What is employee engagement and why is it important?

When the term was first coined, Employee Engagement made a lot of sense. A short, snappy (and alliterative) way to describe the idea of how emotionally connected staff are to the company’s goals and vision.

Overused by HR professionals and marketers alike, it’s easy to pass it off as a wishy washy, almost meaningless catchall. Maybe it is time we reminded ourselves why a buzzword was invented for this actually-quite-important concept in the first place.

It is often confused with a measure of how happy or fulfilled employees are, or how well they are performing in their position. Whilst important, these measures miss a key aspect of what high employee engagement looks like.

When employees are engaged they’re more likely to go the extra mile because they feel valued and connected to the company vision. There is a genuine desire to contribute towards the greater good, even when the personal benefit (credit) might not be so clear.

It was the economist Adam Smith who noted that in a perfectly efficient economy, profit can only be generated when an employee contributes more than he or she is being paid for. Whilst this might be stretching things, it does hint at why employers need to take engagement so seriously if they are to improve bottom-line performance.

Is Employee Engagement actually important?

It is obvious that it’s better to have engaged employees rather than disengaged ones, right? In fact, low engagement can still yield perfectly acceptable levels of productivity (particularly in the near term).

Targets can be hit, but it is often at the expense of long-term success as employees are less likely to find better ways of doing things (which ultimately impacts company growth).

Companies who experience a change of ownership often take a hit when it comes to employee engagement. This quick impact makes for easy comparison. Case studies show that the reduced engagement is solid indicator that HR are going to find themselves becoming embroiled with more personnel issues. Retention rates and ultimately profits are likely to slide.

Employee Engagement is a pot that can be borrowed from when near-term pressures require it. Small businesses however should be acutely aware of the long-term consequence of dipping into it too frequently. Getting ahead however can have far-reaching benefits for the team, HR and the business as a whole.

Engaged employee are more likely to rise challenges during the tough times, and drive improvement when the going is good.

How can HR leaders improve employee engagement?

Finding the baseline

As with planning for any journey, you need to know where you are starting from. There are a wealth Employee Engagement surveys, tools or templates but there is no need to overcomplicate it. Short and simple is best. You want to build a picture to identify the areas in which engagement is good, and where it can be improved.

Below are some of the most common questions included in employee engagement surveys.

In this example above, if fewer than 70% (the Red flag) of employees responded with 4 (agree) or 5 (strongly agree) to question 1, this would indicate concern over your internal branding. Ideally we’d expect 80-90% of responses to be positive for this question.

Armed with a data-driven view of the employee engagement landscape, it’s time to take action.

Making improvements

It is important to understand that employee engagement is not some dark art, but a metric which is the direct result (for good or bad) of actions taken by the company. Leaders need to assume responsibility for it and understand how their actions directly impact it.

The responses to your survey should give you a strong indication as to the practical steps that you can put in place to improve engagement. The survey itself can be a powerful mechanism for improving employee engagement IF measures are taken which show that the company is willing to respond to concerns.

Some examples of practical things you could consider:

It’s something which has been thrust upon a lot of businesses recently, but you might be able to consider more flexible working patterns. Showing you trust the team and their abilities may not only help them to achieve a better work/life balance and wellbeing, but many companies report improved productivity too. If it works, it’s a real win-win.

If responses are low in areas around teamwork and opportunity, consider the social aspects to your business. Social activities can help the team build stronger connections with those they may not work directly with. Clearly the pandemic has made this more difficult. Morning cuppas or Friday afternoon beers might be a temporary stop-gap, but hopefully social events will be coming back soon.

Another one for the win-win category is personal skills development. When we get better at something it feels good and by the business cares about the long-term interests of the individual is a powerful motivator. Done right, training is good for both business and the team.

Other examples of things you could consider; are rewards/perks, giving recognition (and helping individuals to improve how they are perceived by their peers), mentoring, encouraging people to show their personality, reducing micromanagement, transparency of company vision and reducing bureaucracy.

Showing the business has heard, understood, and is willing to take action is the best thing you can do to improve employee engagement. If the team want iced vanilla lattes, find a coffee machine which makes iced vanilla lattes.

Improving employee engagement need not be complicated or expensive, and the ‘little’ and often approach can be more powerful. Get it right and the benefits to HR leaders, the team, culture and the business will be powerful and long-lasting.

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