Employee engagement activities are often undertaken to demonstrate how important employees are to an organisation, but it can be difficult to demonstrate the return on investment with the time and attention this often takes away from the actual work itself, which can lead to questions about the true value this adds to business performance.
What is employee engagement?
Whilst there are various definitions of employee engagement, with some organisations abandoning the phrase altogether, replacing it with an employee’s experiences, it’s worth taking a moment to understand what it actually means. Many academics define employee engagement as something related to the level of vigour, dedication and absorption an employee has in their organisation or work, impacting their motivation and commitment. They tend to describe these outputs or outcomes as a result of engaging employees, rather than the inputs that drive engagement. Russell, through his work on the Circumplex Theory of Organisational Wellbeing, defines being engaged as related to high activation (high energy), and pleasure or being in a pleasant state. Knowing the value we add to an organisation when we undertake the tasks expected of us and being clear about what those tasks are, and why they are important, creates a high-energy state driven from a level of strategic clarity. Many organisations have stated values, but it’s not often you hear employees raving about how well they are being demonstrated, quite the opposite. But when these are lived and breathed, it creates a pleasant environment, inevitably shaping the culture of the organisation. It’s easy to see how the combination of strategic clarity creating a high-energy state, combined with the creation of a pleasant environment, can lead to a psychological state of engagement.
What is employer engagement and why does it matter?
Now we almost always focus on employee engagement, but we also need to consider employer engagement – the degree to which employers demonstrate their commitment to employees. For those business owners and CEOs who might be tempted to use the phrase ‘it’s correlation, not causation’ when it comes to employee engagement, consider how those work experiences are impacting that employee sat with their head in their hands on a Sunday evening, thinking ‘I don’t want to go to work tomorrow’. What does it take for someone to feel like this and what impact might this be having on their family and their effectiveness at work? Then we need to understand that the population who come to work disengaged – often assigned disparaging labels within engagement surveys such as ‘well poisoners’, seen as actively working against the organisation. Most if not all employees joined organisations engaged – disengagement is what we have done to them over time, as a result of the experiences we have put them through. We need to reframe the term employee engagement to also consider employer engagement and acknowledge disengaged employees, which are more often than not, the result of poor work experiences.
Having a better understanding of what we are trying to achieve, we now need to be clear about how the strategy of the organisation is influenced by the experiences of people at work. Who are the people across your organisation that are critical to delivering the strategy? Who are their stakeholders and the people they are reliant on? What are the experiences of all of these people at work? Understanding the mindset of those responsible for delivering the strategy will help us understand the way it is likely to be implemented. We want to move away from making work a transactional experience to something immersive and meaningful. Employee engagement was always meant to be a measure of the ‘day job’, not an industry on top of it, yet our experiences are often the opposite, distracting the business from the focus of work. We undertake engagement surveys, with questions that can often seem meaningless to employees, and then focus on action planning, based upon typically confusing and inconsistent data. The result is often a tick-box exercise adding little value to better understand the people’s experiences across organisations, with little understanding of how this can improve business performance, and therefore making little gains to improve these experiences. To better understand the people’s experiences, we need to have confidence that the tools being implemented are giving us an accurate picture of what people experience at work and how this is making them feel. How can you be sure that the questions being asked in your engagement survey are the issues on the minds of your employees? What would they tell us if they weren’t restricted to the questions being asked?
When employees love their work, it’s obvious to see how this would impact innovation, creativity, dedication, and drive – we don’t need statistics showing causation versus correlations to validate this. Many of us may have worked with leaders who displayed controlling and demanding behaviours, wanting little input from the talent around them. In this environment it’s easy to see how talented people would become disengaged, eventually choosing to leave their organisation, directly impacting recruitment costs and business performance whilst new talent is sought. Then there’s the reputational impact of great and poor people experiences – sites such as Glassdoor are often the first place many people go when considering their next role, having a direct business impact on the ability to recruit the talent needed to deliver the organisational strategy.
Employee engagement is a critical business function that directly and indirectly impacts business performance. It’s important not to relegate activities to improve people’s experiences at work to a survey but rather to use this as a measure of the culture across the organisation, which creates positive and negative experiences impacting business performance. Off-the-shelf surveys might be convenient but will they provide the detail needed to truly understand the experiences of people at work? And when it comes to understanding the feedback and acting upon it, it should be seen as business-critical rather than an HR initiative getting in the way of the real work that needs to be undertaken.
About Amrit Sandhar, founder of The Engagement Coach: The Engagement Coach was founded by Amrit Sandhar, who has worked with a number of well-known brands across the UK, to improve employee engagement/ experience, and ultimately improve organisational productivity. With a particular passion for neuroscience and psychology to drive behavioural change, combined with his experience in employee engagement, he uses a data-driven approach to identify the issues organisations are struggling with, and to work with them to create solutions leading to drive sustainable change. Amrit is a values-led individual who has a passion for developing people, as he believes highly engaged leaders drive better business performance by getting the best out of their colleagues.