Employee Engagement: where it began, measuring it and moving forward.

July 20, 2015

Employee Engagement continues to be a growing concern for many organizations as research continues to link engagement with an organization’s bottom line. Studies from Gallup tell us that engaged teams deliver higher customer satisfaction scores, higher productivity and higher profitability. Safe to say, if you’re a leader in any organization it’s critical that one of your primary concerns be building a culture with consistently high engagement.

Employee engagement was coined in the ‘80s but first cited in an academic journal in 1990 by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES). Prior to this, human resources or more specifically, “personnel” focused on employee satisfaction and the job. Separate than motivation but closely linked, job satisfaction describes how happy an individual is with his or her job.

One common prelude to job satisfaction remains consistent in any research found on this topic, and that is the Hawthorne Studies. This was one of the first studies to demonstrate that employees cared about the perceived efforts of their performance; and so it goes, in 1925, a company called Hawthorne Works commissioned a study to see whether workers would become more productive in higher and lower levels of light. Interestingly, the team of researchers found that changes did occur; productivity seemed to improve when changes were made to the illumination but slumped when the study concluded. It was later discovered that changes resulted, not from the new conditions of the lighting, but from the knowledge of being observed. Hence, contrary to Classical Theory of Motivation (Frederick Taylor, 1911), this finding provided strong evidence that individuals performed for purposes other than money.

It doesn’t matter where you look; the theory of employee engagement has three common elements: Organizational Commitment, Job Satisfaction and Intention to Stay. This concept proved to be more robust than employee satisfaction alone which focuses on the employee rather than the organization or the employee’s relationship to it. Engagement is much more concerned with the two-way relationship of both organization and employee. People have a choice to do a great job or a mediocre one. They exercise this choice based on the emotional connection they feel towards the purpose of a particular project, team or organization, hence, how engaged they are. We know employees want to do a good job and therefore, they want to be actively engaged but how can an organization begin to measure this? It’s simple – you have to ask. Surveys are the vehicles by which opinions and ideas are transmitted upwards in an organization. If developed and executed properly, they can solicit honest feedback from employees. Whether you conduct a survey in-house or contact a survey provider, getting this information is imperative to understanding where your investment should be spent in action planning.

If an engagement survey is not in your current plan but increasing engagement is, then start by investigating the reasons why your employees leave. If you don’t already conduct exit interviews, start doing this! Ask your employees why they’ve left and what could have been done to keep them. Research demonstrates that surprisingly, compensation is not the primary reason people leave their workplace. Most common reasons include lack of professional growth opportunities along with management. Knowing why employees leave can help tailor planning energies. Perhaps spending for management trainee programs or time-management training for supervisors would be worth the investment.

Stay interviews are becoming more popular and are very distinct from the performance appraisal process. Identify your top performers and then, in an informal setting ask them what keeps them at your organization. You may be surprised at the results. Relational aspects can be much more meaningful to an employee and provide longer lasting results than a transactional offering such as a bonus. For example, the mother just returning to the workplace may be more engaged by having a flexible work schedule than to receive a pay increase. Below are some other, low cost ideas that will have an immediate impact on increasing engagement:

  • Leverage Lunch Sessions. Your employees are already at work so use this time strategically to help break down silos and increase team synergy. Host lunch and learns where an employee is in charge of researching a topic of interest and delivering the session; have a new employee host the following month. Consider off-site lunches and other training forums.
  • Change-Up the Work Environment. It’s amazing how making minor changes to an employee’s workspace (i.e. having them by a window or adding a plant) can create a more engaging atmosphere. Additionally, providing collaboration spaces outside of an individual’s immediate work space is also an innovative idea (think Google).
  • Use Hobbies to Engage. Create a hobby club or start a book club. The clubs don’t necessarily have to be related to work. Creating specific rules can help structure this.
  • Offer Mentoring. Mentorship programs have many benefits. A successful mentor guides, trains, advises, and promotes the career development of the novice.
  • Provide Competition. Healthy competition can be a great incentive for many work units. Whether you have a challenge in-house or register your organization for a charity event or sports league (i.e. Summer Softball), there are many great ideas online to help promote an active lifestyle, getting employees out of the office and moving around.
  • Flexible Working Arrangements. Appealing especially to the younger generations, offering flexible arrangements is becoming more popular. Many employees in your organization are constantly “plugged in” – thank you technology! This means employees are accessible 24/7 and work / life balance is no longer as important as what many are now calling work / life blend. Having opportunities where employees can occasionally work from home, telecommute, compress their work weeks or have flex hours in and around conditional working hours can really encourage autonomy and has been shown to increase engagement.

Remember: people have a choice to do a great job or a mediocre one. With that in mind, if all of the pieces are in place to promote an engaged workforce, employees choose to either engage or disengage despite an employer’s efforts.

Think “orchestra”. I once saw this in a university textbook with the tag: Employee Engagement at 100%; harmony, quality, skills, high performance, teamwork, commitment, efficiency, leadership – all of these attributes create synergy. This is what we want to achieve in any given organization; the whole becomes larger with the sum of its parts and produces a highly effective organization. This begins with engaging our current talent.


Jennifer Haineault





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