HR’s complete guide to employee engagement
Many organizations prioritize employee engagement as a key success metric without fully understanding why it’s so important. Employee engagement shows you how committed and connected your employees are. It directly reflects the actions exhibited by your organization and its leaders, and provides valuable information that can drive future decision-making.
In this guide, we’ll explore why employee engagement matters, how to measure engagement, and what you can do with engagement data.
What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement is a metric that represents the levels of enthusiasm employees feel toward their organization. It captures more than just job satisfaction or feeling happy at work – it's a measure of how motivated people are to put in extra effort for their organization, and a sign of how committed they are to staying there.
At Culture Amp, we consider employee engagement a measure of the following five factors:
- Present commitment
- Future commitment
Companies with high employee engagement have a workforce that embodies these five factors, whereas companies with low employee engagement usually struggle in one or more of these areas. Strong engagement also indicates a strong workplace culture – if your company’s cultural practices resonate with employees, that’ll contribute to better engagement.
Why is employee engagement important?
Compared to companies in the bottom quartile of employee engagement, Gallup found that companies in the top quartile of employee engagement experience:
18%higher productivity, as measured in sales
When an organization prioritizes employee engagement, employees feel more motivated by, prideful of, and connected to both leaders and the company. Even small efforts to boost engagement can help reduce turnover, improve retention, and motivate employees to go above and beyond – allowing your workforce stay innovative and agile, even in times of change.
Employee engagement is just one facet of the employee experience, but it plays a major role in shaping this experience. The key to building a responsive and positive employee experience lies in understanding what’s driving engagement.
What drives employee engagement?
In 2023, Culture Amp's data indicated that the top drivers of employee engagement across industries were leadership and learning & development (L&D). While these drivers can vary from company to company, we’ve seen certain trends across our customer data over the years.
|I have confidence in the leaders at [Company]||78%|
|[Company] is a great company for me to make a contribution to my development||78%|
|The leaders at [Company] demonstrate that people are important to the company's success||75%|
At Culture Amp, we collect millions of responses worldwide to help understand organizational culture and performance. Each year, we publish insights by industry and region, benchmarking how thousands of companies are keeping employees engaged.
There’s an intrinsic link between leadership and engagement. Employees look to the actions of your leaders when making their own decisions, and if employees lose confidence in leadership, engagement takes a hit. Trust is crucial to a healthy employee/leader relationship, and when engagement drops due to leadership, it can take a long time for those numbers to bounce back.
The same goes for employee development. Culture Amp’s research shows that companies prioritizing development opportunities as part of the employee experience see 46% higher engagement. Employees can hone skills that align with personal interests and feel they’re contributing to a larger purpose, while managers can better align the company’s vision with the goals of individual contributors.
Comparing the behaviors of engaged employees and disengaged employees
Another factor to consider in the context of engagement is the behaviors your employees exhibit when engaged vs. disengaged. These contrasting behaviors highlight engagement's vital role in strengthening your culture and maintaining a productive workplace.
When an employee is engaged, they:
- Maintain positive mental health, even when working overtime
- Do more good deeds to help their coworkers, even when it’s not part of their job description
- Work more productively and in a better state of flow
- Perform to a higher standard
- Speak more positively about their organization
Meanwhile, employee disengagement looks like:
- Stressed employees who become easily frustrated with leaders and colleagues
- A lack of willingness to go above and beyond, working to the bare minimum
- Underperformance or slower output
- Negative discourse surrounding the organization/leaders
Understand the impact of engagement on employee performance
Explore the latest research on top ways to engage and retain top performers, why your employees may be underperforming, and how to turn good performers into great performers.
What is the relationship between employee engagement and burnout?
Some view burnout as the opposite of employee engagement, with one study finding that the core dimensions of burnout (emotional exhaustion and cynicism) are the polar opposite of engagement (vigor and dedication). However, the relationship between burnout and engagement is not always so clear-cut. Chloe Hammon, Director of People Science, Product, at Culture Amp, explains, “The connection between engagement and burnout is not straightforward because highly stressed individuals can present as very engaged.”
