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What Is Employee Engagement: How & Why Improve It?

Explore the characteristics of engaged employees, why engagement is important, and how you can measure, improve, and promote engagement in your organization.

Whitney Tipton • Wed 21 July, 2021

Hiring and retaining engaged employees can positively affect not only your day-to-day work environment, but also your bottom line. Employee engagement goes beyond employee satisfaction or happiness. Engaged employees want to work to fulfill the organization’s goals as well as their own.

Let’s explore the characteristics of engaged employees, how engagement differs from satisfaction, why engagement is important, and how you can measure, improve, and promote engagement in your organization.

What Is Employee Engagement?

It is a misconception that employee engagement simply means your employees are happy and productive. Employee engagement is a two-way street on which employees walk confidently, share ideas, and support organizational goals. In turn, the organization structures itself in such a way that culture and managerial communication support engagement. You cannot have engaged employees without engaged organizational leadership.

The Harvard Business Review gives this straightforward definition of employee engagement: “People want to come to work, understand their jobs, and know how their work contributes to the success of the organization.”

But what does it look like when employees are engaged and supported by the organization?

We can identify engaged employees by identifying those who embody four key characteristics.

First, engaged employees are excited about their jobs. This excitement stems from being intellectually and emotionally connected to their work. They know they have ideas to contribute and a team who will support them. They are confident about sharing new ideas that go beyond the basics because their organization is set up to support innovation.

Second, engaged employees understand their strengths and how those strengths relate to their organizational roles. Engaged employees know where they fit into the larger organizational structure. Organizational leadership communicates team members’ specific roles in a transparent way.

Third, engaged employees understand the organization’s goals and objectives. They know ideas that can help the organization reach goals or identify pitfalls are valuable. This is supported by organizational communications that clearly articulate goals and objectives.

Fourth, engaged employees participate fully because they are engaged fully. Organizations that promote employee engagement have systems in place that support two-way communication between employees and leaders.

Levels Of Employee Engagement


Employee engagement falls on a spectrum from highly engaged to disengaged. Quantum Workplace has identified four profiles along this spectrum.

Highly engaged employees are valued brand ambassadors. They know and embody the organization’s values. They motivate their colleagues and share their excitement.

Moderately engaged employees have a generally positive attitude toward their organization, but aren’t go-getters in the same way highly engaged employees are. They participate, but are unlikely to offer innovative feedback or attempt to expand their responsibilities.

Barely engaged employees are at risk for turnover. Quantum Workplace describes these employees as “indifferent.”

Disengaged employees view their organization and role unfavorably. Because disengaged employees do not value the organization’s goals, it is important to ensure these employees do not negatively impact the overall work environment.

Components Of Employee Engagement

Because employee engagement goes beyond employee satisfaction, it is important to understand the components that lead to success. Industry research suggests there are two drivers of engagement at the organizational level, and two at the manager level.

Organizational-Level Drivers Of Engagement

First, does your organization have a culture of engagement? If so, your culture and company values are clear in communication with and between employees.

Second, does your organization practice strategic alignment? If so, your organization communicates clearly about its goals, and how each employee supports those goals.

Manager-Level Drivers Of Engagement

Feeling supported by one’s direct supervisor is a key component of employee engagement. Managers are responsible for not only supervising projects and monitoring outcomes, but also conveying the values and goals of the organization. Engaged managers can convey top-down information with employees that otherwise might get lost in the shuffle. Managers can do this in two ways.

First, there is a socio-emotional component that deals with motivating and relating to employees. Managers who understand employee concerns can identify potential problems and maintain a cohesive team.

Second, engaged managers execute their managerial duties clearly. This means they are communicating clearly about expectations and goals, and supporting employees in the process of trying to reach these goals.

Of the importance of managerial communication for employee engagement, the SHRM 2016 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Report states:

“Management may spend a considerable amount of time on communication through speeches and newsletters, but if the majority of employees do not identify with the message, it may be a sign that the vision is either undercommunicated or that employees are not being shown the link between their work and the organization’s overall mission.”

Employee Engagement Vs. Employee Satisfaction

You’ve heard that employee engagement and employee satisfaction are not the same, but how do these concepts differ? Employee engagement goes beyond employee satisfaction, both in terms of how it is measured and how it affects the organization.

When we measure employee satisfaction, we are measuring morale, communication satisfaction, and how satisfied employees are with the benefits the organization provides. These benefits can include compensation, recognizing employee achievements, work environment, or perks and incentives (gym discounts, free food/beverages at work, company-funded employee get-togethers, etc.).

While employees may be satisfied by these benefits, measuring satisfaction levels tells us nothing about how goal-oriented employees are, if their goals align with the organization’s goals, if they understand their role in the overall organization, or if they contribute new ideas to advance organizational goals.

Satisfaction is important, however, we can go beyond the things employees merely like, and focus on the things that drive employees to be great.

Why Is Employee Engagement Important?

By now you know that engaged employees have characteristics that hiring managers are actively seeking. However, employee engagement is important for your organization’s bottom line as well. Higher employee engagement leads to increased performance and productivity, higher employee retention, and a host of other benefits.

