What is Employee Engagement and How You Can Rock it!

May 25, 2020

In Employee Engagement

c'est quoi l'engagement des employés

“Employee engagement” has become entrenched in our business vernacular. You see it on the company meeting agenda and find yourself mentioning it in your Slack channel. It’s in titles of your HBR bulletins, and you find colleagues often forward you articles on the subject.

Why? Because, people who care about the well-being and success of their company know the buzz is more than background noise. You, as an HR leader or manager, know that more than anyone.

But what is employee engagement exactly? And what is it not? Let’s take a closer look.

What is Employee Engagement?

Popular HR topics like employee engagement may develop a misleading connotation, much like…popular songs. Ever been belting out your favorite song and had a friend point out the actual lyrics? You suddenly learned Annie Lennox was saying “sweet dreams are made of these” while you’ve been singing about cheese all this time. It happens.

The concept of employee engagement is (similarly) misunderstood and is often confused with satisfaction or happiness. You may have a reliable team member who reports in each day on time and is satisfied with her job, never uttering a complaint. But does simply satisfied mean she’s going to put in extra effort towards the company’s goals? Will she take it upon herself to propose a new idea, inspired by the pain points you referenced in your weekly meeting? Or will she just wait quietly for a new directive?

Happiness works the same way. You may see lots of smiles on camera in your virtual meetings, watch jokes fly through your chat channel or hear about team members organizing virtual happy hours outside of work. They jell and seem to be happy employees. But is that enough to keep them from toggling LinkedIn’s “open to opportunities” switch to ON? Or from turning down another offer that “just fell into my lap”?

Defining Employee Engagement

The true definition of employee engagement is deeper in meaning. It is about the degree of emotional and intellectual commitment people have to the company’s goals and objectives. It has to do with connection, dedication and enthusiasm toward the business. It’s about being invested in outcomes.

Employee engagement is defined as “the level of an employee’s psychological investment in their organization.”

Engaged employees care if the business succeeds or fails, and not just because it’s their income stream. They feel psychologically attached.

Engaged employees feel a connection to:

The Company

  • What does the organization stand for? What is your purpose in the world (beyond making money)? Does the mission resonate on a deep level with your employees?
  • What is your brand identity? Does it instill a source of pride within your team? Are your team members excited to talk about it with their friends and family?
  • What basic offerings does your company provide to the team? Do you offer benefits that make the team feel supported?

Their Manager/Leadership Team

  • Do managers employ effective communication practices? Are they clear with expectations and diligent about giving feedback? Are all levels of management consistent in their messaging?
  • Do your employees respect and trust their manager? Does the manager respect and trust their employees?
  • Does the manager show genuine care over the welfare of their team and team members? Do they support their goals and recognize their accomplishments?

The Team

  • Are your employees’ colleagues committed to doing great work? Is there awareness of and respect for what others do?
  • Do co-workers support each other or is it ‘every man for himself’? Does the team share a common goal?
  • Is there an openness to new ideas or is there a culture of criticism? Do team members collaborate willingly?

Their role

  • Are the roles and responsibilities in line with the employees’ interests, strengths and skillsets?
  • Does their role put them in their zone of genius, i.e. what they do best and better than most? Are their skills well-utilized?
  • Do they feel their role makes a difference in the organization?

Consider these questions, and you’ll be tuned into key factors that play a part in engagement at its core. But why is employee engagement important? Why work so hard to engage your employees? What does it really mean for you and your company?

Why is Employee Engagement Important?

The benefits of an engaged workforce translate to tangible and measurable results, going beyond just a warm and fuzzy “good feeling” at work. Engagement has an impact on key business metrics.

The Gallup Organization, experts on employee engagement and the data behind it, conducted a meta-analysis in 2016 to gauge how engagement translated into business outcomes. They found that regardless of economic prosperity or hardship, higher engagement levels mean:

1. Higher Productivity

The study showed that highly engaged business units were 17% more productive than others. Engaged employees show up committed to the work they’re doing and motivated to do more work. They get “in the zone” quickly and stay there longer.

