Is Employee Engagement Worth Engaging With?

Simon Brownbill

Is employee engagement worth engaging with? Do engaged employees work harder smarter or more efficiently? Does a productive worker always mean an engaged worker? Is there a relationship between the two and if so, can it be measured?


The term Employee Engagement was first coined back in 1990 by academic William Khan as an employee’s ability to harness their “full self” at work which, he believed, resulted in greater enthusiasm, commitment and discretionary effort or “going the extra mile” and raised productivity.

Khan set out to measure the difference between what he termed “hard-work” or simply getting things done within a set time period and being really engaged in that work. Thus Employee Engagement became the management holy grail of the early noughties and gave rise to a whole industry based on engagement surveys.

In 2009, the MacLeod report in the UK cited evidence of the holy-grail that is, a positive correlation between a workforce that is engaged and improved performance. This in turn has led legions of employers to pursue an increasingly varied range of people management activities in order to boost employee engagement – flexible benefits such as extra paid holidays, work-life balance, opportunities for development, transparent leadership, secondments etc.

However, despite an increasingly creative engagement agenda, according to a recent Gallup poll only 15% of employees worldwide are currently judged to be engaged. And, according to recent reports from the Financial Times UK productivity is judged to be near the bottom of the G7 league table with British workers producing 16% less on average than counterparts in other members of the Group of Seven leading economies. For example, a French counterpart (despite being confined to a 35 hour working week) has produced more by the end of Thursday than their UK counterparts can in a full week.

So, is employee engagement worth engaging with or would our time and resources be better spent elsewhere?

Well, there is some encouraging news. According to recent research, engaged employees are 87% less likely to resign and in an age of high employment and short job tenure, anything employers can do to retain staff has got to be worthwhile…right?

But, is employee engagement the same as job engagement and does it lead to greater productivity?

Jane Caven, HR Expert  Jane Caven, HR Expert & MD of Sagegreen HR

Evidence suggests that there is something different about the outlook and work ethic of teams who are engaged and who are willing to get on and work on something even when they do not know the answer to the task at hand.

Such teams might be described as having an ‘optimistic outlook’ which, when combined with an absolute focus on the process at hand (and any work activity can be converted into a process, however creative this may be can lead to improved productivity.

The reality is that despite all of the hype, there is no silver bullet and there is no proven correlation between engagement and productivity.

Employee surveys that record good engagement scores don’t actually tell employers what is going on in the minds of their employees or how they actually feel and how this translates into action.

That is not to say don’t use them at all, but, see them as a starting point rather than a conclusion. It’s more important to involve employees routinely, in a grounded and meaningful way on matters of importance to the organization and the employees themselves. It’s about really listening to their views and taking these into consideration – giving them ‘voice’.

Often, the most engaged employees are those who find themselves in adversity whether this is the nature of the work itself or the position of the organization. This kind of challenge can create a sense of common purpose which binds employees together and makes their task worthwhile.

Rather than making the workplace too comfortable and all-embracing it may be more productive for employers to introduce an edge of difficulty or challenge into the workplace – to give jobs more bite and thinking of people as individuals who can make a unique contribution rather than simply being just parts of the Company ‘machine’.

How people are allowed to utilise their skills and be given opportunities to learn is key as is work-life balance, acknowledging people as individuals with their own particular skills, attributes and needs.

So, is employee engagement worth engaging with? We know that employees can be engaged but, unproductive or highly productive in a role they are not enjoying. Relying on engagement scores alone is unlikely to help you understand where the real energy lies in your business and how to convert this into productive work, but, that is not to say that such scores are not a good place to start. The key is to link this ‘good citizenship’ with a laser-sharp focus on the process of your business and how you can create the smoothest, leanest and most frictionless process from beginning to end.

Here are a number of tips to consider:

  1. Try and simplify complexity – educate your employees about your business so that they understand each link of the process from end-to-end. That way they can see how their work contributes to the whole process and what they must personally deliver in order for the overall process (whatever that might be, whether this producing a product or carrying out a service) to be successful.
  2. Understand how engaged each employee is feeling – really get to know your staff as individuals and regularly build time in your diary to find out about their wellbeing so that they feel valued and predisposed to give their best performance. Understand their motivations and interests and challenge these by giving them stretching and difficult tasks but, in ways they will embrace.
  3. Create clear goals – ensure that individuals and teams understand what good looks like. Creating a shared sense of purpose is essential and this is done through clarity of goal, clarity of ‘my role’, employees knowing ‘what good looks like in my job’ and ‘my manager knowing and understanding what motivates me’. Remember that this is a two-way relationship and not just about what employees want or need but, equally about what the organization wants and needs.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, feel free to contact expert HR advisor, Jane Caven by clicking here