Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement: Definition and How to Measure

March 13, 2024
March 13, 2024
Emma Stenhouse
Lattice Team

Employee engagement is one of the most important building blocks for overall company success. But engagement can be difficult to quantify because it’s influenced by a wide range of factors — including a caring manager, a sense of purpose at work, a positive company culture, and more.

Even though it’s a tricky thing to pin down, defining what engagement actually means for your company is crucial. 

At global consulting firm Kincentric, employee engagement is defined as “the state of emotional and intellectual involvement that motivates employees to do their best work — in other words, the psychological ownership that energizes employees to support organizational goals and put forth their best effort,” explained Kamela Lupino, their director of culture and engagement practice. 

Let’s dig a little deeper into how to define, and then measure, employee engagement. 

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is an employee’s mental and emotional connection with, and commitment to, their work and their employer. This encompasses not only their enthusiasm, dedication, and alignment with the company’s overarching values and goals but also the fulfillment they derive from their daily work.

Because there’s not one “official” definition of employee engagement — many companies choose to create their own. These are often tied to several main threads:

  • How enthusiastic employees are about the company 
  • How committed and loyal they are to the company 
  • How much they enjoy their day-to-day tasks 
  • How positive they feel about their job 
  • Their emotional and mental connection to their workplace

When combined, these threads can start to offer a picture of what employee engagement means, but they still don’t encompass every facet. For example, an employee might feel committed to the company, but be bored and uninspired by their role. Or they could love their daily tasks but be unable to see how their effort connects to wider business goals, leaving them feeling isolated. 

It’s also normal for employees to have a complex relationship with their workplaces — they may love one thing and not another. They may disagree with a decision, but understand why it was made. And that means employee engagement naturally fluctuates between different levels. 

What are the levels of employee engagement?

When it comes to measuring employee engagement, there’s no exact system. But engagement is sometimes measured by dividing employees into the following four levels:

  • Highly engaged: Employees are enthusiastic about their work, and motivated to perform their best. They understand and feel connected to the company’s overall mission, values, and culture. Highly engaged employees are thriving, and they choose to put in discretionary effort, helping drive the overall success of the company they work for. 
  • Moderately engaged: Employees are enthusiastic about their role, but may not always feel fully motivated to perform their best work. They understand the company’s mission but don’t feel a strong connection with it. Their productivity and performance may fluctuate.
  • Barely engaged: Employees may put in the hours, but not the effort. Their productivity and motivation are low and they may show signs of burnout. Generally, employees within this category are psychologically disconnected from the companies they work for and feel disconnected from the company's mission and values. Employees in this category are often referred to as “quiet quitters.”
  • Disengaged: Employees may feel apathetic — and contribute the bare minimum effort. These employees may openly talk about their dissatisfaction in the workplace, leading them to be known as “loud quitters.” There’s little trust between these disengaged employees and their employers, and no emotional connection or motivation to succeed. 

These definitions are fluid, with many companies choosing to create their own versions. Taking the time to consider — and define — what engagement looks like within your company is crucial. And that’s because engagement is such a critical element of business success. 

Why is employee engagement important?

Without engagement, the bricks of business success can come tumbling down. High engagement is proven to lead to better productivity and retention. In a 2020 report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services and Quantum Workplace, 81% of respondents agreed that a highly engaged workforce performs better and is more productive than those with average or low engagement.

Unfortunately, many companies are battling with low engagement. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, only 31% of employees in the US and Canada are actively engaged, 52% are classed as not engaged, and 17% are actively disengaged. The Gallup report also estimated that low engagement worldwide ends up costing the global economy a huge $8.8 trillion. 

Ultimately, it’s [your] relationship with the organization that is at the heart of what it means to be ‘engaged.’

Employee Engagement vs. Employee Satisfaction

They both matter — but employee engagement and job satisfaction aren’t interchangeable terms. 

“Employee engagement results from meaningful work in an environment that values the employee and requires a deep sense of connection to colleagues, their work, and the organization,” explained Wendy Gates Corbett, adjunct professor of leadership and management in high-tech industries at Duke University Pratt School of Engineering

In contrast, she sees employee satisfaction as “a state that reflects an employee’s contentment with their work and work environment. Just because someone is content with their work environment doesn’t mean they are invested in or committed to it.”

Gates Corbett suggested engagement is more accurate as a barometer of organizational health and predictor of business outcomes than employee satisfaction is. She explained this is because satisfaction tends to be based more on superficial desires and can be prone to the recency effect (in-the-moment reactions versus a longer-standing general state).

And because engagement is such an accurate predictor, it needs to be measured in the right way. 

How to Measure Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is ever-changing, which means it can be challenging to capture its metrics effectively. What’s best is a three-pronged approach encompassing a blend of feedback and surveys. 

Ongoing Employee Feedback

Continuous feedback helps drive employee performance and engagement by embedding feedback into everyday processes, rather than limiting it to annual performance reviews. 