2. Reduction in Absenteeism

To get the job done and make meaningful contributions, your employees first must show up to work. Units that boast high engagement numbers have 41% lower absenteeism. Excessive calling out or usage of sick days typically signals an engagement red flag. Consistent attendance helps minimize gaps in work output and eliminates the efforts needed to pick up where employees left off.

3. Decreased Turnover, Increased Retention

There is 24% less turnover in highly engaged teams. And in organizations that already have low turnover (40% or lower annualized turnover), these engaged units show even more impressive results – 59% less turnover. These reductions mean a great deal to the bottom line when you consider it costs companies $4,129 on average to hire one person.

4. Improved Customer Relationships

When your employees care about the organization’s success and putting forth extra efforts to achieve quality outcomes, your customers reap the benefits. Engaged business units report a 10% increase in customer ratings, coupled with a 20% increase in sales.

All of these elements culminate into one big outcome: increased profitability21% greater profitability to be exact. If you want to propel your business to the next level of success, employing effective employee engagement strategies will help move the needle. Or in other words, you’ll be eating more cheese 🧀 (thanks after all, Ms. Lennox).

How to Measure Employee Engagement?

In order to rock employee engagement, you first need to know how to measure it.  As notable management consultant and author Peter Drucker says: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” It is important to identify what you’re measuring and why, how you’ll track progress and what you’ll do with results.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” – Peter Drucker

🎯 Identify

Start by defining the goals you want to achieve, whether it’s increasing productivity, improving collaboration between departments or enhancing retention of top talent. Be sure to clearly share the reason for gathering insights and what you plan to do with the feedback. How will it benefit the company, each department and the employees? Tune into the WIIFM station and create buy-in from your team.

📏 Measure

Determine what type of survey or information gathering best suits your goals and culture. You may glean information through routine stay or exit interviews, one-on-one meetings, or through an official survey. They key is to standardize each method of feedback collection – that is, ask the same questions each time so you have a benchmark to identify patterns and trends.

🔊 Communicate

To create transparency, share the results with your teams. Be sure to aggregate your data rather than sharing individual comments or answers. It is important to maintain individual anonymity for participants in order to encourage honesty in the responses; people tend to feel safer in numbers. Share results in a team debrief versus sending around a deluge of numbers over email; you can use the meeting as an opportunity to validate feedback and continue the engagement conversation. Share overall strengths, areas for improvement and, most importantly, have an open dialogue with your people.

🏃🏻‍ Act

Develop an action plan; involve the team and report back on progress. Feedback is only as good as your follow-through. Employee engagement best practices suggest choosing just 1 area to focus on; rather than diffusing your energies on improving 5 targets, concentrate on moving the needle in one area. You are likely to have better success with less overwhelm, gain more trust in the survey process and reduce the likelihood of making the phrase “nothing ever changes” your company motto.

Then it’s time to repeat the cycle and survey again. For expanded employee engagement best practices on survey implementation, our friends at Gallup offer a detailed guide.

5. Employee Engagement Strategies

Now that you know the answers to “what is employee engagement?”,why is employee engagement important?” and “how do I measure engagement?”, let’s put theory into action. Here are 5 employee engagement strategies to create an ideal company culture and a psychologically invested workforce.

5.1. Hire Strategically

Building a legion of emotionally and intellectually invested team members starts with your recruiting process. You have a better shot at a winning team when you look closely at the formation of its members. Hiring processes geared towards engagement look at more than just skills; they assess cultural alignment. To find and retain an A-player, check for a match in these key areas:

Mission and Values

Having pride in the organization and believing in its mission and values is key to feeling connected. Is the candidate passionate about your company’s core purpose – your reason for existing? Or are they just trying to collect a paycheck…anywhere. Identify your organization’s core values (guiding behaviors and actions), uncover those of the candidate, and ask for examples and past experiences that demonstrate the alignment. To quote Simon Sinek (Start with Why): “Working hard for something we do not care about is called stress, working hard for something we love is called passion.”

Product and Services

Passion for what you offer to clients goes right along with why you sell it and what you hope to achieve in the world. Listen to a person’s tone and observe energy levels when they talk about your product or service. Does the candidate become excited or is there a flatline? Do they ask questions? Do you, yourself, feel drained after the conversation or are you pumped up? There is a world of intel you can gain by observing behavioral reactions.

