Employee Engagement: Everything You Need To Know

Engaged employees working in their corporate office

Employee engagement is necessary, but elusive. Corporations spend millions on initiatives to improve employee engagement, sometimes with disappointing results. In spite of that, the topic continues to be extremely sticky in the corporate world. Leaders, human resources professionals, managers, and team members from around the globe all understand the high value of employee engagement (and the high cost of low engagement). So they continue to search for new employee engagement strategies, methods, tools and techniques. Which isn’t easy.

The most common questions about employee engagement:

• What is employee engagement?
• Why is employee engagement important?
• How can you improve employee engagement?
• How can you measure employee engagement?

There are literally millions of different sources for information about employee engagement. A quick Google search yields more than 400 million employee engagement articles out there with different tips and tricks to “drive” engagement, in less than half of a second. That doesn’t account for the thousands of books, reports, statistics and research findings about employee engagement that are produced each year. But engagement doesn’t have to be complicated or complex—with the right insights, focus, and intention, you can become an organization that employees want to engage with.

Why is Employee Engagement So Confusing?

The answer is two-fold; first, for too long, leaders have been looking at engagement almost entirely from the organizational point of view. Virtually every take on engagement looks at whether employees are producing enough, whether they are giving enough, whether they are loyal or devoted enough. 100% of the focus is on what the organization hopes to get from employees. Not the other way around. We suggest a subtle reframe.

Instead of focusing on what the company can do to force employees to engage, consider the employee point-of-view instead. What do employees hope to get from their work other than a paycheck? What lights them up? What do they find inspiring? What makes them choose to pour their heart and soul into a project?

Look at the noble and good things people hope to accomplish at work; their desire to make a difference, their hunger to be part of a winning team, their longing to know their time and effort and skill matter to some important cause. Then harness that, feed it, nurture it, and higher engagement will come. Engagement is a result. It’s what happens when a workplace culture helps employees to do and be their best.

Second, for too long we’ve taken a rather simple concept and transformed it into a whole list of complex theories and business practices. Can we simplify employee engagement and get back to its roots? Yes we can. And we must.

Employee working at her laptop

Unraveling The Truth About Employee Engagement

While the corporate world has been scurrying to engage its employees for the past twenty years or so the statistics of employee engagement have barely improved. Gallup reports that, despite of billions invested in employee engagement since the year 2000, it has only improved by 8%. Other Gallup data shows just how dismal employee engagement is year after year. They basically report that 70 percent of the global workforce is disengaged.

Of course, some people are more disengaged than others. Only some people (the research says 16 percent) are what Gallup labels as “actively disengaged.” But still, whether actively disengaged or even slightly disengaged, if you consider the fact that only 3 out of every 10 people at your workplace are fully engaged, these statistics are frightening. Your business depends on the people inside it.

You need fully engaged employees. You need an engaging company culture that helps people thrive. You need your employees to buy in to your organizational purpose, love their jobs, and be passionate about accomplishing great things together. But those things are challenged by the fact that haunts all of us: only 3 out of 10.

Employee Engagement Is About Connection.

While we’ve all witnessed the stellar results of highly-engaged employees—those who come to work with passion, purpose, and commitment to the organization—we’ve also all witnessed the opposite. We know employees who settle for punching a clock, producing mediocre work, and flying beneath the radar. Which begs the question, what can we do to change the latter into the former?

While we commonly say that some employees are engaged and others are disengaged, the truth of the matter is much simpler. Some employees care. Others don’t care (or at least they don’t care about the things you want them to care about). They’re not rabid fans of the company—its mission, vision, values, and purpose. They’re not passionate about the culture—the energy, attitudes, and people on their team. And, they’re not engaged in their work—the activity, process, and result of their efforts. Ultimately, they are not connected to their work, the organization, or their peers.

Engagement is a form of connection. It happens when employees feel connected to their organization’s purpose, to their own accomplishments, and to one another. And when employees don’t have that connection, they won’t feel their work matters or that the company cares about them.

If organizations and leaders don’t help employees feel connected, they will never have high employee engagement.

What Makes Employees Engage?

