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Blog - What is employee engagement?
Lexi Croswell, author

Lexi Croswell

Senior Content Marketing Manager, Culture Amp

We know that engaged employees lead to higher performing, more resilient organizations. This ideal state is what many organizations aspire to, but what exactly is employee engagement?

Employee engagement defined:

Employee engagement represents the levels of enthusiasm and connection employees have with their organization. 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.

Importantly, employee engagement is an outcome that depends on the actions of an organization. For many employees, whether or not they feel engaged is reflected by whether or not leadership, managers, and people teams listen to and value their voices.

Many organizations seek out higher levels of engagement to improve things like performance, retention, and innovation. Using an employee engagement survey is a great way to understand what most impacts engagement at your organization and help drive meaningful actions to improve it over time.

Why engagement matters for people at work

People who are highly engaged at work not only provide greater value to the organization but also experience a better quality of life at work. Fresia Jackson, People Scientist at Culture Amp, describes what an engaged employee looks like.

People who are engaged feel energized by their work and actually maintain positive mental health. They do more good deeds at work, like helping a new hire get acclimated (without being asked). People also work in a state of flow when they feel engaged; time passes, and they’re absorbed in their work.

— Fresia JacksonPeople Scientist, Culture Amp

Fresia continues, “These behaviors bring to life employee engagement survey results because they’re what we see day-to-day.” In addition, the People Science team has found that high levels of engagement also lead to increased employee retention.

Why engagement matters at the organizational level

When organizations use surveys to understand the drivers of employee engagement at their organization, they’re able to take more effective action on what’s important. Jeff Ehrenberg, VP of People at HotelTonight, their people team is now able to answer strategic, data-driven questions for the business using employee feedback data. Especially if your company has a lean people team, it’s important to use employee feedback to focus on the areas that have the biggest impact.

How to measure employee engagement

The simplest and most accurate way to understand and measure employee engagement is by using an employee engagement survey. Because employee engagement is an outcome, you can use a survey to ask questions about different factors that affect employee engagement to see which ones are hurting and helping the most at your organization.

That’s what an engagement survey can show you - what’s driving employee engagement in your unique organization.

Here are five things you should know before measuring employee engagement:

  1. It takes more than one question to understand employee engagement.
  2. Strategically choosing survey questions that give you an accurate view of engagement in your company.
  3. Employee engagement driver analysis gives you better insight on where to take action.
  4. Knowing the common drivers of employee engagement is helpful for understanding overall trends of engagement
  5. Benchmark data gives you useful context for your survey results

We'll dive into each of these five points below.

1. It takes more than one question to understand 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 Chief 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 rather than just asking, “How satisfied are you at work?”

The Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) was long regarded as the go-to metric for measuring employee engagement. 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, recommendation on its own doesn’t capture everything about engagement. It’s important to get a holistic view of what different factors influence engagement so action planning is based on the whole picture and relevant data. That's why it's important to keep a range of engagement metrics in mind.

2. The best employee engagement survey questions

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 questions to understand engagement through the lens of pride, level of recommendation (Net Promoter Style), present and future commitment, and motivation.

Here are the five engagement questions that encompass the outcomes of employee engagement:

  1. “I am proud to work for [Company]”
  2. “I would recommend [Company] as a great place to work”
  3. “I rarely think about looking for a job at another company”
  4. “I see myself still working at [company] in two years’ time”
  5. “[Company] motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere”

Depending on your organization's specific needs and culture, the "right" employee engagement survey questions will differ.

3. Employee engagement driver analysis

Companies that use surveys like Culture Amp’s 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.”

4. Common drivers of employee engagement

The drivers of engagement can change from company to company, and even within the same company over time. However, there are some trends that we’ve seen across our customer data over the years.

On an annual basis at Culture Amp, we use aggregate customer data to see what’s driving employee engagement across the companies that we work with. It’s a diverse group - we work with 4000+ companies across more than 120 industries.

In 2021, Culture Amp's data indicated that the top drivers of employee engagement were:

  1. Learning & Development
  2. Leadership
  3. Company Confidence

5. Use employee engagement benchmark data for comparison

When measuring employee engagement, it’s important to have internal year-over-year comparisons in your survey data as well as external benchmarks.

“Benchmarks are great at giving you context,” says Dr. Jason McPherson, “For example, when you get a poor score on a particular survey question you can look at a relevant benchmark and see that your score is actually normal for most companies. The benchmark makes sure you don’t panic about the wrong things.”

As Jason explains, hitting the benchmark shouldn’t be your goal.

“A common mistake people make is fixating on trying to hit the benchmark. It’s not necessarily important to get to 72% if you’re currently on 70% if the question or factor isn't something your people value very much. It’s more important to look at the data and the relationships in the data so that you can focus on the things that matter to your people.”

Use benchmarks to provide context to your survey results, and make sure you’re using a diverse benchmark with reference to your talent pool. For that reason, we often recommend capturing demographic data.

How 1-on-1 meetings can help drive employee engagement

After conducting an employee engagement survey, it's important to communicate the results of any employee engagement surveys you conduct. Equally important is taking an action.

An easy way to improve employee engagement is through managers, as they arguably have the biggest impact on an employee's day-to-day engagement. As a result, teaching your managers critical soft skills can drive significant improvements to your organization's overall engagement.

In particular, managers can learn to conduct more effective 1-on-1 meetings. When done right, these regular check-ins give employees the opportunity to communicate their wins and worries, get the direction they need to make progress, and build the connection they need to not only meet but exceed their manager’s expectations. A well-executed meeting incorporates the right balance of coaching, guidance, and camaraderie.

1-on-1 conversations that incorporate the following topics generally drive greater engagement:

  1. Professional development - Talking about professional development shows employees that their manager is invested in their goals, and is committed to helping them move forward in their careers.
  2. Personhood - Addressing and showing genuine interest in a direct report's personal life shows empathy and builds trust. Personal connections matter, and increase not only engagement but a direct report's sense of belonging.
  3. Performance - Weekly or bi-weekly check-ins make it easy for employees to ask for help, and for managers to understand what their employees are struggling with. They're also a good opportunity for employees to understand how they are performing, and how well they are tracking towards their personal, team, and organizational goals.
  4. Roadblocks - 1-on-1's allow managers to address issues as they arise, so progress isn’t stalled on significant projects and employees don't feel like they're alone in their struggles.

Defining and understanding employee engagement

Employee engagement is an outcome, one that is affected by the actions of an organization. Particularly employee engagement is affected by the actions of leadership, managers, and people teams, and whether or not employees feel like their voices are being heard. Using an employee engagement survey is one of the most effective ways to capture every voice, measure employee engagement, and identify areas for improvement. Then, take action on the results - otherwise, it might seem that your company doesn't care enough to create meaningful change.

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This blog post was published on July 26, 2021. (Originally published March 6, 2017).

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