Career Goals

If you’re looking to fill a support role, and the person you’re interviewing has dreams of being a manager within the next year, you are looking at a hiring mismatch who will become disengaged quickly. If the growth path of the role and what the candidate desires are in the same direction, you are likely to have an engaged, motivated team member who can’t wait to do great things for you.

Demands of the Role

Even if the employee is deeply passionate about your company’s mission, when the daily requirements of the role don’t match the skills, strengths and interests of the candidate, you run the risk of disengagement. That person that used to bounce into the office, ready to get cracking on the day’s tasks will slowly devolve into a detached work zombie. In a 2020 talent survey by Deloitte, 42% of respondents hunting for new opportunities believed their job does not make good use of their skills and abilities. The goal is to have each employee in a role that allows them to do what they do best – maybe even better than anyone else – each day.

Being strategic about your people starts with hiring, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. Company veterans need just as much attention. From the first interview throughout the employee’s tenure, ensure you clearly define the mission of the role, what success looks like in it, and how their work impacts the overall business. Recalibrate when necessary. People crave meaning in their work, and to see it clearly, we need to paint the picture.

5.2. Empower and Grow Your Managers

Research shows that managers account for 70% of employee engagement variance. Just to be sure you saw that…70%! Managers have a large part to play in engaging their team and creating a sense of psychological attachment to the business. If you want engaged employees, ensure your managers have the tools, skills and guidance to motivate their team members. Great managers:

  • Establish clear goals for their team that are tied to company objectives

Explaining WHY the goals are important and what achieving them will do for the individual and the business gives essential context for motivation. It’s one thing to say “you need to schedule 30 meetings this week because I’m your manager and I said so” and another to explain how business activity and sales volume hinges upon the connections built in these meetings.

  • Provide growth opportunities

Determining a path for growth starts with understanding the passions, strengths and goals of the team member and then matching them up with business needs. What will make the team member feel most accomplished? Most proud? What skills do they need to get them to the next level? Outlining both short and long-term goals helps pave the way to an exciting tomorrow. Then the manager mentors and coaches them until they get there – this deepens trust, creates loyalty and reminds the team member you have their best interest in mind.

  • Support their team

Managers with engaged teams help their people find effective solutions. Let’s say a customer service representative can’t seem to diffuse a crisis with their client. The empowered manager steps in to help – he or she may propose an alternate strategy, provide resources, suggest a solution or personally pick up the phone to the client. Simply put, engaged team members feel that their manager has their back. When you’re standing in the fire, you become emotionally connected knowing your manager is ready with a fire hose and fully capable of putting out the flames.

  • Show they care

Great managers build trust with their team members by taking the time to learn about employees on an individual basis. They encourage a healthy balance of work and personal life, taking care to keep the team members’ energy reserve full. Outside of official reviews or meetings, they take time to connect – learning about their outside interests, family, hobbies and history. Time spent in engagement conversations makes deposits into the emotional bank account.

When you grow your managers to exhibit these behaviors, you invest in your key engagement influencers. Foster your managers’ development as you would any team member: set up trainings, provide resources, coach them (externally or internally), and hold them accountable to a high level of performance.

5.3. Recognize Your People

According to Gallup, one of the most common reasons employees leave their jobs is lack of recognition. If you want to know how to improve company culture and reduce turnover, the answer lies here. When we don’t feel seen or valued for our contributions, skills or behaviors, it’s easy to feel detached, become resentful and look elsewhere to make an impact. To strengthen the employer/employee bond, it’s critical to relay the positive impact one has on the other – directly, clearly and sincerely.

Unfortunately, offering recognition can often be the first thing to fall by the wayside when the workload gets heavy or pressure is high; statistics show that 82% of employees don’t feel they’re recognized enough for their work. That is why having tools to support your recognition efforts should be part of your winning employee engagement strategy. Here are 3 solutions to help establish a solid foundation for showing appreciation:

  • Orange – a manager training program

Since we know managers heavily influence employee engagement, it’s wise to ensure your leadership team is trained on how to properly recognize their people. Orange is designed to integrate recognition into daily practices. The program teaches how to practice recognition effectively and develop a system to maintain it.

