Getting Real: How to Improve Employee Engagement

Business and HR leaders are waking up and smelling all that employee engagement has to offer, and the c-suite is starting to recognize the critical links between employee engagement and their business’s ability to attract and retain top talent. That’s because disengagement leads down the dark, scary road of costly employee turnover plus a double contrecoup to culture and company reputation.

Employee engagement is a puzzle with many pieces to it. Managers play a clear role—research from Gallup has found that 70% of the variation in employee engagement is tied to managers. Hiring, culture, professional development, and more have an impact as well. Learning what employee engagement means and how disengagement happens are the first key steps to planning programs that improve employee engagement.

A Useful Definition of Employee Engagement

The term “engagement” has been used so often and in so many different situations that it’s become hard to define. Many think it equals happiness or satisfaction, but it’s actually a lot more than that. Many organizations over the years (e.g. Gallup, Deloitte) have attempted to define employee engagement. The simplest definition we like comes from OfficeVibe, which defines employee engagement as the emotional commitment that an individual has to the organization.

Notice that the emphasis is on emotional commitment, not just on whether an employee is happy at work. When an employee is engaged, they do their work energetically and make the extra effort to go above and beyond their normal job requirements without being asked to do so. They do this because they’re invested emotionally, and they genuinely care about the company. And happiness is part of the equation—it’s a result. All that emotional investment and energy leads to happier employees, happier customers, better business results, and a stronger employer brand.

What Are the Typical Causes of Low Employee Engagement?

Understanding how to improve employee engagement begins with understanding the factors that cause employees to disengage.

1. Lack of Purpose

Too many employees feel that their work doesn’t serve a purpose. They simply have no idea how their individual tasks contribute to key organizational objectives because the leaders of the organization haven’t done the work of telling their employees the story of why their business exists and the purpose the business serves.

Alternately, it may be that employees can recite the company’s mission and values by heart, but the values don’t ring true to them because they don’t see leaders behaving in a manner that is consistent with the brand’s stated values.

PayScale conducted research to discover the formula for a winning company culture and found that extrinsic factors—including pay—only go so far in motivating people. Instead, an individual’s outlook on their company and whether they feel appreciated in their role matter most.

These findings support the idea that people need to believe in the vision of the organization and believe that their work matters in order to remain invested in the organization. When these elements are missing, people start to drift away.

2. Lack of Alignment

Employees do their best work and feel most satisfied when there is a perfect alignment of three elements:

  • Competency
  • Passion
  • Organizational need

In an ideal world, all of your employees are in jobs where they can use their strengths to the fullest, throw themselves whole-heartedly into their work each day, and be 100 percent aligned with your organizational goals.

But in reality, employees can fall out of alignment faster than you’d expect—for a number of reasons. Here are a few examples:

  • Role change. You’ve recently asked your social media manager—who loves and has a knack for social media—to de-prioritize social media and spend more time on marketing operations, but she feels drained by looking at spreadsheets and no longer gets to exercise her creativity.
  • Lack of training. You just promoted a business analyst to manager because she excelled at financial analysis, but she is now struggling to do her work and motivate three employees because she hasn’t received managerial training.
  • Life change. Your director of operations loves her job and just became a new mom. Because she isn’t allowed to work from home, she’s now struggling to care as much about her job as she did before.

Even if your hiring practices are optimized to ensure a good fit for each person, the alignment that existed at the beginning of someone’s tenure can disappear well before their first annual review, sometimes within as little as three months on the job. Delaying the review process and failing to communicate progress can lead employees to feel that their differences can’t be resolved. And when employees feel that their work no longer fits in the bigger narrative of their lives, they will begin to distance themselves emotionally from the organization.

3. Trust Is Missing

Trust is at the heart of every business. When there’s trust between employees, managers, and leadership, collaboration tends to be frequent, work quality is high, and challenges are manageable. But if your employees feel like leaders aren’t holding up their end of the deal, why should they? Ernst & Young conducted a global survey on trust in the workplace and found that trust is seriously lacking at nearly half of the organizations in the surveyed population.

Less than half of global professionals trust their employer, boss, or colleagues. These employees felt that:

  • Their compensation and benefits aren’t fair (including the actual salary and the pay decision-making process).
  • There’s not equal opportunity for pay and leadership is not delivering on promotion promises.
  • Leadership doesn’t communicate openly.

Payscale’s 2017 Compensation Best Practices Report (CBPR) found that there is a huge chasm between what employees believe versus what employers believe in regard to pay, appreciation, and transparency.

When your employees perceive that fairness is not a priority, you’re hiding the facts, or you don’t care about them, they react on a gut level. These findings shine a light on the importance of honest, transparent communication. Lack of trust stems from a lack of honest communication.