Cold brew coffee taps, ping pong tables, and parking lot barbecues are great perks. So are generous vacation policies, lavish benefit packages, and flexible work schedules. All of these things can be alluring for employees. Each might make employees feel they work for a great organization. But, do these things make people care about their work? Are these the reasons engaged employees feel passionate about making a difference, improving a product, protecting your company image, and offering every ounce of their discretionary effort to the success of your company? The answer to that is no.

Healthy snacks and over-the-top team building activities may improve employee satisfaction, but these types of employee engagement ideas don’t affect actual, sustained engagement. It’s a common myth that companies need to offer a lot of expensive perks in order to engage people. Perks like these have short-term impact and are fun ways to make employees happy or even feel appreciated. But engagement can’t be bought by fancy extras.

Most employee engagement event ideas are high in cost but low in long-lasting impact. Like toys at Christmas, the events and activities most companies turn to are enjoyed in the moment, and then forgotten about weeks or months later. True employee engagement comes from inspiring, not entertaining, your people. And it doesn’t have to cost a thing.

Another myth is that leaders can require engagement, like punctuality or following a dress code. The truth is that engagement, or deeply caring about the quality and outcomes of one’s work, is not dictated by organizations, but is rather a choice people make. Engagement begins in the hearts and minds of employees. So that is the right place to look for answers.

What Makes You Engage?

As leaders, we are always looking for new ways to engage people. We consider adding policies and benefits. We try new internal surveys to gather insights into employees’ thoughts and concerns. While all of these things do have value, we seem to forget to ask the most important question: “Why did we ourselves choose to engage or disengage?”

We’ve all had jobs where we felt disengaged. What made us feel that way? What was holding us back? We’ve also had jobs where we chose to totally engage in our work—to pour our hearts and souls, our effort, passion, and energy into helping the team or company succeed. We willingly stayed in the office long after normal work hours; we pushed ourselves to think outside of the box and take risks, or we went above and beyond to make sure customers were satisfied. And we did it all without being asked.

What dynamics were at play in those situations? What did we find so inspiring that it made us want to give our all? Consider this question: What makes you engage or disengage?

Most likely, when you honestly ask yourself that question, the answers become quite clear. When you think of times you were disengaged, you might look back at a job where you struggled and didn’t trust your manager. Maybe you didn’t feel safe. Maybe you felt like there was little opportunity to contribute or learn or move forward in your role. Maybe you didn’t find the work rewarding, didn’t connect with the organization’s purpose, or you felt like a misfit on your team. Perhaps you simply didn’t feel seen or recognized.

On the other hand, think about situations where you felt highly engaged. Most likely, it wasn’t because of your company’s vacation policy, foosball tables, or that world-class chef in the cafeteria. Most likely, you chose to engage for bigger, more personal reasons. Perhaps you felt a personal connection to the organization’s purpose—it was a cause you really believed in. Or maybe you had a job where you realized you could really stretch and become your best.

It’s possible that your activity—the work itself— was extremely rewarding, or that you felt the company actually cared about you as a person, rather than just your production capacity. You may have felt a sense of freedom and automomy or personal wellbeing—that you were safe, could be yourself, and had great work-life balance. Or, maybe you simply felt extremely appreciated for your skills, talents, and role in the organization.

Your reasons for engaging (or disengaging) can act as clues in understanding the truth about employee engagement. Most people, like you, want to look forward to work each morning, be part of a winning team, use their unique skills, pour energy into their work, and produce spectacular results. It’s human nature to crave feelings of personal success. The question is; do organizations know how to tap in these natural desires and encourage them?

Four Basic Questions About Employee Engagement

You may be a seasoned leader who has studied the concept of employee engagement for a decade. You might be new in your leadership role and feel overwhelmed by the amount of information that exists. Or, you might be an employee—curious about why you feel so differently about one job or team over another—and you just want clarity.

Hopefully, we’ve already given you something to think about when it comes to understanding employee engagement. You’re probably beginning to see why engagement levels aren’t changing dramatically around the globe, and why so many organizations struggle to implement employee engagement tools and techniques.

The conversation surrounding employee engagement can feel like an endless stream of thought, trial, error, and implementation of engagement practices. Where do you start? What do you do? And, how do you initiate an employee engagement program? These are all big questions. Perhaps they’re too big.

We took the four most basic questions leaders ask about employee engagement and crafted simple, proven answers. At first glance, these questions may appear to be too basic—but a clear understanding of the fundamentals of engagement can save a lot of time and money down the road when it comes time to execute an employee engagement plan.