You learn that effective recognition is built on more than just “good job” and a pat on the back; quality and frequency of recognition play an important role in keeping employees engaged. To gain resonance, it must be sincere and authentic. You must not only point out the positive behavior but also name the impact of it – what effect did their action have on the team or company? That’s when a team member feels they truly making a difference. The training is simple (only 30 minutes per week) and spans a 12-week period – the same amount of time it takes to form a habit. No coincidence there!

Whether teams are physically together in the office or working virtually, having a common place to recognize and be recognized offers both structure and motivation. On the “recognition wall” both peers and managers can give, receive and comment on recognition that the entire company can see, injecting a dose of positivity into the work climate. In addition to boosting morale and calling attention to great work, the platform also allows you to stay connected to your company’s core values. Other features of the platform are the ability to win points (allocated by managers), redeem rewards, and share company news. By offering both peer-to-peer and manager recognition opportunities, every person on the team has a chance to feel valued and connected – emotions that are critical contributors to employee engagement.

Another gesture of appreciation comes in the form of a gift. Many of you reading may be breaking into a cold sweat thinking “Not the gift decision again! I just never know what they’ll actually like 😰” Though you may have made every effort to know your team’s preferences, many times the gift of choice is the best gift of all. An online gift boutique, where the employee receives a code to choose their own token of appreciation, eliminates the “bad gift” risk and shows your team you care enough to let them choose. Elect a platform with a wide variety of gift options to capture preferences – Celebration contains over 4,000, ranging from jewelry to activities and experiences, restaurants to outdoor equipment.

Whether it’s through specialized gifts or sincere words of praise, recognition creates a psychological bond between the employee and the organization.

5.4. Communicate, Communicate and Communicate Again

Did we mention communication? The link to management and engagement is extremely strong, and this includes corporate leadership. Trust is at the core of this precious link, and it is established when we do what we say we’re going to do. We’re transparent. We listen. We communicate a plan and follow through on that plan. Research shows that 62% of employees who plan to stay with their companies reported high levels of trust in their corporate leadership, when only 27% of those who plan on leaving their jobs say the same. Consistency and reliability are crucial. So, what can you do to establish trust in senior leadership?

  • Communicate regularly on company goals and position

This is especially important in times of uncertainty, where information changes rapidly and anxiety may be high. To keep your team informed (and thereby more engaged), share the current situation, what it means for operations, measures taken, roles and responsibilities, and lastly, what resources and support are available. In the absence of information, people tend to make up their own narratives. Communication goals are to provide accurate and timely information, eliminate any rumors, and reinforce values and direction.

  • Align messaging

Senior leadership may set the vision, but middle managers have a large sphere of influence in creating buy-in with the team. Therefore, it’s absolutely vital to ensure the entire leadership team is on the same page – from CEO to Team Leaders – when communicating corporate strategy. Make sure messaging points are clear, understood, promoted and executed by all levels of management. Imagine the President of your company announced you would be spreading into new markets and listed 3 strategies to support the goal. If your immediate supervisor tells your team she has a more effective plan and introduces new strategies 4 and 5, the lines of trust break down – seeds of doubt are planted, stories are spun, and divisions are created. Keeping in sync with messaging points keeps the team focused and rallied around the same agenda.

  • Listen to your employees

Effective communication is a two-way street. To fully understand how information is landing and being absorbed, provide a space for people to ask questions and direct feedback. Hearing directly from employees can help shed light on blind spots and gain insight into daily realities of those on the front lines. Fail to provide space for feedback and it’ll be like living each day on a Zoom call where all cameras are off and everyone is on mute. (Bueller? Bueller?) Whether it’s through an anonymous form, an all-hands Q&A or a series of smaller check-ins, understand what the true questions and concerns are so you can target your communication plan and address items that affect productivity. When you tune into your people, you get the pulse of engagement.