4. Lack of Personal Growth

When an employee feels they’ve stopped growing, they get bored and start looking elsewhere for opportunities. Career analyst Daniel H. Pink makes the argument in his book Drive that the secret to high performance and satisfaction at work is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world. He asserts that personal growth is made up of:

  • Autonomy: the need to feel like we have control over our work and day-to-day activities
  • Mastery: the need to get better at something we care about and the feeling we get from progress
  • Purpose: when you connect with and believe in the purpose of the organization

When any one of these elements goes missing, people will become unhappy and unmotivated.

5. Lack of Recognition

People have a deep-seated need to feel recognized and appreciated at work. In 2017, employee engagement research from Payscale found that appreciation is the primary driver of employee satisfaction. Our study also found that appreciation makes a huge impact on reducing attrition. In fact, our findings showed that an employee who strongly disagreed with the statement “I feel appreciated at work” is 2.1 times more likely to leave than a neutral employee.

6. Poor Relationship with Manager

Payscale’s recent study on employee engagement was able to directly test the adage that “you don’t quit a job; you quit a manager.” It found that employees who don’t feel they have a good relationship with their direct manager are more likely to leave than those who are neutral.

7. Relationship Issues with Peers

Your employees value the relationships they have with their peers. If they feel like they don’t fit in culturally, aren’t cared for or appreciated by their peers, or simply don’t know the people they work with, they have less to lose if they make the decision to leave.

8. Compensation Isn’t Fair and Pay Is Too Low

The paychecks your employees take home aren’t just numbers. Compensation is personal. And it’s emotional. The way you compensate employees says a lot about how much you value their work. A study from Payscale explored the links between compensation, employee engagement, and intent to leave; it found that the perception one is underpaid relative to the market—regardless of whether it’s true or not—is the biggest driver of why people leave.

How to Improve Employee Engagement: Best Practices

All employees need to feel respected, part of a team, purposeful in their job, that they’re growing, and their ideas matter. Here are some best practices to help you get a sense of where your organization currently stands with employee engagement and how to improve employee engagement moving forward.

1. Take the Pulse of Your Employees

There are many ways you can get a handle on the current state. Start with employee engagement surveys—you can send them out on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. The keys are to keep the questions focused on the areas you want to gauge the most, take real actions based on what you learn, and keep track of progress over time.

2. Practice Open and Honest Two-Way Communication

People need to feel like they know their objectives and understand the “why” in order to do their best work. When people are confused about their objectives (when roles and goals aren’t well-defined), they lose momentum. When people don’t feel it’s safe to voice their honest opinions within their organization, they keep quiet but mentally check out.

As a leader, strive to be as transparent and open as you can and solicit feedback from all corners of the organization when you make key decisions. Trust that employees will be committed to your organization as long as they understand your mission, values, goals, and challenges and can raise their concerns without fear of repercussion.

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Have monthly one-on-one check-ins with employees
  • Solicit ideas from employees before making decisions
  • Have regular monthly town hall meetings where C-level execs answer questions openly

3. Invest in Personal Growth

Make sure your employees know you are investing in their personal growth. Below are some key factors that go into how people evaluate their own growth, and ideas on levers you can pull to help them grow:

  • Autonomy: People want to feel like they have the space to do their work. When employees are encouraged to explore, learn, and come up with their own solutions, they gain new confidence and become willing to put in extra effort to get the job done.
  • Accountability: People are motivated by scores and they like to know where they stand. You can design a scoring system that motivates desired behaviors. Setting clear and realistic goals for your employees and incentivizing them to achieve those goals can amplify engagement. On the flip side, if employees feel that your goals are irrelevant, unrealistic, or arbitrary, they may become demotivated.
  • Momentum/Mastery: People want to feel like they are continuously making progress and gaining new skills. There are milestones throughout the employee lifecycle where employees can gain or lose momentum. For example, onboarding is a critical time for building momentum. At BambooHR, we focus on delivering a seamless first-day experience. Instead of filling out paperwork and eating lunch alone, our new hires complete their e-signatures in advance and get treated to lunch with their new team members. Beyond the new hire stage, good leaders should think about how to keep employees engaged through changing work situations, whether it’s moving on from a long-term project or mapping out an employee’s career path in the organization as roles and needs change. Giving employees timely, specific responses to their feedback in both words and actions will help them feel they’re making steady progress.
  • Contribution: Employees want to feel like they have an impact. Think about how you can make the impact vivid in their mind. Connect the dots for them on how their individual role is impacting key organizational goals.
  • Relationships: The level of one’s engagement and satisfaction at work is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of positive relationships a person has at work. Make sure that your employees have ample opportunities to connect with one another and get to know each other—starting as soon as they join the organization.
  • Renewal: The energy and creativity within your employees are depletable resources. For people to do their best work, they need enough time to rest and recharge. Do you have health and wellness programs your employees can take advantage of? They don’t need to be expensive (e.g., weekly yoga classes), but offering them sends an important message that you’re invested in employees’ well-being.

