Employee Engagement 101: How to Fire Up Your Workforce

Employee Engagement 101 Guide

Employee engagement is the holy grail for management and HR. 

High engagement has been linked to companies with fewer accidents, better retention, and higher profits, while low engagement has the opposite effects. It's estimated that employees who are not engaged cost the U.S. economy as much as $500 billion per year. 

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But companies clearly have trouble fixing the problem, as each generation of the work force becomes less engaged.

As you can see, engagement plays a huge role in retention, making it an essential part of any recruiting strategy.

Below, we've got the essential information you need to know about employee engagement, including what it is, what psychology teaches us about using it, examples of good and bad practices for handling engagement, and how to measure it. 

What is Employee Engagement?

Before we go any further, it makes sense to define just what employee engagement is. 

Turns out there's a lot of confusion about it. People often equate it to job satisfaction, focus and happiness. While these aspects may be tangled with engagement, they're not necessarily the definition of it. Here's a definition from Employer Brand Marketing Expert, Elizabeth Lupfer.

I define employee engagement as the emotional connection employees have to their company, where they see their role as more than just a transactional relationship. 

Also, employee engagement is more than just an event, activity, or even a business strategy. I see it as a measurable outcome of a strong employer brand. When your employer brand successfully engages employees to where they're motivated and inspired to go above and beyond, builds an environment that enables them to be productive in multiple ways, and creates a work experience that keeps employees feeling energized by caring for their social wellbeing -- then you will see your employee engagement scores soar.

Gallup, the well-known polling and survey company, defines an engaged employee as: "those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace."

So, while it's hard to imagine someone that would be committed to their work but unhappy and unsatisfied with it, it's easier to imagine someone who is happy at work but not committed.

You'll also see the term "discretionary effort" used quite a bit when people define engagement. It's the effort employees can apply to getting work done in excess of the minimum needed.

Engaged employees go "above and beyond," putting in extra effort after they've done the minimum expected of them. They're employees who are passionate about their work. They're what makes a company go from good to great.

The Psychology Of Engagement

It's hard to get serious about improving employee engagement without reviewing the psychology behind it.

Let's take a look at some psychological truths that can help you better understand how to improve engagement.

Money doesn't matter.Multiple studies have shown that money does not motivate employees to do their best work. Not only that, but employees motivated by money tend to exhibit poor psychological health.

Happiness does not equal engagement. Rewards that tend to make employees happy - nap pods, ping pong tables and free yoga classes, for example, don't tend to improve engagement or productivity. It's possible to be happy and unproductive.

What really works to increase engagement? If money and perks are out, what can you do to improve engagement at your company? 

Studies show that direct interaction from leadership, recognition for accomplishments, strong bonds between coworkers, a sense of purpose and a sense of autonomy all contribute to improved engagement. 

Additional Work Psychology Resources

Company Engagement Warning Signs

Not sure if your employees are becoming unengaged? Here are some of the common signs:

1. Mistakes are made. You start to see an overall sloppiness creep into employees' work. As an employer, you start to feel like even the simplest tasks can't get done correctly. 

2. Productivity sags. Engaged employees like to put in extra effort. Employees who aren't engaged do the minimum. You'll take a hit in productivity when employees do the least they can.

3. Accidents increase. Increased accidents in the workplace correlate with employees who are less engaged. 

4. More sick days. Companies with low engagement tend to have employees who take more sick days, up to 2.3 times more, according to one study done in the U.K.

5. They're not social. Employees who aren't engaged typically don't feel connected to their coworkers. Are they eating lunch alone? Preferring to tackle problems by themselves when they could easily ask for help? Isolation could be a bad sign.

Resources on Detecting Low Engagement:

Examples Of Employee Engagement

What can you do to increase employee engagement? 

As we mentioned, increasing direct interaction from leadership, giving recognition for accomplishments, cultivating strong bonds between coworkers, and creating a sense of purpose and autonomy all contributed to improved engagement. 

But let's also take a look at what has worked for other companies.

1. Pixar - This company is known for a creative culture that produces hit after hit. Co-founder Ed Catmull notes that they listen to any employee's ideas about anything. Giving everyone in your company a voice allows them a sense of autonomy and the feeling they're part of something bigger. 

