The precise definition of engagement is hotly contested. Broadly, it refers to employees being focused on doing their best for the organisation, and being emotionally committed to their work and the organisation. An engaged employee uses discretionary effort - they’re the shop worker who picks up rubbish when the boss isn’t looking, the person who stays late to make sure a big project is completed on time, or the customer service worker who goes the extra mile. Engagement is a key issue for business, with 78% of business leaders rating engagement and retention urgent or important. It’s a responsibility issue because it impacts on the workforces’ health and happiness, but it’s also a way to improve a business’s performance by increasing productivity as well as retaining and developing talent.
A person’s level of engagement at work is dramatically affected by their work environment, meaning that if one employee is disengaged, their colleagues are likely to be too. According to Engage for Success, from the point of view of the employer ‘employee engagement’ refers to ‘the workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organisation to give of their best each day, committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being.’ Therefore, whilst we think of engagement and motivation being down to the individual, it’s up to the business to create a workplace that enables employees to feel engaged and fulfill their potential.
Employee engagement matters for businesses because it leads to better performance and higher productivity. A study of 50,000 workers by The University of California found that engaged employees were 31% more motivated, had 37% higher sales and were 87% less likely to quit. Further, research by IPA Involve suggests that active, confident and vocal employees help organisations to achieve sustainable business success. Benefits may include increased staff retention and satisfaction, greater exchange of views/ideas, discussion and consideration of solutions and developments, stronger team spirit, employee empowerment, personal responsibility and a spirit of cooperation with due respect for each other.
There is also evidence that employee engagement increases the mental and physical wellbeing of employees, and that happiness at work leads to greater productivity. Increased engagement, then, is beneficial to employees and employers. According to Engage for Success, Gallup’s (2013) meta-analysis uncovered a correlation between employees’ engagement levels at work and their physical health. A company that takes care of employee wellbeing is likely to increase engagement. Moreover, increased wellbeing increases productivity - Nic Marks of the New Economic Foundation argues "people who are happier at work are more productive – they are more engaged, more creative, have better concentration. The difference in productivity between happy and unhappy people at work can range between 10-50%. That's 10% for non-complex repetitive tasks, or up to 40-50% in service and creative industries."
When it comes to measuring levels of engagement, CIPD looks at levels of motivation, the effort employees are willing to put into their work, how jobs use employees’ skills and the influence each employee has over their role. When these are high, employees are typically ‘engaged’. Barry Schwartz argues that what people need to be engaged at work is autonomy, mastery and purpose. Key questions businesses can ask themselves to figure out the extent of employee engagement in their workplace are how does the organisation:
- Attract the right people, and retain them making the best use of their talents?
- Involve its employees in defining purpose and day to day decision making?
- Make sure the interests of employees are fairly included versus other stakeholders?
- Make sure employees share fairly in the ups and downsides of organisational performance?
Businesses can also measure levels of engagement by surveying employees often, by monitoring levels of absenteeism and turnover, and by tracking ratings of the organisation on anonymous review sites such as Glassdoor.
Employee engagement can be increased through approaches to business governance, for example by:
- Independent mechanisms such as employee surveys, advisory boards, works councils or partnership agreements with trade unions
- Mechanisms that enable employees to share in the performance of the organisation
- Enabling some form of profit share, employee ownership structure like cooperatives or widespread share ownership.
Employee engagement can also be increased through the development of appropriate culture, for example by:
- Recruiting the right people for each team
- Volunteering programmes which focus on issues relevant to the organisation and its stakeholders
- Offering employee training programmes which align personal development with that of the organisation.
Engage for Success cites various sources which indicate that efforts to improve a company’s social responsibility also positively impact employee engagement. For example a survey, by Sirota Survey Intelligence, of 1.6 million employees in 70 companies found that employees who approved of their companies’ commitments to social responsibility were more engaged in their jobs and more inclined to believe their employers were interested in their wellbeing. A separate source found that 75% of millennials (born 1978 to 1998) want to work for a company that “cares how it impacts and contributes to society”.
Whilst many businesses focus on engagement, it has been noted that the problem may better be characterised as one of disengagement. Disengagement can happen for many reasons - sometimes employees simply aren’t the best fit for their role. However, unequal or ‘unfair’ workplaces promote disengagement. It’s been found that when the highest paid worker is paid over 24 times the lowest paid worker, the workplace is likely to see increased levels of absenteeism, higher staff turnover and lower levels of productivity which suggests a disengaged workforce.