What is Employee Engagement?

Numerous competing definitions of employee engagement exist. Each varies slightly in their wording. Our assumption is that you have heard some of these definitions and have a decent understanding of what employee engagement means. Most sources agree employee engagement includes, but transcends employee satisfaction, including elements of discretionary effort, energy, attitude, safety, and commitment. While all of these aspects are important to understand, we believe the easiest way to define engagement is the level to which an employee cares about their work. In other words, how much passion, energy, love, and serious attention does one pour into doing their work well—not just to a point that satisfies the assignment, but often to a point that’s above and beyond expectations.

Engaged employees perform better. They stay longer. And, they produce better results. All of which impacts not only corporate culture, but also bottom line results.
Employee writing on a sticky note, planning on a wall

It’s important to note that employee engagement in the corporate world is, most often, a top-down initiative. That means the leaders of an organization are often attempting to inspire, motivate, and get employees to care more about the organization and their work. The fact that engagement is really up to the individual is too often overlooked. Leaders need to understand that engagement is a choice. Employees choose whether or not they will engage in a company’s success.

Understanding that last point can be either frustrating or freeing for leaders. On the one hand, it helps us accept that we have little control over an employee’s discretionary effort. On the other hand, it may be liberating to know that if we’ve done everything possible to give employees a reason to engage, then our responsibility has been satisfied. The rest is up to them. Of course, can we ever really say we we’ve done everything in our power to encourage people to engage? The answer to that is simply, no.

Why is Employee Engagement Important?

Few business topics have been as extensively studied in recent years as employee engagement. The results are clear, and they’re no surprise to anyone. Engaged employees perform better. They stay longer. And, they produce better results. All of which impacts not only corporate culture but also bottom-line results. So, while it may be useful to ask the question “Why is Employee Engagement Important?”, it’s time for leaders to consider asking a different question, “Have we honestly made employee engagement important enough?” Changing the question inspires an entirely new conversation. While managers may be asking “Why engagement” what they’re really asking is, “Am I engaged enough as a leader to put in the effort, energy, and activity to make employee engagement a priority?”

Let’s not forget that the real job or responsibility of any leader, manager, or boss is to help others become their best. Highly engaged employees are those who are striving to improve each and every day. There are endless benefits of employee engagement; companies with high employee engagement have:

• High performing employees who work harder. According to Gallup, companies in the top quartile of employee engagement have 18% higher sales, 41% fewer quality defects, and 58% fewer patient safety incidents.

• Higher productivity. Teams that are highly engaged are 17% more productive, have 10% higher customer service scores, and are 21% more profitable.

• Lower employee turnover. Companies that score in the top 20% in employee engagement have 59% less turnover.

• Increased employee safety. Highly engaged employees have 70% fewer safety incidents at work.

• Improved employee health: Employees who are engaged are less likely to be obese or suffer from chronic disease, and more likely to eat better and exercise more.

• Disengaged employees are more likely to leave, more likely to be absent from work, and less likely to be productive while at work. They may also be more likely to actively contribute to a negative workplace culture.

How Can We Improve Employee Engagement?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a simple formula for improving workplace culture? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were employee engagement articles that told you exactly what steps to take, and what tools and levers we could apply to increase engagement? Or which employee engagement ideas would work at every single organization? That would, indeed, make engagement simple.

Well, we can’t claim to have all the answers. And unfortunately, employee engagement ideas that work for one team or one organization may not work at another. But we do have some concrete ones that reveal why employees choose to engage or not engage in a workplace culture.

In 2018 the O.C. Tanner Institute released our first annual Global Culture Report. This was the first in a series of annual reports that explore exactly which cultural dynamics cause people to engage. As we looked across the many studies and models that sought to define what makes a workplace engaging, we found that most were very comprehensive, sometimes listing up to two dozen or more reasons why people choose to engage. We hoped to refine that to a more reasonable number.

Our report discovered ground-breaking insights from more than 15,000 employees and leaders across six continents. We discovered six essential elements that make a workplace attractive to employees. These six elements are the DNA of a great place to work. They are the catalysts that influence employees to join, engage with, and remain at any organization. We call them Talent Magnets because they both attract and engage employees to the places they work, and the work they do there.

