Best practices for measuring employee engagement

measuring employee engagement

Need to know:

  • Traditional annual surveys are still an effective way of measuring employee engagement, especially when used alongside other methods.
  • Frequent pulse surveys and the use of digital platforms and social media can create a continuous listening strategy.
  • External benchmarking, used carefully, can help an organisation understand its scores, while internal benchmarking is effective in viewing long-term trends.
  • Communication and clear goals are integral both when measuring employee engagement, and when attempting to use the information effectively.

According to Aon’s Benefits and trends survey, published in January 2018, 82% of organisations see employee engagement as a strategic priority within their online or flexible benefits schemes.

The intentions are there, then, but how should organisations go about measuring employee engagement, and is there a universally effective approach?

Measuring through metrics

When using an online benefits portal, an organisation might get a basic sense of engagement by measuring clicks and benefits selection, according to Jerry Edmondson, strategic communications and engagement proposition leader at Aon.

It is also possible to use simple HR metrics such as turnover and productivity to get a sense of employees’ wider engagement with the organisation, working under the premise, for example, that high turnover means low engagement.

Tried and tested yearly surveys

However, Edmondson says: “If you’re looking to understand what’s actually going on in people’s heads, you can’t just look at numbers. If you want to understand what’s under the bonnet, you have to ask.”

Annual surveys are at the core of any attempt to track meaningful trends, says Yves Duhaldeborde, director at Willis Towers Watson.

Scott Heyhoe, director, solution management at Questback, adds: “Annual surveys are great for setting a baseline, catching everybody in the business, and catching those things that change more slowly in a business that [employers] wouldn’t ask people about every day.”

However, there is a trend away from reliance on annual surveys alone. “It’s really good to dig deeper on some topics,” explains Duhaldeborde. “With the technology we have now, [employers] can really ask small questions that are very targeted. [They] can also have some more sentiment-based surveys, if they want to see how people are feeling at the moment.”

New and adventurous methods

Pulse surveys are brief, frequent and more focused in comparison to their annual counterparts, measuring employee engagement throughout the year.

Employers could also use ad-hoc methods, such as simple shows of hands at roadshows, or a basic rating system via everyday communication methods such as Whatsapp. Enterprise social media services, such as Yammer, can also be useful when mining for engagement data.

The digital age is certainly having an impact, from making annual surveys more accessible, to allowing for innovative measurements of the pulse of an organisation. Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway, says: “The benefit of digital methods is the fact that they are instant, and also can be immediate in terms of your response as an employer.”

The concern, perhaps, is that continuous data gathering might lead to an overwhelming amount of information. However, Heyhoe explains: “It’s easy to have one trend line [employers] measure every week, just one. Then when [they] start to see changes they can drill down a little bit.”

Organisations should, therefore, consider the best methods for their own workforce, and investigate new methods. Nevertheless, consistency over the years is still important, to allow for mapping developments over time, says Amanda Callen, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).

Effective benchmarking

External benchmarks, meanwhile, allow an organisation to understand the reality of its scores. John Mallozzi, global segment leader at Mercer Sirota, says: “Some items are always going to be more unfavourable than others. So it’s not a matter of always focusing on them, it’s a matter of how far above or below they are relative to what other [organisations] are getting.”

Benchmarking can be integral, particularly for large multinationals that need to understand the cultural contexts of surveys being administered in various countries, adds Duhaldeborde.

However, it is important to be sure of comparison to the correct group, to be aware that others might not be asking the same questions, and to allow for differences in organisational structure and context. Employers should, therefore, avoid relying too heavily on these metrics. “It’s one point in the equation,” explains Mallozzi. “Benchmarks are an important part, but not the full story.”

Organisations might, then, do well to take an internal focus, looking at best practices in various teams and across the years, knowing that the same questions are being asked, and avoiding comparisons with external bodies that bear limited relevance beneath surface values such as size and sector.

Jonny Gifford, senior advisor for organisational behaviour at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “The most relevant benchmark is you. Just because other organisations are at a certain point in their development doesn’t mean you need to be at the same point as them.”

Communication is key

It might be easy to measure engagement for the sake of it, but this in itself can be damaging, making employees feel that their efforts and insights are not valued. So, what can employers do to ensure they use the information effectively?

Across the board, the communication of methods, results and strategy are an integral aspect of the process, because this builds accountability and trust.

“When articulating the strategy, the key thing is to do it with people, not to them,” says Edmondson. “Too often you see a kind of top down model of communication where a decision is made and then shouted down the organisation and it is up to everybody else to try and make it work.”

Communications teams should, therefore, be brought in early on in the process, says Sean Mills, executive director, leadership and engagement advisory practice, Ipsos Mori. It is also important to keep employees abreast of all decisions. “If you do too many surveys without having that story and telling employees what it is really all about, trust gets eroded,” says Duhaldeborde.

Avoid focusing on the numbers

To ensure that an organisation’s strategy and communications around measuring employee engagement are effective, there must be defined reasons for each measure taken and method used, rather than collecting data for the sake of it.

Finally, the data should always be a starting point for deeper exploration. Employers must avoid becoming fixated on numbers and comparisons. As Hicks concludes: “Collect as much data as you can, without chasing it, and use everything as an input, rather than an arbiter of decision making.”