The HR Guide to Measuring and Fixing Employee Engagement

There is no shortage of studies supporting a causal relationship between employee engagement and business performance. To cite just one recent Gallup study, higher engagement can be linked to better performance across multiple metrics such as sales, productivity, profitability and EPS growth.

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Engagement is defined as any of a broad range of evidently positive dispositions such as happiness, satisfaction, motivation, commitment, emotional investment or even some combination thereof. The primary challenge, therefore, is to develop a universal point of reference for understanding and advancing employee engagement.

Defining Engagement

Years of research since the first formal definition of engagement in the 90s have helped distill certain abstract concepts of engagement into more measurable drivers of engagement. Some of the most commonly measured drivers of engagement today include:

  1. Connection, the quality of relationships employees have with their peers, managers and business leaders.
  2. Purpose, the belief that their contributions are meaningful and are making a difference to both their own and other people’s lives.
  3. Advancement and growth, the assurance of continuous personal development and professional growth.
  4. Autonomy, respect for their freedom of self-expression, self-direction and self-determination.
  5. Shared culture, based on common values of inclusion, diversity, transparency, ethical behavior and social responsibility.

These attributes represent some of the building blocks of engagement but their characteristics keep evolving over time. For instance, where the boomer generation may have felt a responsibility to stick around with an employer just to pay their dues, millennials view “people and cultural fit” as vital parameters in an employer and may exit if they sense a lack of either. So the lenses of connection, purpose, growth, autonomy and culture are continuously changing and so must the processes and techniques that are used to assess them.

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Measurement Processes and Techniques

Let’s start with eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score), a quick, one-question format that classifies employees as either promoters, passives or detractors based on their likelihood to recommend their company to prospective employees. It is an effectively simple tool to track employee motivation trends across one dimension of engagement over time. But it does not provide any real insight into what is driving trends either way.

A more comprehensive and hybrid approach to measuring engagement usually combines a detailed annual or biennial survey, augmented by more periodic pulse surveys, rounded off with focus groups and one-on-one discussions.

Pulse surveys help bring in additional value by focusing on specific areas to pinpoint more actionable insights. Focus groups and one-on-one discussions help complete the process by eliciting specific ideas and preferences that could be useful in devising an action plan.

Applied in conjunction, the combination of annual surveys, pulse studies and more personalized interactions can be quite effective in gauging engagement and unearthing underlying factors that need to be addressed. But even this approach does have its limitations, the biggest of which is the lack of anonymity. As a result, a third of employees prefer to either skip the process or give false answers.

There are a couple of other problems with this approach, though they are not shortcomings of the process itself. The first is the tendency to look for a quick short-term fix that only addresses the symptom. The other is to delay the action plan so long after the survey as to make it practically irrelevant.

The hybrid survey model provides a robust enough approach though it could use some tinkering, in the form of using digital tools and techniques to interact with a digital generation, aggregating data to ensure survey integrity and so on. But the bigger question nowadays is about why employees have to shoulder all the risk, responsibility and effort when it comes to engagement. Organizations may have a bigger responsibility in creating a workplace that promotes engagement.

Getting Proactive with EVP

An Employee Value Proposition or EVP is a proactive statement that describes the opportunities, benefits, values and culture that employees can expect from a company in exchange for their skills, talents and experience. It is an articulation of what the employer brand, as a ‘place to work’, represents. It is important to understand here that an employer brand exists in the perceptions of current, past and prospective employees even if a company has not consciously contributed to creating it.  But in order to create a compelling EVP, businesses must also build a credible employer brand that resonates with employees and attracts new talent.

A genuine EVP is informed by engagement surveys, exit interviews, opinions expressed by past employees on social media and recruitment sites, and inputs from other key stakeholders in the labor market.  It has to account for key attributes of the workplace like growth opportunities, rewards and benefits, quality of work, quality of people and organization values and responsibilities. But in order to be truly effective, EVPs need to be realistic, achievable and help differentiate the company from its competitors.

According to a 2013 Tower Watson study, a well-researched well-articulated EVP can enable significant organizational gains including increased engagement, higher retention, reduced compensation premiums and improved financial performance. Most important of all, the concept of EVP defines an explicit contract that splits the onus of workplace experience and engagement between employer and employee. And rather than negate prevailing techniques like employee engagement surveys, it has helped close the circle on measuring and promoting engagement in the workplace.

Concepts like EVP and employer brands help build on the foundations provided by prevailing engagement management techniques, like surveys for instance. Previously the focus was squarely on collecting feedback from employees to understand their opinions and perceptions. But now, the scope of engagement research has expanded well beyond organizational boundaries to include past and future employees and other key players in the human resources industry.

Perhaps more significant than all of that is the recognition that engagement cannot be a reactive periodic effort. Organizations now need a proactive, continuously evolving strategy to manage their workplace brand if they are to attract and retain top talent.

Anand Srinivasan is the founder of Hubbion, a suite of free business apps and resources.