Our research showed that when companies perform poorly in the 6 Talent Magnets, employees’ decision NOT to engage increases dramatically. Conversely, companies who performed well in each of the 6 categories were 4X more likely to have highly engaged employees.

O.C. Tanner's Talent Magnets: Purpose, Opportunity, Success, Appreciation, Wellbeing, Leadership

Employee engagement, then, begins with a clear understanding of the 6 triggers for engagement (or disengagement). Get those right, and you greatly increase the chance that employees will care about their work and choose to engage.

Before we tell you exactly what the six Talent Magnets are, are we need to explain something: understanding the elements that fuel engagement is much like understanding what is necessary for a plant to grow in the wild—sun, water, and nutrients. The Talent Magnets are the foundation of a thriving workplace culture. Yet, while these things are guaranteed to inspire employee engagement, people are not plants. Even when you provide every possible reason for an employee to engage, the choice is still theirs. That’s all the more reason to get corporate culture right.

Here is a summary of the 6 Talent Magnets. We suggest you study the Global Culture Report for an even deeper understanding. This may or may not surprise you, but the truth is, the things employees truly want most from their employers are not very often aligned with the things employers are doing to improve employee engagement. Our research did not reveal that outlandish perks, treats, parties, or benefits made a difference. The things that inspire employees to engage are actually more pragmatic.

The Talent Magnets are: 1) Purpose—knowing that one’s work is connected to something bigger that adds value and makes the world a better place. 2) Opportunity—having a voice in decisions, and doing challenging, meaningful work, 3) Success—the feeling of playing on a winning team, and experiencing the thrill of personal and team victories again and again, 4) Appreciation— knowing that one’s effort, results, and contributions are noticed, valued, and recognized by peers and leaders, 5) Wellbeing—feeling cared for at work beyond just physical fitness; feeling emotionally healthy and socially connected, and 6) Leadership—feeling like your leader is an advocate, coach, and mentor. Feeling inspired, supported, and encouraged by those in charge.

Employee engagement programs must revolve around the six Talent Magnet areas in order to be effective. Watch this video to learn more about how the Talent Magnets help build a culture people want to engage with.

Sound fundamental? It is. But perhaps the whole point is that we can’t get employee engagement right until we understand, and practice, the fundamentals.

There are many tools, technologies, and solutions to help improve each of the talent magnets. These include state-of-the art continuous performance management tools that help companies improve the connection between leaders and their employees; holistic wellbeing programs that focus on mental and social health, not just physical fitness; and employee recognition solutions that increase connections to purpose, leadership, appreciation, success, opportunity, and wellbeing. In truth, employee recognition has a disproportional impact on all six talent magnets. But that still doesn’t make recognition a silver bullet, just a really valuable arrow in your quiver.

Where should you begin? Well, this is the part where we have to be honest and admit that no two companies are exactly alike. If your workplace culture is strong in wellbeing and appreciation, you may need to begin with a leadership tool. If you are strong in appreciation and leadership, you may need to focus on wellbeing. And so on. We recommend you do some engagement research, based on the talent magnets, to determine both a short and long-term strategy for making your workplace irresistible to employees. This article will help you find the right employee engagement ideas that are right for your organization.

Employees eating lunch and laughing together

How To Measure Employee Engagement

First, a word on hearing versus listening. Many of the companies we encounter conduct employee engagement surveys to hear what employees have to say. But this can be problematic. The dictionary definition of “to hear” is “to be informed or told of.” By contrast, the dictionary definition of “to listen” is “to take notice of and act on what someone says.” See the difference? For this discussion, let’s assume we want to listen to (or notice and act on) employee feedback. Otherwise we’re hearing, but not really listening, to what employees have to say.

The next thing to know about measuring employee engagement is that it is not as clear cut as everyone makes it out to be. Too many companies and their assessment partners think they have measurement (or listening) dialed with an annual engagement survey. But this is a fallacy. The reason why is simple. One snapshot, once a year, is simply not enough information to go on to measure employee engagement.

Consider your own life experience. Do you care about your work with the same passion every day of the year? Of course not. Your attitude towards work varies daily due to a variety of contributing factors: timelines, deadlines, relationships with coworkers, how we’re feeling health-wise, whether or not we ate breakfast, sleep, things at home, disappointments and triumphs. If you think of an annual engagement survey in this light, it’s pretty unreliable.