Employee Engagement and Profitability

Increased Performance & Productivity

If your employees embody the characteristics described above, they will likely tackle their work more vigorously than disengaged employees. Research from Gallup confirms this: organizations with high levels of engagement have 18% more productivity than organizations with lower engagement, leading to a 23% increase in overall profitability. Organizations in the top quartile of engagement measures also created products with 41% fewer defects, which contributes greatly to overall costs and brand reputation.

The exciting thing about these numbers is that they are consistent across a variety of organizations and industries.

Higher Employee Retention

You know it is more beneficial to retain and train an employee than it is to hire a new one. But what role does engagement play in retention?

Research suggests that employees that are bored or disengaged are more likely to leave an organization. Employees who leave have a major impact on the organization’s bottom line, to the tune of $15,000 per unretained employee.

A lack of strategic alignment between one’s job description and the actual practice of the job was cited as a major reason employees leave. The same study cited work environment and managerial communication as additional factors that contribute to poor retention, concluding that nearly 75% of turnover causes are preventable.

Other Benefits Of Strong Employee Engagement

Beyond the bottom line, there are additional benefits to high levels of employee engagement.

  • Higher customer satisfaction: Put yourself in the shoes of the customer or client. Would you rather buy from an excited, helpful, employee who learns from your interaction, or one who does the bare minimum to help?
  • Lower absenteeism: Gallup reports that highly engaged organizations have 81% less absenteeism than organizations with disengaged employees.
  • Better employee health: According to Quantum Workplace, employee engagement is positively correlated with employee wellness (including physical, emotional, and financial wellness).

Common Drivers Of Employee Engagement

Understanding what drives employee engagement is crucial for those in human resources and employee experience roles. Let’s explore three key drivers of employee engagement and how to measure it.

Management & Leadership: Managers who are able to relate to and motivate their employees will increase engagement within their teams. According to a 2016 survey from Quantum Workforce, the following statements rankest highest among the surveyed employees:

  • “I believe the leaders of this organization are honest and trustworthy.”
  • “The leaders of this organization demonstrate integrity.”

Meaningful work: Engaging in meaningful work goes beyond liking or enjoying one’s job. Engaging in meaningful work means employees know their work is aligned with an organizational mission that they support, that their work is directly related to organizational and personal goals, and that their work gives them opportunities to grow.

According the the same Quantum Workforce survey above, both salaried and hourly employees ranked the following statements highly on a 2016 survey:

  • “This job is in alignment with my career goals.”
  • “I find my job interesting and challenging.”

Further, a 2020 survey from Deloitte Insights found that:

“A majority (42%) of respondents who have been seeking new employment believe their job does not make good use of their skills and abilities.”

“Moreover, surveyed employees who are planning to switch companies cited the lack of career progress (37%) and challenge in their jobs (27%) as the two top factors influencing their career decisions.”

Relationships: Positive relationships with one’s co-workers can have a strong impact on employee engagement, satisfaction, and desire to reach organizational goals. According to the SHRM 2016 Report:

“Positive relationships with co-workers can foster a sense of loyalty, camaraderie, and moral support and engagement among staff.”

“These bonds may boost overall results and productivity as employees are more likely to want to avoid disappointing their teammates and to remain a cohesive team, especially when faced with adversity.”

Once we understand the key drivers of employee engagement, we can create or obtain the appropriate tools to measure engagement in our own organizations.

One-To-One Meeting Regular 1:1 meetings can be a valuable tool for engagement.

How To Measure Employee Engagement

One of the most common ways we can measure employee engagement is through a survey or questionnaire. Given the prevalence of free or low-cost online survey software, such as Google Forms or Survey Monkey, it is quick and cost-effective to survey employees. Companies like IBM have been using surveys for decades to track employee engagement and organizational performance over time.

What should you include in your employee engagement survey?

Employee Engagement Surveys

Engagement surveys are traditionally deployed annually and contain additional measurements such as general workplace satisfaction, communication satisfaction, benefits satisfaction, and other factors.

It takes more than one question to measure engagement. Culture Amp, a firm specializing in organizational culture analysis, uses the following five statements to measure employee engagement. Each statement is measured on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

  • I am proud to work for [Company]
  • I rarely think about looking for a job at another company
  • I would recommend [Company] as a great place to work
  • I rarely think about looking for a job at another company
  • I see myself still working at [company] in two years’ time

IBM uses a similar set of questions for the employee engagement index:

  • Overall, I am extremely satisfied with my organization as a place to work
  • I would recommend this place to others as a good place to work
  • I rarely think about looking for a new job with another organization.
  • I am proud to tell people I work for my organization

High levels of agreement with these statements indicate that employees are engaged and plan to remain so for the long-term. By looking at these questions, you can see the connections to the drivers of leadership, positive relationships, and meaningful work.

Pulse Surveys

Using large scale annual surveys can help you create a valuable repository of long-term data. However, sometimes you need to quickly identify issues or potential issues. Pulse surveys take the organizational “pulse” at a specific moment in time, allowing you to receive quick feedback and make necessary changes.