What is employee burnout exactly? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” To put it simply, burnout = a symptom of an overwhelmed worker.
It’s important that your leaders, HR teams, and employees are able to identify signs of burnout. Knowing the signs means leaders can effectively tend to individuals suffering burnout, and employees can self-evaluate and raise the issue if needed.
Signs of employee burnout include:
- Energy depletion or exhaustion
- Loss of productivity
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite or change in eating habits
- Lack of sleep
- Constant worry and anxiety
- Inability to focus
- Increased mental distance or apathy
- Negativity or cynicism
- Emotional fragility or heightened sensitivity
- An increased tendency to start arguments or make harsh comments
High engagement and high levels of wellbeing do not always go hand in hand. Overwhelmed workers who feel highly stressed while engaged may be on their way to burnout, even if any indicators are buried below the surface. Ignoring burnout risks pushing your best-performing employees beyond their limits, leading to turnover.
It’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed – but improving burnout is not just a matter of improving poor employee engagement rates. Organizations must take an ongoing holistic approach to address burnout and build wellbeing into their employee engagement strategy.
Below, we’ve compiled a few resources to help you mitigate burnout among your employees:
- How companies are dealing with employee burnout
- Managing burnout: 3 ways to support employee wellbeing
- How to help your team with burnout as a manager
What is the relationship between employee engagement and workplace morale?
Workplace morale describes the satisfaction, outlook, and feelings of wellbeing that your employees have at their job. Think of morale as another piece of the employee engagement puzzle.
When employees show low morale – no enthusiasm or confidence – there’s no incentive for them to excel. Even an employee who shows up energetic and ready to work might feel disconnected and directionless beneath the surface.
How an employee feels will influence the quality of their output, i.e., how engaged they are when actioning tasks. Employees need motivators to stay engaged and committed to the work they do. Employees might view their company and team positively, but their morale could block them from full engagement if they are dissatisfied with some aspect of their role. The more you know about your employees’ morale, the easier it is to ensure the right tools and resources are available to them.
Who is responsible for employee engagement?
We’ve seen a tremendous shift in the world of work in recent years as people have moved from siloed environments to team-oriented environments. While this shift has allowed organizations to work with more agility, the lines are blurrier when it comes to workplace accountability.
Employees must be held accountable for their work to achieve a high-performance workplace. But who is responsible for improving things like employee engagement? We’ll explore the pros and cons of two different approaches:
Managers and organizations are responsible
- Pros: Ensures that action is actually taken, keeps company culture at the center of decision-making
- Cons: Takes all the responsibility off the individual, puts pressure on managers, disengaged employees may feel they have no input
Individual employees are responsible
- Pros: Encourages individuals to own their engagement, allows for a collective voice when action planning, helps attract top talent
- Cons: Takes the responsibility off leaders, can be weaponized against the employee as the reason for poor engagement
How to measure employee engagement
The simplest and most accurate way to understand and measure workplace engagement is by using an employee engagement survey. Because employee engagement is an outcome, you can use employee surveys to ask questions about different factors that affect employee engagement to see which ones are hurting and helping the most at your organization.
While the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) was long regarded as the go-to metric for measuring employee engagement, we don't find it holistic enough. The eNPS typically consists of a single question about whether someone would recommend their company as a great place to work. While this is valuable information, asking whether an employee would recommend a company doesn’t capture the entirety of engagement.
Engagement surveys can tell you far more than the eNPS about what’s driving employee engagement in your unique organization.
Here are three things to know before measuring employee engagement:
- It takes more than one question to accurately measure employee engagement
- It’s important to strategically choose survey questions that will give you an accurate view of engagement in your company
- Employee engagement driver analysis gives you insight on where to take action
Below, we dive into each of these in more detail.
1. Ask a variety of questions to accurately measure employee engagement
Because of its complexity, engagement is best understood through a series of questions in a survey rather than a single question. Culture Amp’s Founding People Scientist, Dr. Jason McPherson, says, “In general, statisticians agree that well-constructed, multiple-item indicators are more reliable and tend to provide better external validity than single-question metrics.”
