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Understanding Employee Engagement


Michelle Elliot


24th September 2019


Employees who are positively engaged at work perform better and increase productivity. Similarly, organisations with high engagement outperform those with low engagement. A study carried out by the Gallup Organisation in 2012 confirms this. It found that business units with engagement scores in the top quartile averaged 12 per cent higher profitability than those with engagement scores in the bottom quartile, so understanding employee engagement is a vital part of any business.

Action Checklist

1. Review the current situation

Start by assessing the current climate in the organisation, identifying areas of strength and weakness and uncovering any factors which are acting as barriers to understanding employee engagement and need to be addressed. Many organisations choose to do this by means of an employee survey. This option can be expensive and time consuming and requires careful consideration. The commitment of senior management is vital – both to provide the resources required and to take action on the findings. Resources will be needed for the selection or development of a suitable survey, the conduct of the survey and the implementation of any improvements found to be necessary – increases in training budgets, for example.

It is also vital to communicate clearly with employees about the aims and purpose of the survey, to ensure confidentiality and to assure employees that their views will be taken seriously. Without a clear commitment on the part of the employer to act on the results, a survey could be counter-productive. Nonetheless, an employee survey can give a clear indication of levels of engagement. Our checklist on Employee Attitude Surveys gives more information on this option.

Additional methods for gathering information should certainly include:
• Employee focus groups
• Exit interviews with employees leaving the organisation
• Well-being audits

Regular tracking of staff turnover, absence rates and grievances can also help to identify patterns and trends and to gauge current levels of engagement. A review of the workplace ‘hygiene factors’ and ‘motivators’ identified by Frederick Herzberg could also be helpful.

2. Develop a tailored organisational strategy

Employee engagement programmes may encompass a wide range of initiatives and research has suggested that the best results achieved are with programmes that are tailored to an organisation and its employees. You may need to consider the needs and motivations of different groups of employees – older workers, younger workers, or disabled workers for example. When drawing up a strategy, don’t try to tackle everything at once. Based on your findings you should be able identify the areas most in need of attention. This will help you to put together an incremental programme of improvements.

The McLeod report identified four key enablers of employee engagement:
• Empowering leadership
• Engaging managers
• Employee voice
• Organisational integrity

The following action points expand on these factors and outline key areas to consider when developing a strategy for employee engagement.

3. Set a clear vision and strategy and create a shared sense of purpose

It is easy for leaders to assume that everyone knows and understands what the organisation is for and what it is trying to achieve. But vision, strategy and a sense of purpose need to be clearly articulated and communicated so that employees in all areas of the business develop a shared understanding of organisational aims and objectives and understand how their job role fits in with and contributes to them. Everyone needs to be able to look beyond their day to day work and get the ‘big picture’ of what is happening across the organisation and where the organisation is heading in the future.

4. Recognise the role of line managers

For the majority of employees, their most important working relationship is with their line manager. Line managers, therefore, play a key role in engaging employees. Bear in mind that to do this, they must themselves be fully engaged by their managers.

They must be able to:
• Develop constructive and open working relationships with their team members
• Communicate messages and information clearly to ensure that employees know the expectations of them in their job roles
• Facilitate and empower rather than control and restrict
• Give regular feedback on good and poor performance
• Express appreciation for the contribution of team members
• Provide support, coaching and opportunities for training and development as necessary

It is also crucial that line managers are seen to treat employees as individuals, with fairness and respect and that they show concern for the well-being of employees. Consider whether line managers need training and development in management and leadership skills, especially soft.

5. Make effective communication a priority

The use of a whole range of different methods by organisations to keep their employees informed and up to date is key. These include meetings, briefings, newsletters and corporate intranets. What matters in relation to engagement is the effectiveness, regularity and consistency of communication, rather than the methods used. Open and honest communication, focusing on positive progress and achievements as well as the challenges and difficulties faced by the organisation. No one likes to feel that they are being kept in the dark or being given a false impression of the true situation. This undermines confidence and trust in leaders and can lead to disillusionment and disengagement.

6. Listen to your employees

Communication should be two-way to help employees to feel valued and respected and know that the employer takes their expectations and aspirations seriously. Employees need to know that their views and opinions will be heard and taken into account and that they can safely raise issues which concern them. It is particularly important for senior managers to be visible and approachable. Some organisations provide email access to senior management so that employees can ask questions or put forward ideas. Others encourage a culture of MBWA – management by walking around. There are many different ways to consult with employees and develop ‘employee voice’. Formal methods could include:
• Employee suggestion schemes
• Staff councils
• Workshops and consultations
• Partnerships with trade unions

Whatever methods used, however, must be genuine or they will lead to frustration on the part of employees. For example, the introduction of a suggestion scheme, the processes for evaluating suggestions should be clearly defined; accepted suggestions acted on; and the reasons why action cannot be taken on other suggestions explained.

7. Develop relationships based on trust

Employee engagement is essentially to do with relationships rather than processes and procedures and trust is a vital ingredient here, especially in times of uncertainty. It is important for employees to know leaders are not only focused on their own personal agendas but have the interests of the whole organisation and its workforce at heart. To earn the trust and loyalty of their employees, leaders and managers must be visible and authentic. They must speak the truth and act with integrity. If there is a statement of organisational values, leaders should therefore model those values in their own behaviour. As mentioned at point 5, open and honest communication also helps to build trust.

8. Review reward and recognition systems

Studies have shown that financial incentives are generally not the prime motivator of commitment and engagement. Nonetheless, perceptions of unfairness can be a powerful disengaging factor. Therefore, it is important for employees to feel that they are being fairly compensated for their efforts, that pay and reward structures, including bonus schemes, are fair and equitable and that the application of performance appraisals and performance management systems is fair and consistent across the organisation. Packages of employee benefits can help to create positive attitudes towards an employer, especially where the benefits offered fit the perceived needs of the workforce. Some organisations offer and tailor flexible benefits packages which can meet individual needs and priorities. Recognising the achievements and contributions of employees can have a significant impact on engagement when done in a way which makes the employee feel valued.

This may be through genuine expressions of thanks and appreciation on, for example, the successful completion of a project, or more formally through schemes involving cash or non-cash rewards, such as vouchers or cinema tickets.

9. Provide learning and development opportunities

The provision of opportunities for appropriate training and development will help employees develop their skills and work effectively in their current job roles, giving a sense of achievement, personal growth and job satisfaction. It can also help to identify latent talents and abilities and open up opportunities for promotion and career progression.

10. Build a culture of engagement

Employee engagement is not a one-off exercise. Organisations therefore need to develop and maintain a culture which:
• Values and respect its employees
• Demonstrates fairness and integrity
• Promotes open communication across the organisation
• Empowers employees to make decisions and take initiatives within their area of responsibility
• Encourages participation and involvement
This will involve regular ongoing monitoring of improvements or setbacks and the tackling of issues as they arise.

Download the Manager’s Quick Guide to learn more.