2. HubSpot - Pays for employee access to unlimited Amazon book downloads. Perks are generally considered ineffective when it comes to engagement, so why does this work? My theory is that books spark creativity and ideas, which in turn spark excitement and a desire to make great things happen.

3. BBraun - Books again! This company uses them to improve employee bonds, via a company sponsored book club. The company pays for all the books, employees get to choose them.

4. Webmart - This UK-based printing company gives employees 1 day and £250 (about $320) to donate to the charity of their choice. Part of engagement is creating a sense of purpose for employees - and helping them use work to donate or volunteer for causes or a non-profit organization is a great way to do it.

5. Zappos - It's hard not to mention Zappos when it comes to employee engagement, and hard to pick just one thing they do. One cool thing is their coworker bonus program, where peers decide who's gone above and beyond and give them a cash reward each month. At $50, it's not about the money, it's about peer recognition.

Additional Resources on Improving Engagement

How Companies Kill Engagement

Ok, we've looked at how to get employees engaged, but what happens that causes companies to stifle engagement in the first place?

In general, think of things that remove autonomy, and sense of purpose, impede communication and create a feeling that hard work will not be appreciated. 

Common mistakes employers make that kill engagement:

1. Unnecessarily enforcing rigid schedules. Obviously some jobs call for a strict schedule - but if you can give employees some control, it contributes to a sense of autonomy.

2. Withholding recognition. As Dale Carnegie famously advised, "be hearty in your praise and lavish in your approbation." If you want people to go above and beyond, be sure they're recognized for doing it.

3. Not investing in employee training and career development.Training and development gives employees the tools they need to go above and beyond in their work, and makes them feel valued.

4. Communicating sporadically. A study by Gallup found that managers who hold regular meetings had employees who were 3 times as engaged as counterparts who had sporadic meetings. 

5. Focusing on weakness rather than strength. Companies where managers focus on correcting weaknesses reported 31% of employees engaged, compared with 67% at companies where strengths were the focus. If you're focusing on strengths, you're giving employees recognition. 

Additional Resources 

Measuring Employee Engagement

How do you know if your employees are engaged? There are a few ways to measure.

The traditional way has been to send out a survey that asks employees to rate their own level of engagement. This method may not be feasible for all companies though, and might not give the most accurate information. 

Other ways of measuring employee engagement:

Meeting frequency - How often do managers meet with employees? How often are these meetings one-on-one? As we mentioned, regular communication with management is connected with high engagement, so meeting frequency is a good indicator.

Discretionary time - How often do employees use discretionary time - time they're not required to work - to finish something? Do they sometimes work through breaks, after hours or on weekends? This is an indicator being engaged.

Tardiness and absences - This is the flip side of the previous indicator. Do employees get back late from breaks, leave early, or arrive late? Are they taking more sick days than usual? If so, it's an indicator of low engagement. 

Discretionary activities - Do employees participate in groups, meetings and events that are voluntary? Or do they try to get away from work and all things related to it as quickly as possible?

Additional Employee Engagement Survey Resources:

Engagement Tools and Apps

Looking for solutions to help you increase employee engagement? There are several great apps and tools that can help you out. Here's a list of helpful tools:

1. Emplify - Lets your company build a branded, native app designed to increase engagement.

2. TapMyBack - An app built to encourage and facilitate employee recognition - one of the best ways of improving engagement.

3. TeamChat - An app to help you improve engagement with polls, surveys, contests, announcements and nominations.

4. StaffConnect - An app to help connect employees by creating a mini-social network for your team. 

5. EmployeeEngageApp - A mobile engagement tool that combines internal communications, rewards, training and benefits.

6. Quantum Workplace - A mobile engagement app that goes beyond surveys and helps companies get continuous employee feedback. 

7. Accelerole - double the value of your training programs with a mobile automated reinforcement app

Ready to Engage?

Don't just read this! Try enacting at least one of the ideas above, such as the company book club, or the $50 coworker recognition reward. Then use one of the methods for measuring to take a quick baseline of your company's engagement, and see if you can improve it. 

Having passionate workers won't just improve your bottomline, it will give you a better, more enjoyable place to work, which will literally make your life better.

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