How much of a priority is employee engagement for employers?

  • With employers battling issues such as increased stress among the workforce, burnout among managers, resignations, health concerns, and Covid-19’s (Coronavirus) impact on staff absence, employee engagement has become more of a challenge for some.
  • Organisations that can link their work either directly or indirectly to broader societal goals that employees care about may attract, engage and retain employees with greater ease.
  • As a result of the division between employees’ work and home lives becoming more blurred, many now place more importance on what they receive from their employer, needing to feel understood and cared for.

According to research by workplace and facility management business ISS published in May 2022, employee engagement has become the top priority for global businesses in 2022, with the majority achieving their engagement goals by upgrading their employee experiences to attract staff and create an enhanced sense of belonging.

During the pandemic, employers pivoted towards prioritising engagement, with culture, communications, diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing becoming core elements in helping to drive this.

Burcin Ressamoglu, chief executive officer at Sodexo Engage, says: “Organisations that did not address internal issues, nor implemented policies that work for all, say engagement, and retention were impacted. To drive engagement, employers need to ensure they are helping their people stay focused, present, and energised, while providing a supportive and inclusive environment.”

Many employers are also focusing on employee engagement following the emergence of the ‘Great Resignation’ trend. Some employers have looked to improve engagement through a total reward approach, and giving employees a feeling of being a valuable part of the business’ future.

Employee value propositions

An employee value proposition (EVP) can create high expectations among employees of just what their workplace can offer them, including giving insight into how it may support the local community and environment. Attractive qualities in today’s employer and a focus on purpose will foster engagement among employees and give an employer the advantage in a competitive marketplace with attracting new talent, says Sarah Robson, senior strategic consultant at Aon.

There have also been increases in the number of organisations that survey employees on engagement topics, and among those, increases in engagement, says Dr Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup.

“But when we survey the [United States] and global working populations, we have seen declines in engagement after a decade of improvement,” he says. “So, there is a segment of organisations that are continuing to put great efforts into engaging their employees but apparently not the majority of them.”

What are the barriers to engagement?

Employers have battling issues such as increased stress among the workforce, burnout among managers, resignations, health concerns, and Covid-19 (Coronavirus), which has significantly impacted staff absence. As a result, traditional engagement programmes have evolved into having a more holistic focus on the employee experience.

Employee experience is about identifying all the moments that matter for high performance and requires continuous listening and the use of insights to spark behaviour change, says Sarah McDonough, employee engagement expert at Willis Towers Watson.

“Every current business challenge has an employee experience angle to it,” she explains. “To improve productivity, [employers] need to understand which processes and systems are holding people back. To adapt to more flexible work, [organisations] will need to focus on the employee experience, and to support physical, mental, social and financial wellbeing, it is necessary to understand the needs of a workforce in great detail.”

Employers have, therefore, put more effort into connecting with staff, resulting in engagement being better than ever, adds Robson.

“Employers have tried new channels, they’ve innovated, connected with employees and engaged with them in different ways to reach them when they’re often working from home,” she explains. “Engagement has evolved: wellbeing, environmental, social, and corporate governance, and diversity, equity and inclusion, are employers’ focuses.”

Other issues, such as recruitment, branding and attraction, however, have grown more than engagement over the past year, according to Piers Hudson, senior director of research at Gartner.

Engaging staff with business goals

Clearly aligning an employee’s work with an organisation’s wider goals will create a shared sense of purpose in the business’ success and achievements. A link to broader societal goals that employees care about may also help to attract, engage and retain employees.

One key area for engaging staff with business goals is in building people leadership capability, with front-line managers and team leaders a critical link to achieving success, says McDonough. “This can mean rethinking the role of the people manager and being more deliberate about who is put into those positions, or creating career options for high-performing individuals. Having people who are comfortable with complexity and possess the emotional resilience to adapt to change is increasingly important to the success of an organisation.”

Upskilling managers to be more like coaches than bosses, and understand that engaging a team is a non-negotiable part of the job, will lead to success in the new world of work, says Gallup’s Harter. This can be particularly effective when this approach is aligned with performance management, wellbeing, and learning and development.

Rewarding, recognising and celebrating staff accomplishments is also key to creating an inclusive and engaged culture, as well as building high-performing teams, explains Ressamoglu. “This can easily set examples across the [organisation], as staff become increasingly aware of what a job well done looks like, how it is recognised, and the steps they can take to drive the success of an organisation,” she says.

Engagement tools

However, is important to note that one size does not fit all in terms of engagement initiatives, and that every organisation is unique with different groups of people liking varying styles.

Video communication and other technology work well as engagement tools in a business environment because emotion can be embedded in the messages, and information can be rolled out quickly. “Regular communication is a must as this helps capture employee interest and creates a constant touch point,” says Robson. “Listening and understanding employees is the backbone to communications. This will help organisations find out the issues in their workplaces so that they can create evidence-based strategies.”

As a result of the division between employees’ work and home lives becoming more blurred, many now place more importance on the information they receive from their employer. There are ways employers can transform the employee experience to understand what the workforce needs.

Employers should prioritise programmes based on insights, says McDonough. “Activate those priorities to spark behaviourial change through digital communications, design thinking, and involvement. For employers that get this right, there is a significant performance premium, surrounding customer experience and growth, and also crucially, employee retention.”

As the aforementioned ISS research highlights, organisations are now prioritising employee engagement more than in 2020. Employers that do so, or that want to make engagement a priority, may well consider looking outside the box for a strategy that suits the evolving needs of its workforce, as well as the current business, social and economic climates.