Let’s say you just got out of a very difficult conversation with your supervisor where you were passed up for an important promotion. You’re feeling angry and upset and you take it out on the annual engagement survey. One week later, you get a new assignment working with some of your favorite colleagues on a highly visible project that will advance your career. You’re feeling way more engaged, but it’s too late to impact the survey. See the problem? Multiply that by millions of employees across millions of organizations, and you can see why annual engagement surveys are fundamentally flawed.

The final thing to know is that there is no one perfect way to measure engagement that’s perfectly suited to every organization on the planet. A hospital needs to assess engagement with very different questions, methods, and timing than, say, a construction company or an accounting firm. And assessment needs vary over time due to changes in company size, mergers, and other events that cause culture to shift. So, as much as we might wish for a silver-bullet solution to measuring employee engagement that’s right for every organization on the planet, we simply need to embrace the idea that measuring engagement is, by nature, different from company-to-company.

Now that you know annual surveys alone are insufficient, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to measuring engagement, is there any hope? Of course.

Here are six steps you can take to create an efficient and effective way to track employee engagement in your organization:

1. Listen to improve.

Remember, if we don’t act on the information we gain about employee engagement, we may be hearing, but we’re not actually listening to, what employees have to say. Nothing is more frustrating to any human being than to share an idea and receive no response. It’s discouraging. It’s disheartening. It’s the precise opposite of engaging. Many employees have told us they approach annual engagement surveys with the attitude that “nothing ever changes around here anyway so what’s the point.” They’re right. We need to make sure we are measuring engagement with the intent to improve. When people begin to feel the company listens, and makes consistent changes to improve the work experience, they will naturally be more inclined to engage.

2. Measure culture instead.

It’s important to remember that engagement is an outcome. It occurs as a result of an environment that inspires people to care about their work. So, if our goal is not merely to measure, but also to improve engagement, it makes sense that we should be measuring the cause of engagement: workplace culture. If we listen to what employees want in their work environment (things like autonomy, support, recognition, focus, vision, invitations to work on special projects, workplace flexibility, etc.) we can make incremental but important changes that will immediately impact employee engagement. But we can’t discover such opportunities if we only measure the outcome (engagement). We need to measure the cause (culture) instead.

3. Use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods.

As we said above, the annual survey is insufficient at capturing the engagement of an organization. But surveys still have their place. The ideal mix will vary by organization, but consider shaping your culture measurement strategy with a combination of annual surveys, focus groups, pulse surveys, and one-on-one conversations—with appropriate actions, responses, and improvements in-between. That will create a true picture of your culture and lead to actions that improve engagement over time.

4. Measure all the time.

You could mix up your methods and still make the mistake of focusing on a single week, or month, of the year for your measurement efforts. It’s important to measure your culture all year round. We call this continuous listening. There are many performance management tools available to help leaders make culture a part of regular one-on-one conversations. Combine feedback from these conversations with easy-to-administer pulse surveys and occasional focus groups throughout the year, plus your annual survey, and you will never be out of synch with the hearts and minds of employees.

5. Act on what you learn.

Engagement is only a nuisance when our efforts to understand and improve it are futile. When we get in a rhythm of listening and improving, employee engagement becomes a fantastic journey. We suggest measuring engagement (or more appropriately, culture) through the lens of the six talent magnets, or aspects of a thriving workplace culture. As you listen throughout the year, via a variety of methods, look for small changes you can make and make them. You’ll soon find that if you focus on getting culture right, engagement will follow.

6. Keep track of trends.

Just because engagement is high after one survey doesn’t mean the work is done. Engagement, like other perceptions of workplace culture, can vary over time or after major changes in the workplace. So look at your employee engagement report carefully and track patterns over time. If you do this well, you’ll be able to see the direct impact of your engagement initiatives and identify areas of improvement before engagement levels go down.

In conclusion, improving workplace culture can transform entire organizations. Culturally. Emotionally. Financially. It can turn marginal teams into highly engaged, top-performing ones. It can energize each individual to care more about their work and to become the very best version of themselves. When that happens, your people will wake up excited to come to work every morning and change your business, and the world, for the better.

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