Everything You Need to Know About Employee Engagement

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Engage employees and keep going - a message every HR professional needs to hear as the transformation of work continues.  As a strategy, employee engagement has always been a major focus for HR and executives in 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 business strategy that it has today.

That said, engagement is not just about achieving better business results, it is also about ensuring the sustainability of the business.  And given recent statistical data, this has become a financial imperative.

This is an astonishing figure, and one that should make all HR professionals focus more on their organisation's engagement strategy.  Low employee engagement can and will have a negative impact on all aspects 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 an in-depth look at what engagement is, the current state of play, effective strategies and a prediction of what is to come.

What is employee engagement?

If you ask HR professionals from different companies to define engagement, you are likely to get different answers.  Some would take a numerical approach, others a psychological approach or a completely different approach.  As is often the case with other HR concepts, the definition is really in the "eyes of the beholder".

The term was coined by psychologist William Kahn in a 1990 study entitled Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.  In this study, Khan looked at two different workplaces: a highly structured and formal architectural firm and a relaxed summer camp.  From his observations, he defined engagement as "the enhancement of the self of organisational members in their work roles; in engagement, people engage and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally while performing their roles".

In addition, Kahn identified three psychological conditions that enable engagement to exist:

Meaning - Is the work meaningful enough to the employee to fully engage?
Security - Is the work environment such that a person can fully engage without fear of criticism?
Availability - Is the employee mentally and physically able to express their full potential in the work environment?

Kahn added that people who are fully committed to the organisation take ownership of their work and are loyal to the organisation.  He added that commitment is not a constant.  A number of experiences can change commitment.

Of course, Kahn's original definition has changed somewhat in the three decades since his creation.  Instead of focusing solely on whether the person is giving their all at work, engagement is more about the employee's willingness to go above and beyond for the benefit of the organisation.

Impacts of engagement

What we have learned about engagement since its inception has influenced the approach taken by HR professionals and leaders.  An increase in engagement has a positive impact on the business, while a decrease has a negative impact.

What do HR leaders say?

To better understand employee engagement, here are some quotes from HR professionals on the subject and related issues.

"High engagement through incredible culture and opportunities for your teammates is one of the main drivers, if not the main driver, of increased teammate retention." Sebastien Girard, SVP of Workforce Engagement at Atrium Health, said.  "High retention and engagement results create less pressure on the organisation and HR.  It also means greater expertise, greater tenure, accelerated growth and stronger productivity."

"There is a direct correlation between the level of engagement an employee exhibits and the amount of discretionary effort they offer," said Debbie Fiorino, senior vice president of human resources at World Travel Holdings. "An engaged employee is one who is fully involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and will therefore act in a way that serves the interests of their organisation. This translates into a better experience for our customers, which generates repeat business. Loyal customers translate into revenue and profit."

"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 came into an organisation; they committed to an organisation, built a career there and wanted to stay for life. The company was also committed to developing a career for life," said Don Kraft, ICON plc's executive vice president for strategic initiatives.  "Companies would look after, protect and invest in people. Over time, we have invested less and reported a reduced commitment to people. As a result, many people, including a generation of young people, in their 30s or younger, have seen their parents, and perhaps themselves, affected by these problems. They are saying to themselves: 'I cannot, and therefore will not, rely on my employer'.

Ideas for engagement

HR practitioners around the world are looking for the right engagement "recipe".  As is often the case, the "recipe" is different for every company in every sector.  As a result, it is often difficult for HR to know where to start.  It's worth looking at other companies, especially similar ones, for inspiration, but the best place to start is internally.  

Here are five different strategies and theories on how to increase employee engagement across the workforce:

Flexibility

Giving employees the ability to define and design their own schedules may seem counterintuitive at first.  Most HR managers are conditioned to believe that giving an employee the ability to set their own working hours will result in lower productivity.  A lot of research suggests that the opposite is true.  Employees who have the freedom to set their own hours are often more productive and happier.  They are also more engaged in the workplace.

Tools needed

When an employee starts working for a new company, he or she expects to have the tools necessary to effectively carry out his or her job responsibilities.  If the employee has access to these items and can work as expected, their commitment will be stronger.  Deloitte calls this the "enabling infrastructure".  Without the necessary tools, employees will become disengaged.

Employee surveys

Employee feedback is important.  It is even more important that leaders listen to this feedback and act on it.  This does not mean that every leader must do or implement every suggestion from employees, but the feedback must be taken into account.  In addition, the leader must be transparent about the feedback and its implementation.  According to an Aon report on engagement, this feedback approach helps the organisation to solve problems quickly, but more importantly, it makes the employee feel valued.  Thus, it increases engagement.

The choice of the manager

It has been said before: employees do not leave companies.  They leave bad managers.  According to Gallup, managers and leaders are critical to successful engagement.  The good leader knows that his or her success and the success of the company are linked to employee engagement.  Hiring the right external or internal candidate for a managerial role, one who has the ability to effectively manage people, can have a positive impact on engagement rates.

Training and development opportunities

Investing in employees by providing training and development opportunities creates an atmosphere that is conducive to worker engagement.  If these opportunities are lacking, the employee does not feel valued by the company, which has a negative impact on the chances of engagement.  Employees who are not invested will not support the company other than by ensuring that they can protect their jobs.  At least until they can find another job.

Measuring engagement
When it comes to measuring engagement, there are several schools of thought on the issue.  Some suggest an organic approach.  Collecting data through conversations such as one-to-one meetings or team meetings.  Others suggest a formal approach such as engagement surveys that take place once or twice a year.  These surveys can provide a wealth of data to indicate which engagement initiatives are working and how committed employees really are to the organisation.

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 organisation", while other surveys, satisfaction surveys for example, measure "workers' opinions, attitudes and perceptions about their organisation."

The most important element of measuring engagement, however, is not the measurement itself.  It is how the results are shared and how the findings are implemented.  If leaders have access to this information, share it and do not take advantage of it, they can expect engagement scores to decline in the future.

The Future of engagement
Engagement will continue to be a major concern in the future.  As mentioned earlier, this is directly related to the fact that the workforce is changing.  Today's new workers and their successors are more concerned with personal growth and purpose than simply receiving a paycheck from their employer.  They want to make a difference while growing and building relationships with the organisation and their colleagues.

But the changing workforce is not the only catalyst for the increased importance of engagement.  It shares centre stage with technology.  Technology has revolutionised the way people work and engage in their work and with each other.  And technology, like engagement, is constantly evolving.

All of this shows that engagement continues to play, and will play in the future, an important role.  The engagement of these workers will be critical to the future success, not only of the organisation, but also of the employee.  Now more than ever, organisations and their future depend on the success of their respective employees.

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