Pulse surveys differ from annual engagement surveys in important ways. Unlike longer annual engagement surveys that survey the entire organization, pulse surveys can be shorter, simpler, and more directly targeted at specific employees or teams.

Employee Lifecycle Surveys

Human resources and employee experience facilitators can think long-term about employee engagement and use targeted surveys at specific points in time. There are seven key points in the employee lifecycle, each with its own needs related to engagement: brand attraction, recruitment, onboarding, development, retention, exit and advocacy.

While each stage of the employee lifecycle can be surveyed, there are three crucial points for data collection. According to Quantum Workplace, the following points in time require specific questions:

New Hire Survey

  • What do new hires think of your onboarding process?
  • What was their perception at the 30, 60, and 180-day marks?
  • What’s their outlook on the future?

Stay Survey

  • Why are employees still working at your company?
  • What could drive them to leave?
  • What can be done to prevent it?

Exit Survey

  • Why did an employee leave your organization?
  • How did the turnover impact remaining employees?
  • What can you do to prevent others from leaving?

1:1 Meetings

Rather than meet annually and potentially discuss issues that could have been fixed eight months ago, regular 1:1 meetings can be a valuable tool for engagement. Holding 1:1 meetings with clear topics, parameters, and goals can help both the employee and manager/leader. There are many ways to improve 1:1 meetings and maintain engagement.

Employee Engagement Measurement Strategy

One of the worst things you can do when trying to measure engagement is approach the process haphazardly. Measurements, meetings, and pulses should be done at meaningful intervals with specific guidelines and parameters. A few basics include:

  • Surveys should have a set open/close window to ensure employees are taking the survey in a similar setting and frame of mind.
  • Pulse surveys, while short, should not be used informally. Take the pulse of a team before or after a major project, following a monthly all-hands meeting, or at another regularly scheduled time.
  • To allow both the employee and manager to prepare, 1:1 meetings should be on your calendar consistently (whether that means monthly or something different is up to your organization). The important thing is that the meetings are scheduled with a clear agenda.

How To Improve Employee Engagement

While there are many tactics for improving engagement, the most powerful relate to the three drivers discussed earlier: leadership, relationships, and meaningful work. Below are a few basics.

Coach Successful Leadership

Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workforce report found that those who are coached by an engaged leader are 59% more likely to be engaged themselves.

Plan A Good Onboarding

Based on results from their 2020 Engagement and the Modern Workplace report, Bonusly recommends thoughtful mentorship, executive involvement in onboarding activities, relationship building activities for new employees, and clear processes for transition from onboarding to day-to-day activities.

Prioritize Health & Wellness

High healthcare costs hurt employees and organizations alike. According to Gallup’s Management Journal, 62% of actively engaged employees feel there is a positive relationship between their physical health and their workplace. Compare this to 59% of actively disengaged employees who feel their work harms their physical health. Those who responded positively to the survey also reported having more support for workplace stresses, having a colleague who is also a friend, and having a manager who communicates clearly.

Collect Feedback

Using one of the tactics described above, make collecting feedback part of your overall strategic communication plan. Collecting regular feedback will help you identify issues before they become problems. However, it is crucial that employees receive follow-up about their feedback to promote trust in the process. Simply collecting the feedback isn’t enough– it must be used.

Recognize And Appreciate Employees

According to Paul White, author of The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, “We usually fill in a negative when we don’t hear anything.” Bonusly breaks down these languages into actionable steps for showing appreciation and recognizing contributions.

Focus On Learning And Knowledge Sharing

Innovative and engaged employees feel comfortable sharing ideas because they are supported with strong relationships and professional development opportunities. Professional development is so important that the leadership consultant Peter Baeklund reportedly said:

A CFO asks a CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?” CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

Investing in professional development means more ideas and more innovation.

Employee Engagement Tools

You no longer have to rely on in-office face-to-face communication for employee engagement. If the events of 2020-2021 have taught us anything, it is that we can use innovative technology to reach our engagement goals. For example, we now have access to a variety of online tools, such as:

  • Communication & Collaboration Tools
  • Measurement & Analytics Tools
  • Learning & Development Tools
  • Recognition & Rewards Tools

How do you pick the best tools for your organization? You meet people where they are, and where they are might surprise you. According to data from the Nielsen Podcast Listener Database, the majority of people who listen to podcasts listen while commuting to or from work, or while they are at work.

Imagine a private podcast, just for your employees. Enterprise private podcasting solutions, such as Whooshkaa, allow you to do just that. Whooshkaa has already helped companies like Toyota, Accenture, Atlassian and SafetyCulture harness the power of podcasting. With innovative solutions for communication, collaboration, measurement & analytics, learning and development, and recognition & rewards tools, Whooshkaa can help you address each dimension of employee engagement.

If you’re curious to find out more about the possibilities of private podcasting, check out Whooshkaa for employee engagement.

Author: Whitney Tipton

Whitney Tipton

Whitney is a writer, consultant, and communication professor specializing in internal communication and employee relations. She is passionate about using technology to enhance workplace communication.

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