Remember that personal growth is, well, personal. Some people will care a lot about some elements (e.g., autonomy), and less about others (e.g., renewal). For others, it’ll be the reverse. There’s a unique formula to each person. As a leader, it’s your job to get to know each individual and what makes them tick.

4. Build a Culture of Appreciation

For your employees to feel valued at work, they need to hear “thank you” for a job well done. Many times, managers and leaders confuse recognition with rewards or incentives. They say, “I don’t have the budget to reward everybody for doing their jobs.” Recognition is not the same as rewards; it’s about acknowledging great performance. Recognition can and should happen in many directions, from peer to peer, from manager to peer, and from peer to manager. The most important things to remember are:

  • Recognize frequently
  • Be specific
  • Align with your core values
  • Encourage participation
  • Seek continuous feedback
  • Use technology to help
  • Communicate a lot

Simple approaches can be extremely effective. Encourage your employees to come up with their own ideas and provide the support to make them happen. For example, PayScale employees decided they wanted a forum to recognize their peers. The People team set up an appreciation station and provided beautiful cards, so anyone can write a card to give their colleagues a shout-out. Once a month, employees gather around and these appreciation cards are shared publicly.

5. Act and Make Decisions as a Company with Values in Mind

To build trust, employees need to feel that the stated values of the company inform how decisions are made and how people behave. When values and behaviors don’t match, cynicism and resentment creep in, and that’s hard to recover from.

6. Don’t Forget to Include Your Remote Employees

Some of us work at organizations with an increasing number of remote workers. Remote work and flexible work arrangements have numerous benefits, such as lower overhead costs, decreased attrition, higher employee satisfaction, greater productivity, and more. But these benefits aren’t guaranteed—in fact, your remote workers may be at greater risk of becoming disengaged because they’re not in the same daily rhythm and flow of the office. Here are some tips to make your remote workers feel just as valued as your local ones:

  • Make them feel included. Whenever you design a new program, activity or project, think about how remote workers would be able to stay connected to it. Do you have technology to make them part of the conversation? If you have an in-person event like an annual picnic, can you find an alternative perk for remote employees?
  • Give them the tools to do their job. Make sure they are set up with computers, communication tools, and software and systems so they can be productive and stay in touch with their teammates in the home office.

Foster connectedness. When someone is remote, they may start to become emotionally remote as well. They may feel anxious and perceive that they are not important to the organization. Bring them into a tighter emotional orbit with the organization through technology and in-person events as much as feasible. Managers need to understand each of their employees and know how to forge those connections.

How Do You Cultivate Employee Advocates?

Whether you call them employee advocates or brand ambassadors, you know you want more employees who embody your values, amplify your culture, spread positivity to your customers, and refer good-fit candidates to your organization. If every company has its “secret sauce”—what gives you a competitive edge and makes your culture strong and unique—then your employee advocates are your master chefs. For example, if your secret sauce is that employees have particularly strong relationships with one another and with customers, then, your employee advocates are folks who are relationship-oriented, have strong networks, believe in the mission of your organization, and like to share things on social media.

To cultivate employee advocates, start with your secret sauce and consider the following activities:

  • Tighten your hiring practices to screen for employee advocates. Hire for specific behaviors and personality traits. Adapt your recruiting and vetting process to hire people who fit really well with your mission, vision, and values.
  • Give people opportunities to collaborate outside of their own departments. Providing platforms for your employees to work with each other on meaningful projects will lead to stronger relationships.
  • Don’t hoard your talent. As much as you want to hold onto your high achievers, it’s better to provide them with opportunities to develop—whether they choose to move up within your organization or go elsewhere. When you invest in your employees’ personal growth rather than stifle their mobility, they take notice, gain respect for your organization, and become brand advocates.

What Can You Do at the Team Level and at the Company Level to Focus on How to Improve Employee Engagement?

Let’s underscore what’s most important:

  • You need to provide clear mission, vision, and values statements and make sure employees understand what they entail.
  • You need to have transparent, honest, two-way, ongoing communications.
  • If you provide the “why,” employees will understand and come along with you. If you don’t, they fill in the narrative—perhaps erroneously.
  • Experience and education don’t always guarantee performance.
  • Attitude matters. Some employees can simply not be engaged.

Remember that employee engagement initiatives need to be ongoing. Employee engagement isn’t a project; it’s an ongoing commitment to maximizing your greatest asset: your people.