How to Improve Employee Engagement

Industry Advice Business Communications & Digital Media

Just 15 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work, according to Gallup data—and it’s affecting companies’ bottom line. Gallup estimates that disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion annually in lost productivity.

“That’s a number that can keep business owners up at night,” says Jackie Shannon, an HR senior customer success specialist and part-time faculty member in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program.

Prioritizing employee engagement can boost productivity and profit. Organizations with stronger levels of employee engagement can increase revenue at a rate up to two and a half times higher than companies with low engagement scores, reports management consulting firm Hay Group. Unsurprisingly, the more invested your employees are, the better they’ll perform.

But what does employee engagement actually entail?

“Engagement is defined as an employee’s thoughts, actions, and behaviors that are directed toward the organization’s goals and aligned with those goals,” says Shannon, referencing research by Michael Bradley Shuck and Karen Wollard. “They’re motivated to achieve the organization’s goals.”

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Employees who are engaged find personal worth and fulfillment in their work. One problem plaguing companies is that 85 percent of employees claim to function below their potential. Either their daily tasks don’t feel meaningful or their development fostered and valued.

“If the work is the right alignment and they’re doing the proper task, that will lead to employee motivation,” Shannon says, “because they’ll be able to bring their full self into the activity.”

The early work of William Kahn, who coined the term “employee engagement,” shares insights into what makes employees feel engaged. According to Shannon, that includes:

  • Experiencing a sense of value or worth in their work
  • Feeling safe in knowing that if they bring their full selves to the job, their talents will be accepted and recognized
  • Being emotionally, physically, and mentally available to complete the tasks at hand

Some employees might be motivated to earn a year-end bonus or higher salary, but that doesn’t mean they’re engaged, Shannon explains. In that instance, they’re focused on personal gain, not on helping the company achieve its bottom line. Engaged employees work toward their company’s goals—not just their own.

If your company is experiencing high turnover and a disengaged workforce, Shannon urges that senior leadership do a deeper dive to find out why. She suggests companies complete a climate or employee engagement survey to better understand different departments’ needs and challenges.

“Leaders then need to follow through and act on the results, so that employees feel heard,” Shannon says. “Research shows that not acting on results can actually further increase disengagement.”

Shannon shared an example of a large global organization she recently partnered with that deployed an employee engagement survey. At the time, she asked the senior vice president of human resources and each manager the same 12 questions, and was surprised to see how consistent their responses were and how dedicated the leaders were at various levels of the organization to improving employee engagement. As Shannon describes:

In this particular case, there were themes that came out of the interviews. One was that there were flaws in their organizational culture. The company was made up of a lot of smaller acquisitions, and this resulted in competing cultures among all the small businesses and a watering down of the culture. All these new employees were coming in with different expectations of their new groups. Employees were then demotivated because they didn’t know the rules, and what was rewarded or not rewarded.

How to Improve Employee Engagement

While there’s no one-size-fits all approach to improving employee engagement, there are several smaller steps you can take that could have a big impact on your organization. Those steps include:

Listen to Your Employees  

“Employees want to feel listened to,” Shannon says. “They want to know that what they say is important and they want to perceive that their manager is supportive of them.”

Deploying an employee engagement survey can help. Dig deeper to understand what’s most meaningful to your team—just be prepared to take action. You want to collect insights and data that you can actually act on. If employees don’t see a change, their opinions won’t seem valued.

Focus on Fostering Managers

Fifty-three percent of employees surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that a positive relationship with their immediate supervisor is very important to their job satisfaction. The most effective relationships are centered on “constructive dialogue,” according to SHRM, which ranges from how ideas are received and exchanged to providing feedback on performance.

Gallup reports that managers are primarily responsible for their employees’ engagement levels, and encourages companies to coach supervisors on building engagement plans. They should then hold those supervisors accountable for tracking progress to ensure they stay actively focused on helping their employees grow and achieve their goals.

Provide Professional Development Opportunities

Part of that employee engagement plan should include professional development. Thirty-nine percent of employees told SHRM that career development opportunities were very important to their overall job satisfaction. Those opportunities could include more informal training, such as peer-to-peer workshops, or the attainment of a certification, graduate certificate, or master’s degree.

By providing professional development opportunities, companies show that they invest in their employees. What’s more, those opportunities help foster career advancement, which 41 percent of employees say is very important to their happiness, according to SHRM.

Create a More Autonomous Environment

Once employees gain those new skills, they need the opportunity to flex them.

“Employees want an adequate level of creativity and autonomy in their role,” Shannon says, “and be able to use their skills on a daily basis.”

Employees want to feel as though they’re providing value, utilizing their strengths, and progressing in their role. The more freedom and flexibility they have in approaching projects, the stronger their performance. SHRM research shows that “holding employees accountable for their work outcomes motivates them to produce better results.”

Regularly Acknowledge Employees’ Hard Work

When employees do achieve work outcomes, leaders should take notice. Employees want to know they’ll be acknowledged for their hard work, says Shannon, noting recognition could be as simple as senior leadership congratulating certain individuals during an all-staff meeting.

“Acknowledgement needs to be aligned with their work,” Shannon adds. “Engaged employees are not driven by money itself, but they do want to know that they’re making a fair wage in the marketplace based on their work.”

Above all, employees want to feel valued. And the more you support and engage them, the more value they’ll provide to the company. It’s a win-win.

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