Engaged employee, colour

What is employee engagement and why is it so important?

Success in modern business is all about people. Soft skills are in high demand, and businesses want to attract and retain the best people in order to gain a competitive edge.

Business leaders can no longer afford to take an arms-length approach to their people. Increasingly, people want to engage on a deeper level and feel an emotional attachment to their organisation. They want their jobs to have purpose. Without such a connection, people will move onto pastures new. Enter employee engagement.

What does employee engagement mean?

Employee engagement is one of those HR and recruitment concepts that attracts an enormous amount of buzz.

Hundreds of articles have been written on the subject, and the term is strongly linked to concepts such as flow, job satisfaction, organisational commitment, organisational citizenship behaviour, employee voice, and employee involvement. However, with so few comprehensive definitions, the subject is also rife with confusion, misinterpretation and speculation.

Though smart businesses seek brevity, many businesses are still falling into the trap of using definitions that put the business first and their people second. To take an example, here’s how Wikipedia’s page on employee engagement defines an ‘engaged employee’:

“An engaged employee is one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action to further the organisation’s reputation and interests.”

By subscribing to this definition, the onus on maintaining engagement is placed firmly on the shoulders of the employee. The organisation, meanwhile, absolves itself of the responsibility to develop a robust engagement programme. By doing so, the business is implicitly saying its people do not matter — and people will quickly pick up on this.

Such a static, myopic, and one-sided interpretation of engagement is unlikely to foster trust between a business and its people. Clearly, a more reciprocal definition is needed.

David McLeod, co-leader of the UK government taskforce, Engaged for Success, offers a much more fluid and all-encompassing understanding of engagement:

“Employee engagement is a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of wellbeing.”

In this sense, engagement is an ongoing, two-way process that gives people scope to enhance their own sense of wellbeing in the workplace while also boosting productivity for the business. This definition ensures that everyone in the business — from top to bottom, side to side — has a responsibility and a part to play in creating a culture that facilitates engagement.

McLeod’s statement also has an emotional element. By acknowledging the connection and commitment that people seek with their employer, this definition of engagement takes on a different meaning for different people.

When businesses get the emotional alignment between employee and employer right, truly engaged people become attracted, inspired, committed, dedicated, and focused. Above all, they care. They genuinely want to see the company succeed and are willing to use discretionary effort to go above and beyond without being asked.

In one apocryphal tale often cited by management experts, President John F. Kennedy asked a NASA janitor what he was doing, to which the janitor replied: “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

The janitor understood that his small act of sweeping the floor was part of a chain reaction that enabled others at NASA to fulfil their duties — resulting in Neil Armstrong taking one small step on the lunar surface.

This story sums up what businesses need to aim for: giving each and every person a clear sense of how what they do links with the organisation’s fundamental purpose.

Why is employee engagement important?

Businesses in markets such as the UK have a substantial engagement issue, and it is far from a new problem.

In the pre-dotcom days, more people were disengaged than engaged. Fast forward two decades and research from Investors in People (IIP) shows that 47% of the UK workforce  — almost half of the workforce — are actively looking for a new job. Pay is not the reason people change jobs — according to the research, salary was given as the fifth most important reason. People want to feel loved, appreciated, and looked after.

The fact that engagement is low seems counter-intuitive, especially given that success in business is all about people. While technology enables the automation of many tasks, people are still the biggest competitive advantage that any company, regardless of industry, has at its fingertips.

People drive bottom-line growth — as long as their intrinsic needs are consistently being met.

While many companies embrace the rhetoric that nothing matters more than their people, too many people believe their employer is merely paying lip service to the notion. According to an Accenture study, 31% of people dislike their boss, 43% felt that they received no recognition for their work, and 32% were actively looking for a new job. People are even willing to give up a pay rise in favour of their boss being fired.

We live in the social media age. Every corporate decision or action is immediately exposed for public consumption and painstakingly scrutinised. Work-related issues that were once private are now posted online for everyone — including both employee and potential employee — to read, with websites such as Glassdoor giving people a platform to anonymously praise or denigrate a business. The way that people feel about an organisation can be its competitive advantage or Achilles heel.

Deloitte research conducted across over 3,300 businesses around the world found that ‘culture and engagement’ was deemed the most important issue for companies. 87% of the businesses surveyed cited culture and engagement as one of their top challenges, while 50% said it is “very important.” Alarmingly, the 87% figure was double the proportion in the previous year’s survey.

The research is clear. Of all the challenges facing HR — including leadership, learning and development (L&D), and workforce capability — engagement is seen as both the most critical and least understood.

The takeaway

Every person has opinions that can prove valuable to their employer. Companies can either choose to listen to people and harness their insights to make the business better, or they can choose to ignore them.

If a business opts for the latter, poor engagement levels will likely snowball into bigger issues that can make or break a brand’s reputation. The bottom line? Businesses cannot afford to recruit talent and not keep tabs on how engaged they are.

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