about the job or the organisation and how to improve it
- Affective engagement – feeling positive about the job or the organisation
- Social engagement – the opportunity to interact with others at work, and to collaborate on improvements and changes.
Throughout the duration of their careers, employees transition through various stages from being a new starter to leaving the business, and there may be promotions, transfers across business units, functions or locations, career or specialism changes. On that journey, employees are likely to experience personal changes too, becoming a carer, parent, or dealing with illness. We call this journey the ‘employee lifecycle’, and it is important to maintain engagement throughout. That means engaging with potential future candidates, through your employer brand and PR activities, to connect people into your employment proposition and enable you to attract the best talent when you need to recruit. At the other end of the lifecycle, it’s valuable to consider your leavers, engaging those on an exit route to maintain positive employer reputation, leverage legacy knowledge through mentoring, and maintaining positive connections with leavers through an ‘alumni’ network. These actions help to ensure continued commitment to goals and delivery, even during a notice period or retirement track.
Businesses change too!
In the same way we should also give consideration to different stages of the business cycle. It is easy to anticipate that certain generic ‘events’ will happen during an employee’s tenure with your organisation – growth, rightsizing, product change and innovations, systems and process changes, market adaptations, etc - and these too provide opportunities to engage. Whether the business is just ticking along, allowing the opportunity for simple everyday engagement, or there is a need for improvement (to service, quality, efficiency etc) or change (reshaping the business, changing product lines, etc), it may be that you want to put additional focus on customers or suppliers, or on the delivery of business results. Getting employees involved early will be an important success factor. Utilising their skills, experience, and ideas could make a significant competitive difference. Additionally, it keeps people interested, and it encourages them to go that extra mile and make a difference at work.
Why does employee engagement matter?
In their report, McLeod and Clarke (2009)1 were able to cite several important research studies that provided evidence of the positive impacts of employee engagement for business success. They reported that increasing engagement correlates with improving performance, and quoted research suggesting that higher levels of engagement can result in fewer accidents, less employee turnover, higher customer advocacy, greater productivity and increased profitability, as well as more creativity and innovation than is typically seen in those with lower engagement scores.
It’s also just logical, to be honest. A fully engaged team means that everyone contributes equally to the overall success of the team. If an employee can believe in what they do, and they understand why they do it (ie the impact on their colleagues, the product, the customer etc) then they are more likely to care about what they do and how they do it – benefitting everyone. For engaged employees (who, on average will spend around 30% of their lives at work) it is surely better to feel a sense of enjoyment at work; to feel a connection to or sense of purpose about it; and to feel good about the team, surroundings, and environment we work in.
A 2017 report by Gallup (The State of the Global Workforce) suggested that only 11% of employees in UK organisations are ACTIVELY engaged and enthusiastic about their work, and disengagement is costing UK businesses up to £85 million in lost productivity. These figures suggest that there is still much work to do, and significant business benefit to gain. It’s a clear business case for investing time, effort, and money in building engagement in your workforce.
 MacLeod, D. and Clarke, N., 2009. "Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement: a report to government. London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills"
 CIPD factsheet (2016)