When it comes to polarizing topics, all you have to say in the business world is employee engagement. Deloitte says employee engagement is elusive and companies are failing at delivering it; Forbes says everything is fine; entrepreneurs peddle anecdotes in both directions. So what gives? How can something be both a huge disaster and nothing to worry about at the same time?
Well, the definition of employee engagement can vary widely from company to company, survey to survey. This leads to studies about “employee engagement” that measure markedly different things. The people who are finding that there's no engagement problem might actually be measuring productivity, whereas people who are sowing panic may be measuring something like job satisfaction.
But because employee engagement is so vital to companies — it affects the bottom line, employee retention, and innovation — if you are heading a probe into employee engagement at your company, then you can't go off of any old definition. You need to set your own parameters to ensure that your company is actually looking at all of what constitutes engagement, not just one part of it.
What is the actual definition of employee engagement?
Employee engagement is not a buzzword that can be summed up in one sentence, although many try. It often gets watered down to:
- How enthusiastic employees are about the company
- How committed employees are to the company
- How much employees enjoy their day to day
- How positive employees feel about their job
These definitions are all partially true, but none fully encompasses what employee engagement means. If you are working off a narrow definition of employee engagement, you will not be fully successful in improving or evaluating employee engagement.
For example, an employee might feel that they are committed to the company but be bored and underwhelmed with their day to day. Or they could love the day to day but have a serious problem connecting that work with the larger work of the company, making them feel isolated and eroding their loyalty.
A better definition of employee engagement is one that encompasses:
- Macro-level feelings: how enthusiastic/committed employees are about the company, and how much they feel their values/goals align with the company's values/goals
- Micro-level feelings: how much employees feel connected with the actual work of their job, and how they can connect their daily work to the values/goals of the company
This ensures that you are looking at employee engagement holistically. Employees often have complicated relationships with their workplaces — they like one thing, but not another. Disagree with some decisions, but understand them. Allowing engagement to retain nuance sets you up to figure these things out.
Employee engagement is: when workers are enthusiastic about and connected to their work and their company, and feel that their company benefits from and supports their work
How do you measure it?
Now that we've established that employee engagement is more than one simple metric, it won't surprise you to know that measuring employee engagement has to come from several places.
There is a “big three” of measuring employee engagement: employee engagement surveys, informal conversations, and formal conversations. All of these are necessary for you to comprehensively evaluate how engaged employees are.
An employee engagement survey allows you to check in on both the micro- and macro-levels across the entire company at once. When designing a survey, you should structure it so that you are hitting both of these levels with the questions that you ask. As you structure a given section, start with the “big idea” and then move to the more specific questions.
Surveys are a useful tool because they give you a good understanding of what your biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses are. They provide a platform for you to ask more questions and suggest policy changes because they provide contextual data.
Read more: What to do with your employee engagement survey results
Informal conversations encompass the majority of workplace interactions, but the informal conversations that are the most important for monitoring employee engagement are those between a manager and her direct reports. These can be anything from a 1:1 check-in to a feedback session on a recent project. They offer a chance for managers to connect with more individual and team-oriented problems.
The key to making informal conversations a useful tool for engagement is to document them. Adding feedback for 1:1s, notes, or praise is easy in a performance management tool and can help you understand changes in your employees' engagement more objectively over time.
Read more: Managers, Here's How to Run a One-on-One
Formal conversations are the sit-down meetings that you and your employees have to prep for. A great example of a formal conversation is a performance review, which probably happens at least every quarter. Formal conversations can also happen at big wrap-ups, before or after promotions, or at other major shifts in an employee's or the company's trajectory.
These talks are valuable as a tool for monitoring engagement because they allow you to have high-level conversations. Where informal check-ins are a good gauge of engagement with daily tasks, formal conversations allow you to ask questions about where employees see themselves, what their goals are, and how they feel about their larger role with the company.
Read more: HR’s Guide to Performance Review Questions
Start from a baseline
If you are trying to figure out what is going on with engagement at your company, the quickest, most comprehensive place to start is with an engagement survey. You will need to add in a performance management tracking system for informal and formal conversations, and you might need to change other policies as well. But starting with a survey gives you a snapshot of how your company is doing.
In order to maximize the results of your first employee engagement survey, you need to:
- Plan your sections strategically. There's only so much you can ask in one survey before respondents start to breeze through questions to get it done. The magic time limit is around 20 minutes, according to research. Even though you want to come out of the gate asking about every single thing that could affect engagement, pick a few topic areas to focus on, making sure that both macro and micro concerns are addressed.
- Ask good questions. Not all survey questions are created equal. Questions that are ambiguous or biased will erode the quality of your data, but even hyper-specific questions can be the wrong approach. If you use a tool like Lattice, you will have a bank of good questions to choose from, but if you want to write your own, make sure to read this guide to survey questions before going it alone.
- Take your data with a grain of salt. After your employees have taken your survey, don't rush into the survey results and take them all at face value. Instead, take the time to notice unexpected results and how different demographic groups responded. Investing time into understanding survey results — even before you go to your team with them — can make the difference between good and bad insights.
Once you have established this first step in measuring your engagement, then you can start gathering other data about your employee engagement to chart how it changes.
Engagement doesn't wait
Whether or not you believe engagement is no problem at all or in a state of emergency or somewhere in between, you can't go wrong keeping an eye on it. Being proactive about your employee engagement is your best bet to making sure it stays good. If you want to set up a survey to get started, Lattice can help you get one up and running before you can read through all those “engagement metric” arguments.