5.5. Create a Healthy Work Environment

Wherever you work, the physical and psychological setting in which you perform your job plays a significant role in engagement. Imagine an environment where Dave is working a grueling 12 hours a day in 85-degree heat, coworkers berate him every time he makes a mistake, and his manager keeps piling on work with impossible deadlines. Not exactly the place you’d expect to have high engagement; it’s a high-stress environment. According to the American Institute of Stress, an estimated $500 billion is siphoned off from the US economy and 1 million workers are absent every day due to workplace stress. By mitigating the contributing factors, you’ll enhance the environment and increase engagement.

  • Cover the basics

Though it might seem, well…basic, basic needs form the foundation of a healthy work environment, from having the right materials and equipment to knowing what’s expected. Do a technology and workspace inventory with each employee to ensure they have what they need. Be sure everyone on the team knows the available resources and points of contact. Review your benefits package; ensure it provides employees with ample support for their lives with programs like group insurance, 401K, wellness resources, and adequate time off.

Health and safety apply here too. Remove hazards from the environment (i.e. loose wires) and ensure the physical environment promotes focus and productivity – from the temperature of the space to background noise. Not every space is perfect but show your team you care enough to make it the safest and most comfortable it can be.

  • Foster positive co-worker relationships

The relationship we have with those around us at work, can create a sense of belonging. Research shows a significant correlation between employee relationships with coworkers and employee engagement; psychological meaningfulness is increased when these relationships are strong. To forge these connections, start by examining your own behavior. Ensure you are committed to and accountable for great work; then encourage the team around you. Build collaboration into the work culture. Host brainstorming sessions and set ground rules to respect opinions and remain open to ideas. Organize team-building activities and set the stage for your employees to get to know each other. Run campaigns for motivation. Too often we think work and play are mutually exclusive; don’t be afraid to build some FUN into the routine while striving for winning results!

  • Establish psychological safety

Being engaged at work hinges upon interpersonal trust and mutual respect. In 2012, Google began a 2-year study on teams called Project Aristotle; their key finding was that the level of psychological safety in a team was the number one factor in determining eventual effectiveness. The concept means team members feel safe to take risks around each other, feeling confident that they won’t be embarrassed, rejected or punished for admitting a mistake, or sharing ideas. Create this environment by practicing conversational turn-taking and empathy. Nip toxic behaviors and overly critical tendencies in the bud. Say “yes, and” rather than “no, but.” Lead by example.

  • Promote balance

Burnout is on the rise (two-thirds of all employees) and can have a detrimental effect on health, job performance, and employee engagement. To tilt the balance scale away from burnout and towards sustainability, encourage employees to take breaks. Avoid sending emails after hours or over the weekend. Reward and recognize efficiency versus working long hours. Examine workloads and redistribute when necessary. Many may be tethered to an old-school work ethic, so don’t be afraid to encourage time off. The rest and recharge of PTO can be just what your employee needs to come back with new ideas and energy.

Bottom line: employees care more about an organization when they know they are being cared for.

Engagement and Company Culture

As you may have concluded, employee engagement and company culture go hand in hand. Some may know all too well the cut-throat, sink or swim environment that prioritizes profits over their people. Companies that embrace this way of doing business likely find themselves with less productive, disengaged employees over time, who are desperately looking for the exit sign. When we focus on creative positive work cultures, we see a team of energized, dedicated employees who are productivity powerhouses.

According to research by the Harvard Business Review, the 6 qualities of a positive workplace culture include caring for colleagues as friends, supporting one another, being accountable and avoiding blame, inspiring one another, reinforcing the meaning behind our work, and mutual respect. By employing many of the strategies outlined above, these principles will live and breathe inside your doors.

Now… congratulations are in order!

If you’ve arrived here, you’re not only invested in the success of your organization, but you’re now equipped with the knowledge and action plan to truly rock employee engagement. You know that employee engagement is not about just satisfaction or happiness, but psychological investment. You know that it impacts key business metrics like productivity and retention. You know that measuring it consistently helps you know where you stand and what to improve. You know 5 strategies to increase engagement and how to improve company culture as a whole. You’re pretty great, you know that?

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