In other words, asking a handful of questions on a specific topic will give you a more reliable and clear picture of what’s going on than asking, “How satisfied are you at work?”
2. Strategically choose survey questions that give you an accurate view of engagement in your company
Since engagement encompasses connection, motivation, and commitment, an engagement survey should ask questions that provide data on these factors.
For this reason, Culture Amp’s surveys use five main questions, which we refer to as the “Engagement index,” to measure employee engagement:
- “I am proud to work for [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”
- “[Company] motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere”
In general, we recommend using more than five questions in your engagement survey, which will help you more accurately capture employee sentiment at your company. However, the "right" employee engagement survey questions will differ depending on your organization's specific needs and culture. If you want to more holistically measure engagement, you can incorporate employee engagement metrics that cover the entire employee experience.
20 employee engagement survey questions you should ask
Is your next employee engagement survey coming up? We're sharing the research behind 20 engagement questions we use, and why we believe they'll work for you.
3. Use driver analysis to help you understand engagement trends at your company
Companies that use surveys like Culture Amp’s surveys can see what’s influencing engagement through a technique called driver analysis.
Driver analysis shows you which factors are most related to employee engagement. Dr. Jason McPherson explains how this works in our platform: “If the top driver of engagement is a learning and development question, this means that people who respond most positively to that question are also likely to be the most engaged. If you act to improve responses to that question then you have an improved chance of making your employees more engaged overall.”
How to improve employee engagement
Improving employee engagement is an ongoing, fluid process for many organizations. There’s no quick fix to boost engagement. While some tips and tricks may help patch a temporary issue, engagement is best viewed through a strategic lens.
Addressing any identified engagement issues is simply step one in the process; step two involves sustaining these fixes. Culture Amp suggests following an employee feedback loop model to ensure your engagement initiatives make a true difference:
- Collect: Design a survey with the right questions, and collect answers (or data)
- Understand: Analyze your results and pinpoint your top drivers
- Act: Share the data, build an action plan, and make true change. This step is critical, as employees are likely to respond better next time if they see you act on their feedback
How do you know whether the data you’ve collected warrants an action or if you’re smooth sailing in line with strategic goals? Tap into the power of benchmarking.
Employee engagement benchmarks offer context surrounding the data you’ve gathered. You might receive a poor score on a particular question, then compare it to a benchmark score and discover that your score is actually quite standard for your industry. This allows you to take a step back and get a clearer picture before you evaluate what needs action. Comparing your scores with benchmarks can help you avoid trying to boost a low score when in reality, there’s not much that can be done.
Hitting the benchmark score isn’t the goal. Instead, use benchmarks to gain a competitive edge by evaluating the data (and the relationships in this data) to determine what matters most to your people. Benchmarks should act as a check on your strategy, not dictate reactive and potentially distracting targets.
Once you’ve determined the most important initiatives for your organization, it’s time to take action. At this stage, you want to maximize your impact – identifying one or two key drivers to address now. If you’re selecting more, it’ll be harder to ensure you’re actually improving upon any one focus area. Start small, be specific, and build an action plan one driver at a time.
While building an action plan requires time and investment, avoid lingering in the planning stage. Increasing employee engagement requires pushing through and bringing the planning to life. Don’t be afraid to test ideas immediately. Once you get started, you can communicate progress on your action plan, gather feedback along the way, and adjust as needed.
Understand your employeesDownload the toolkit
3 employee engagement strategies to try at your company
These basic strategies will help you start increasing employee engagement at your organization.
- Communicate openly and honestly
- Focus on learning & development
- Prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging
10 employee engagement ideas to try in 2023
Ready to start taking action on employee engagement? Here are 10 employee engagement tactics used by top companies that have seen real-world success.
Employee engagement begins with understanding your employees
For many organizations looking to make a change, understanding what’s driving employee engagement is a helpful starting point. When you understand your employees – their motivators, emotions, feelings, and more – you put yourself in a better position to enact true change. Remember, engagement will always ebb and flow, but with the right approach and mindset, you can use this key success metric to guide your organization’s path forward.