Your ultimate guide to employee engagement

24 min read
Find out everything you need to know about employee engagement. This guide will give you all the tools and information you need to understand employee engagement in your organization and identify the actions you need to take to improve it.


What is employee engagement?

You know that feeling when you can’t wait to get stuck into a project? When you’re chomping at the bit to get going, and full to the brim with ideas? If these projects and ideas are aligned with your organization’s, THAT’S engagement.

Put simply, engagement is how someone thinks, feels, and acts to help their organization achieve its goals.

53% of employees around the world are engaged at work

Qualtrics 2020 Global Employee Experience Trends Report

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Engaged, disengaged, or somewhere in-between?

When it comes to employee engagement, there are typically 3 different types of people:

1. Engaged employees – motivated people who take an active role in driving their team forward to meet the organization’s goals

2. Disengaged employees – people who are not motivated and hold the team and the organization back from achieving its goals

3. Neither engaged nor disengaged – people who are coasting. They don’t play an active role, but don’t prevent the team or organization moving forward either.

Employee engagement is the art and science of engaging people in authentic and recognized connections to strategy, roles, performance, organization, community, relationship, customers, development, energy, and happiness to leverage, sustain, and transform work into results.

David Zinger, Let’s Co-Create an Employee Engagement Charter, The Employee Engagement Network

How we measure employee engagement

We measure employee engagement as a composite score of 5 factors:

  • intent to stay – the likelihood that people will still be with the company in the next 2 years
  • work involvement – the psychological and emotional contribution people apply to their work
  • discretionary effort – the level of effort above the minimum required that people are willing to put into their work
  • pride in the company – the extent to which people feel proud to work there
  • willingness to recommend their organization – how likely people are to recommend their organization to friends and family

Each of these items provides a score which, when combined, gives an overall metric of employee engagement.

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Benefits of employee engagement

Intuitively, it’s a no-brainer – would you prefer more employees who have the desire and drive to move the organization forward, or more who are coasting, or actively preventing the company reaching its goals?

To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.

Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup

But it’s not just intuition; we know from the vast amount of research into the subject down the years that engaged employees are more inclined to work harder and solve problems, grow and develop faster, get along with people better, and stay longer at a company.

And it has a measurable impact across the business:

  • Increased performance – there’s a lot of research that shows people who are engaged in their work achieve more
  • Lower attrition – engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave their organization, which means reduced costs in having to recruit new staff, train them and wait for them to ramp up to full productivity
  • Increased revenueaccording to Gallup, highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability and those teams who score in the top 20% in engagement realize a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less attrition
  • A better customer experience – the same study found that highly engaged workplaces see a 10% increase in customer ratings and a 20% increase in sales

The history of employee engagement

Employee engagement has a long history in business — in fact, it’s been used in some form or other since the early 1970s.

In the early days, the focus was very much employee satisfaction. However, research soon proved this had little or no link to performance.

It evolved then into measuring ‘commitment’ in the 80s – still a key part of engagement, though the focus was very much on ‘how can we encourage people to stay in their job for life?’ — something that is now increasingly rare as the global workforce became more fluid.

The rise of employee engagement

Engagement as a term first entered business lexicon in 1990 after the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) published ‘From People to Profits, the HR link to the service-profit chain’ .

Powered by the growth of the service economy, it made a clear link between employee attitudes and behavior and key business metrics like customer retention and revenue.

Highly engaged employees make the customer experience. Disengaged employees break it.

Timothy R. Clark, executive coach and organizational consultant

By the early 2000s, employee engagement had been the primary tool not just for HR to manage things like retention, absenteeism, and productivity but had entered the C-suite as a key strategy in delivering better customer outcomes.

Employee engagement strategies evolve

The employee engagement programs we see today bear little resemblance to the ones from the early 2000s.

Not only have the engagement survey questions changed as new research continually broadens our view of what impacts employee engagement, but how organizations run their surveys has moved on.

Where once engagement was just about a single check-in, once a year — over the past decade more and more organizations are running bi-annual, quarterly, or even monthly employee engagement surveys.

86% of people want their employer to ask them for feedback more frequently than once a year.

The idea is that sending shorter, more frequent surveys increases response rates compared to a single, longer survey, but also reflects the pace of change within the organization.

From employee engagement to ‘experience’

Nothing stands still in business, so of course employee engagement has moved on yet again.

Just as the rise of the service economy in the 70s and 80s opened the door to engagement, the experience economy has seen a shift towards ‘employee experience’ – a more holistic view of the workforce that sees engagement as just one lever to pull.

Today’s most successful organizations are looking not just at an annual or bi-annual snapshot of how their employees feel, but are running feedback programs that gather feedback throughout the employee lifecycle to understand the complete experience.

Consider the lifetime of an employee at your organization – there are numerous key milestones along the way, whether it’s their interview, onboarding process or their performance reviews.

