What is employee engagement?

Employee%20Engagement%20coverWhen staff are well-motivated and support the culture of the business, both sides usually benefit. Steve Hemsley looks at how employers can assess and encourage engagement

IT MAY be hard to motivate a workforce in general, but it is even more difficult to come up with strategies and employee benefits that engage each member of staff on an individual basis. However, the right company culture and working environment can go some way towards achieving this goal.

WL Gore & Associates has taken the number one place in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For survey every year since 2004. The business is part of the group famous for its Gore-Tex fabrics and has a management structure which it believes keeps employees engaged.

When Bill Gore started the company in 1958 he created a culture based on the assumption that staff would be fair to each other and would support their colleagues. As part of this, he decided there would be no traditional chains of command at the firm. Gore believed this would create an atmosphere of equality in which everyone’s skills and responsibilities would grow and workers would feel trusted.

The benefits are clear. If staff believe in what an organisation stands for, understand where it is going and why their own jobs within it are important, a company can steal a competitive advantage. A business with engaged employees is more likely to have low absenteeism and turnover and good profits.

Investors In People, which sets a national standard for delivering business improvement through people, defines employee engagement as a culture of involvement that generates a motivated and committed workforce.

However, maintaining high engagement levels over the mediumto long-term is not that easy. HR software provider Kenexa published research in February this year, The importance of Driving Employee Engagement, which revealed there is often a fall-off in levels of employee engagement when staff have spent two years with one employer. Its study of 810,000 workers in the UK and US found new recruits had a 72% engagement level during the first few months in the job, but by the end of the second year, average engagement levels had fallen to 57%.

Dilys Robinson, principle research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, agrees that keeping staff engaged with the organisation year after year is not easy. “Engagement declines as people get older and as length of service increases, before rising again when someone reaches 60. Any decision to embark on a drive to increase engagement should not be taken lightly, bearing in mind how easily it can be shattered,” she says.

Methods employers can use to encourage engagement differ depending on the type of organisation, but the employee benefits package plays a role, according to the Employee Benefits/JPMorgan INVEST Benefits Research 2007. The study showed that almost two-thirds of employers believed that their benefits strategy, to some extent, engages staff in the organisation.

For example, Nottingham City Council introduced its voluntary benefits scheme, Works Perks, a year ago in a bid to make its 13,200 diversely spread employees feel a greater sense of belonging. Helen Humphries, HR consultant for Nottingham City Council, says: “There can be a what’s-in-it-for-me culture, so you must be clear which benefits will work for which employees.”

Following a survey which showed that the workforce did not feel valued enough, the council also introduced an initiative, where managers sent staff thank you cards in recognition of good performance.

Some types of organisations, such as charities, tend to employ people who are already highly motivated. But this does not mean employers should take these high levels of employee engagement for granted. Home Farm Trust (HFT), a charity which offers long-term help to people with learning disabilities, has set up local, regional and national consultation groups to gather employee feedback. Its representatives meet regularly with Brian Perowne, the charity’s chief executive. Jacqui Raynon, director of HR at HFT, says: “Charity workers are good at engaging in things that make a difference to the charity’s users, but are more reticent about fighting for their own benefits, which can lead to them feeling disconnected.”

Often employers believe their workforce is engaged, without regularly measuring whether this is true, or questioning why some staff buy into an organisation’s ethos more than others. Jo Causon, director of marketing at the Chartered Management Institute, says 86% of directors agree that employees are a key asset, but only 68% of bosses are assessing the contribution staff make to the development of the business. However, the contribution staff make is linked to how engaged people feel with their work.

When companies calculate factors such as employee turnover and absenteeism, they need to discover which parts of the business are most affected. This usually indicates where engagement levels are lowest. “There could be problems with poor management, or staff in one department may be de-motivated simply because they do not feel any sense of purpose when they are at work,” adds Causon.

Trust and honesty
But while organisations are increasingly investing in employee surveys and works councils and are analysing employee data in more detail, not all are acting on the feedback. If managers do not explain the good and bad results of their research, staff will be less inclined to respond to future surveys.

Claire Wilkinson, HR director at international recruitment group Imprint, says companies must not try to suppress complaints, even if they feel they cannot do anything about the concerns raised.

“Often a survey in a small company will reveal that staff do not see a strong career or development path for them and they have become disillusioned. If the management wants someone to feel really engaged with what the business is trying to achieve they may have to accept they are developing and incentivising them for the short-term and that they will lose them eventually,” she explains.

Psychologists who study behaviour in the workplace regard employee engagement as managing discretionary effort. Francesca Buck, client director at occupational psychologists Kaisen Consulting, says this means giving workers choices and trusting them to take decisions that will benefit the business. “No-one wants to feel like a battery hen when they are at work. People need to feel respected and recognised for what they do,” she says.


Adnams brewery in Southwold, Suffolk underwent a boardroom restructure 10 years ago and devised nine brand values. These are sustainability, fulfilment, diversity, quality, environment, integrity, commitment, community and pride.

Ruth Proctor, HR business partner, says: “Staff understand these values and what they mean to their exact job at whatever level.”

The firm has introduced benefits such as a profit-share and share incentive scheme to support these values. It has also developed a link with a local complementary medicine practice which it believes has helped to reduce absenteeism. Employees, many of whom had back problems, were given free sessions of treatment initially and half-price offers after that.

Staff are also encouraged to work together to help the community. Three times a year they help to clean the beach and enjoy fish and chips by the sea, while Adnams donates 1% of profits to worthwhile causes within a 25-mile radius of Southwold.

“We continually measure engagement levels by surveying staff around our nine brand values. They will tell us if we are not delivering as a company,” adds Proctor.

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