If you do a quick Google search about employee engagement, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about free snacks, Friday pizzas and ping-pong tables in break rooms.
For a few years now, those “perks” have been many ‘forward-thinking’ businesses’ solutions to dwindling employee engagement. Fun things like that make people happier in the workplace, right? And if they’re happy, they’re definitely engaged - right?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
So if you want to *actually* increase employee engagement in the workplace, buckle in as we dive into what employee engagement is, why you should care about it, and how you can have a positive impact on it - without ball pits or free smoothies.
Excellent question to kick us off.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear-cut. In fact, according to a 2009 study by MacLeod and Clarke, there are over 50 definitions of employee engagement out there.
Tracing the term ‘employee engagement’ as far back as we can, we end up in a 1990 journal article by Kahn, that describes employee engagement as the degree to which a person shows self-preference in job tasks to promote connections between self and job, which can increase role performance through cognitive, emotional and physical self-investment.
Basically, according to Kahn, employee engagement is the extent to which someone is invested (cognitively, emotionally and physically) in their job.
The business psychology world struggles to agree on one specific definition of employee engagement, but one that aligns well with how we think about employee engagement comes from a group of occupational psychologists at Utrecht University, who define employee engagement (or ‘work engagement’ as they call it) as a state of mind and position it as an opposing state to burnout.
When employees are engaged, according to this definition, they show vigour (energy, resilience and effort), dedication (enthusiasm, inspiration and pride) and absorption (concentration).
For us, that lines best with what we see in real life workplaces. When employees are engaged and satisfied with their jobs, they show vigour, dedication and absorption - so that’s the definition we’ll be using here.
Employee engagement as a standalone metric sometimes feels a little bit fringe. Unlike other metrics, like profit, employee turnover, job satisfaction, etc., employee engagement can feel a little vague and uninspiring - but it is something that you should care about as an employer.
Feelings of vagueness when it comes to employee engagement are largely down to the lack of concrete definition around the topic. In the most broad definitions, employee engagement covers so many different aspects of people management that it can’t be identified specifically - and therefore discussions around why employee engagement matters and what we can do to improve it end up being similarly vague.
But here’s the thing those vague discussions miss: employee engagement, no matter how you define it, is a signified of other important people management issues.
Low employee engagement is usually accompanied by high levels of staff turnover, low levels of job satisfaction, high levels of absenteeism, low levels of productivity, and, subsequently, lower levels of profit.
On the flip side, high employee engagement is usually accompanied by low levels of staff turnover, high levels of job satisfaction, low levels of absenteeism, high levels of productivity, and, subsequently, higher levels of profit.
Obviously employee engagement isn’t the only contributing factor to any of these metrics - but it is one that has an impact on most areas of business that really matter to growth and long term profitability.
And if your business exists to be profitable (as every for-profit business does), employee engagement should matter to you.
So, knowing that employee engagement has a positive inpact on retention, productivity, absenteeism AND overall success of a business - how can you increase employee engagement in the workplace?
As we touched on before, many companies seem to equate employee happiness with employee engagement, concluding that perks like beanbags, free snacks and gym memberships will increase employee engagement.
But there’s very little evidence that perks like that actually have a long-term effect on employee engagement. Sure, they might encourage more applicants to a role and have a largely positive impact on employee wellbeing, but engagement levels aren’t guaranteed to increase as a result.
Looking back at our definition of employee engagement, where we’re focusing on vigour, dedication and absorption, here are three ways to actually improve employee engagement at all levels of an organisation.
When we talk about vigour, we mean resilience, energy and effort. As you know, resilience is a big thing in the world of people management (and something we can help you with if you’re looking for a tool to measure it!) - but it essentially means ‘bouncebackability’, i.e. the ability to experience setbacks or challenges and overcome them.
For employees to be as resilient and energetic as possible, their wellbeing needs to be front of mind. Employees that feel like a company has their best interests at the centre of their people policies will be more engaged with that company, while employees at companies who couldn’t care less about employee wellbeing will not be engaged.
Wellbeing initiatives matter, but they must be built people-first.
Much like adding beanbags to the break room won’t increase employee engagement, running a monthly lunchtime yoga class won’t increase employee wellbeing. It might, for someone who really values and enjoys yoga - but that ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to wellbeing will fall flat with others.
Consider being open with your employees and asking them what matters most to their wellbeing. Once you know what matters to each individual, you can start formulating wellbeing initiatives that are far more likely to be impactful - and then reap the benefits of increased employee engagement too.
Businesses who have a clear mission and clear objectives (and are open about these) are more likely to have employees who are more engaged - simply because employees feel like what they’re doing matters to the bigger picture.
Organisations with low levels of employee engagement are often those whose mission and vision isn’t clear, tangible or available to their employees. When this is the case, it’s very difficult for an employee to find meaning in their role. One day blurs into the next, because the job is ‘just a job’ and doesn’t have any connection to the wider mission or vision of the company.
A couple of things to bear in mind here…
First, just having a vision or a mission won’t instantly increase employee engagement. The mission and vision needs to be tangible, realistic and aligned with an employee’s own personal mission and vision in order to be impactful.
Second, a mission or vision or values that aren’t actively demonstrated by leadership, business models and culture won’t help to increase employee engagement. In fact, if the day-to-day actions of leadership are in direct conflict with the stated mission and vision, employee engagement is more likely to decrease - because it’s clear to employees that the mission and vision just doesn’t matter.
Mission and vision goes hand-in-hand with communication, so to reach a point where employees are truly engaged and committed to the business, communication between top-level management and lower-level team members must be a priority.
This one is simple: the less wasted time and resources there is in a business, the more effectively employees are able to focus on their work, aka be absorbed in their role.
For businesses that are wrapped in red tape, using outdated technologies or relying on processes that aren’t in any way streamlined, employees are likely to find themselves butting heads with the organisation in the process of trying to do their job well.
If those processes are improved, technologies are updated, and endless meetings that could have been emails are eradicated, employees are much better able to actually do their jobs - and being able to do their job well and to the best of their abilities will increase their levels of engagement with the role, as well as improving company-wide productivity levels.
No matter what you do, employee engagement won’t improve overnight. It’s not a small undertaking and it will take time for these changes to trickle down to every member of the organisation.
But it is still worth doing. Every organisation is the sum of its parts. If every part (employee) is committed (engaged), the organisation is far more likely to achieve sustainable, long-term success than if employees struggle to find meaning in their roles.