What is Employee Engagement and Why is it So Hard to Achieve?

When it comes to employee engagement, is it the duty of HR or line managers to ensure teams are engaged and running at full potential? In my view, both have key roles to play. Before considering who does what, let’s consider why it is so important for HR teams and managers to find out what engages and disengages employees.

What’s the business case?

A growing mountain of research suggests that high levels of employee engagement deliver better performance; when people are motivated and energised by their work, they tend to produce great outputs. A 2009 meta-analysis of the engagement field by the UK Engage for Success study found that high levels of employee engagement are synonymous with lower employee turnover, higher employee advocacy and greater business profits. Yet many recent studies highlight how few employees are fully engaged, with alarming numbers of staff in the UK, US and Australia reported as being actively disengaged. The hidden cost of disengagement includes reduced productivity, increased employee cynicism, loss of key talent, difficulties attracting the best talent and unsuccessful change initiatives.

If engagement is so important, why is it so hard to achieve?

Employee engagement is symptomatic of the health of the employment relationship, (or psychological contract) between employers and employees. When this relationship becomes one-sided rather than mutual, trust is a casualty. In today’s flexible work context, jobs tend to be insecure. With fewer jobs to go round there is usually increased work pressure and more stress for people in jobs. People feel dispensable, unsettled. Technology has led to the hollowing out of many jobs, reducing job interest, autonomy and satisfaction. The one-sided nature of today’s employment relationship is shown in the squeeze on employee rewards, leading to a sense of unfairness and a loss of trust between employees and employers. Aon Hewitt’s (2013) global engagement survey reveals significant gaps between the ‘best’ employers (who also achieve the best financial performance) and the ‘average’ – gaps that are hard to bridge. In ‘average’ firms, the people focus is often missing, executives ignore the importance of engagement and career development is haphazard at best.

What’s HR’s role?

HR is expected to be the function that improves engagement, usually starting with staff surveys, though this can prove a limited intervention. Typical survey traps to avoid include a lack of management sponsorship, or analysis paralysis, or implementing actions too late or spreading energy so thinly that improvements go unnoticed. Better to do an initial review of survey results to check these make sense superficially; then work with staff groups to draw out key lessons and commit to taking action involving employees themselves. Improvements should be well communicated so that people see that what’s happening makes a difference. More generally though, engagement initiatives should move from being HR owned and purely survey-focused to line manager owned, with HR helping managers to improve the work climate day by day.

To more substantively improve engagement HR should work proactively to identify and address underlying issues that damage the employment relationship and undermine engagement. Key to success is getting the business case for engagement taken seriously – helping executives to understand that shifting the balance so that more people can be engaged more of the time will directly contribute to improving business performance.

HR needs to understand what engages and disengages key groups in their context. In general, engaged employees feel connected to their organization. They tend to have jobs in which they can grow, feel part of a good group, care about their work and feel cared for. Effective line managers show interest and care about employee well-being; they provide relevant support; review workloads, develop their teams, give helpful feedback and deliver on the employer brand ensuring employees get a fair deal. Engaged employees tend to have voice – they are well informed and listened to. In engaging workplaces employees are actively involved in change; there is effective two–way communication, consultation and participation, openness to new ideas and ways of working, learning and teamworking with diverse colleagues and a strong focus on delivering excellence to customers. In particular engaged employees have scope to do their best work in roles that make a difference and where they are empowered and accountable.

So HR can help leaders strengthen connection by coaching them on how to develop a strong shared purpose and strategic narrative, and on how to become authentic role models of company values, challenging management behaviour that is not in line with company values. This is about creating a foundation of trust on which a new, more mutual employment relationship can be built. HR can increase scope by helping line managers to design meaningful jobs, to coach and develop individuals and teams. They can also work with managers to develop career tracks so that people can grow their careers. In the John Lewis Partnership for instance where employees are vocal advocates of the company, people are developed on the job and have opportunities to expand their experience by moving around the organization. HR can work to improve employee communications and actively involve staff in change efforts. Even if rewards remain squeezed, HR can work with staff to develop other forms of reward and recognition and develop well-being policies that employees actually value. 

This is not about HR promoting a new paternalism. At the end of the day, individuals engage or disengage themselves so employees too must take responsibility for managing their own engagement and for negotiating improvements to their context. Rather it’s about HR aiming for win:win outcomes for both the organization and its employees. Striking a better balance should bear fruit in terms of enhanced productivity, employer reputation and the ability to attract and retain key staff. A goal worth aiming for!