Continuous feedback cycles tend to include a range of: 

Employee Lifecycle Feedback 

To get a full understanding of what engagement looks like at your company, it’s important to collect feedback across all stages of the employee lifecycle. A platform like Lattice Engagement can help collect feedback and insights with the following.

Employee Engagement Surveys

When trying to figure out what’s going on with engagement at your company, the quickest and most comprehensive place to start is engagement surveys. For best results with engagement surveys:

  • Plan your sections strategically. There’s only so much you can ask in one survey before employees start to switch off. The right number of questions is highly dependent on the purpose of the survey — for annual engagement surveys, it makes sense to have several sections (or up to 60 questions). But you’re unlikely to sustain employee participation with dozens of questions every month or quarter. 
  • Ask good questions. Not all survey questions are created equal. Ambiguous or loaded questions will erode the quality of your data, but even hyper-specific questions can be the wrong approach. Lupino suggested asking direct questions that uncover engagement as well as questions to assess perceptions of the employee experience. 
  • Take data with a grain of salt. Once the results are in, don’t be tempted to rush headfirst into what they might mean. 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.
  • Zoom in and out. While results can be aggregated into different groups, including company-wide, department, and specific teams — it’s still important to view engagement as an individual score. Why? “Because ultimately, it’s an individual’s relationship with the organization that is at the heart of what it means to be ‘engaged,’” said Lupino.

Benefits of Employee Engagement

Get employee engagement right, and everything else follows. While that might sound like an exaggeration, research shows that it’s true. 

Gallup’s 2020 Q12® Meta-Analysis is the largest study of its kind to date, based on decades of engagement data. It found that employee engagement data is directly linked to a wide range of key performance outcomes, including:

  • Improved employee productivity
  • Increased employee wellbeing 
  • Decreased employee turnover 
  • Lower levels of absenteeism
  • Higher profitability 
  • Increased customer loyalty and engagement 
  • Higher levels of organizational citizenship and participation

With benefits like those, most companies know that improving engagement should be a priority. But knowing who’s ultimately responsible for how to make those improvements is another matter. 

Who drives employee engagement?

Human resources professionals might be responsible for measuring employee engagement levels — but who’s responsible for driving change when low levels of engagement are revealed? 

Andrea Meyer, director of benefit services at WorkSmart Systems, mentioned that this responsibility should fall across multiple shoulders. “While HR and company leadership set the tone and programs for boosting engagement across the organization, managers and team leads have the closest interactions with individual contributors.” As a result, managers have a pivotal, grassroots role in making any engagement initiatives successful. 

And what about employees? They “have a responsibility for proactively voicing their needs and participating in engagement-building activities,” added Meyer. 

Best Practices for Higher Employee Engagement

Ready to move toward higher levels of employee engagement? Use these best practice tips to get started:

  • Tie engagement to wider business outcomes.
  • Create and share an engagement strategy.
  • Recognize and reward employee achievements.
  • Foster a positive workplace culture with open communication.

Meyer also uses the following strategies:

  • Sharing communication from senior leaders frequently
  • Creating growth and development opportunities
  • Empowering employee autonomy
  • Developing incentives connected to company performance 
  • Offering community events and activities 
  • Using continual feedback mechanisms
  • Demonstrating a clear link between each employee’s role and the organization’s overall success

Employee Engagement Strategies: Tips From the Experts

Knowing how to foster engagement at a specific company depends upon a few different things. HR professionals first need to measure engagement, then analyze the results. Lastly, they need to select which engagement strategies will have the most impact, and how these will be implemented and tracked. 

Here are some tips from the experts.

1. Lead by example.

Alexis Carpenter, culture consultant and founder of AC Global Ventures LLC, suggested that leading by example helps show everyone that they’re valued members of the team, capable of great things. “Connect genuinely with your team, encourage their ideas, and show them they can make a difference. Communicate transparently and always follow through.”

2. Have the courage to change.

Lupino mentioned that it’s also important to recognize that what worked in the past won’t necessarily move the needle now or in the future. “CEOs and CHROs must explore new ways to achieve business outcomes through their people, and the answer is in the employee experience. Driving engagement cannot happen without courage, commitment, and alignment from the C-suite.”

3. Focus on consistency.

Lupino suggested that creating a “consistent employee experience, combined with connection to strategy and courageous leadership can open a new world of opportunity to drive engagement and help leaders unlock incredible business results.” 

4. Encourage employees to nurture engagement. 

It’s also important to give employees a sense of ownership. Rather than tell employees they need to be more engaged, offer practical advice about how they can nurture engagement within their teams and departments. Gates Corbett suggested: 

  • Being intentional about checking in on colleagues who may be experiencing a challenge
  • Giving team members a shoutout — individually or privately — for their contribution to a recent project
  • Protecting other colleagues by granting grace and forgiveness more quickly, and more often

Creating a Foundation for Success

Being proactive about defining, measuring, and managing employee engagement is the best way to ensure employees stay enthusiastic about, committed to, and energized by their work. If you’re ready to get started, Lattice Engagement can help you uncover the insights needed for effective action.