Each one presents an opportunity to gather feedback and understand the key drivers. And for each stage, there’s a feedback mechanism:

  • Always-on feedback – on-demand, anonymous avenue where employees can raise issues and provide feedback. Read more: Anonymous vs confidential surveys?
  • Ad hoc surveys – just-in-time feedback on specific initiatives eg. organizational changes
  • Always-on feedback – regular, structured feedback mechanisms that track the same event over time. For example, tracking the progress and impact of your employee engagement action plans
  • Employee lifecycle feedback – event-triggered feedback that gets employees views at key milestones in their journey with a company. It includes candidate, onboarding, exit and training feedback
  • Multi-rater assessments – performance and development evaluations that simplify the 360 reviews and feedback from peers, managers, and direct reports
  • Census engagement surveys – the annual or bi-annual ‘deep dive’ it covers the widest range of topics and allows you to understand the key drivers of employee engagement and identify areas for improvement

Customer Story

“The employee engagement survey is a super valuable tool. It makes people feel heard and it also gives us insight. We follow up with focus groups, and we do store visits.”

Karalyn Smith, Chief People Officer, Sephora

Read Karalyn’s Story


Measuring employee engagement

Getting started with employee engagement is easy – in fact, there are just 3 steps you need to follow:

  1. Run your survey
  2. Get the data
  3. Act on the results

…and repeat!

Of course, there are some essential ingredients for every step to make sure your program is effective, not least communicating back to employees at every stage of the process to keep them informed and engaged with the program.

Here are the key ingredients for each of the 3 stages:

1. Run your survey

Survey design – a good rule-of-thumb for survey length is 30-50 items and don’t forget to include a way to record demographics too.

Jump to: How to design your survey

Collect responses – make sure you invite responses from everyone and keep a close eye on response rates. You might need to keep the survey open for 2-3 weeks to give people the best opportunity to give their feedback.

2. Get the data

Define the reporting roll out – decide what reports different teams will be able to see and when.

Make it relevant – make sure you deliver results to the right people, and don’t drown them in data. For example, you can map your survey to your organizational hierarchy to ensure managers automatically receive their own teams’ results. This helps you keep it focused on the data that’s most relevant to them.

Set expectations – let managers know what you need them to do with the results and let teams know when they can expect results and what (if anything) you expect from them.

Brief the leadership team – don’t pile all the results data on the executive team. Schedule an overall briefing with the key insights and areas to focus on.

3. Act on the results

Action isn’t about HR and People teams doing all the work. While there might be some things you can do at an organizational level, the greatest impact on engagement will come from the actions your managers take.

For any organization-wide initiatives, align closely with your leadership team, and set 1 or 2 key focus areas. It’s a good idea to assign someone to each one to oversee progress on it.

When it comes to your managers, they should be able to see the key drivers of engagement for their teams, plus where the team returned low scores.

These should be their priority areas, and managers can then put action plans in place to improve them.

See more on driving actions to improve engagement


Customer Story

“We’ve learned that people who are giving feedback digitally are a lot more likely to hit their goals and objectives, and they actually get a 20% higher bonus than people who aren’t engaging in digital feedback.”

Dean Carter, CHRO at Patagonia

Read Dean’s Story


Employee engagement surveys

Designing an effective employee engagement survey needs careful thought to return the best possible results and data. Use our tips and template to create the most effective survey for your organization.

Before you start

Here are some things to think about first:

  • Decide whose input you need to include and whose input you don’t need (manage expectations by explaining why you are not consulting them)
  • Set clear deadlines and turnaround times right from the start
  • Ask participants to let you know upfront if they cannot meet the timeframe, so you can assign someone else
  • Establish one person for the final sign-off, and make it clear to everyone in the sign-off process that when they say it’s final, it’s final
  • Distinguish ‘nice to have’ questions from ‘must have’ questions
  • Avoid designing your survey by committee

Using our survey template

In line with the industry standard, our employee engagement survey template uses a 5-point likert scale from ‘Strongly agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’ for all items.

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The questions cover three key areas:

Engagement – these questions go at the front of your survey, and measure: pride in the organization, motivation, advocacy for the organization, intention to stay and job satisfaction.

Core themes – these ask about the conditions that might cause (or detract from) engagement with questions about autonomy and empowerment, career progression, collaboration, communication, leadership, recognition, resources, strategy, management support and training and development.

Additional themes – depending on what’s happening in your company or market at the time, you might also want to ask about additional topics. In our engagement survey template you’ll find some additional ones you can include – try to avoid throwing them all in, and only ask them if they’re relevant to prevent your survey from becoming too unwieldy.

Download: The Essential Guide to Employee Experience Surveys

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Analyzing your results

Once your data is in, you need to turn it into insights.

With the right analysis, you can what’s driving key metrics, such as engagement and retention, so you know where to focus your improvements.

One of the most useful tools here is a key driver analysis — a statistical test that surfaces the the factors that have the biggest impact on employee engagement.

It shows, in an easy-to-read format, the drivers of engagement, how important they are and, crucially how people rated them.

The idea is that by focusing on the high impact/low scoring drivers, you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck, focusing on the things that have the biggest impact on engagement in your company.

The key drivers of employee engagement

The following factors have all been shown to be key drivers that impact how engaged people are at work. These should all be included in your engagement survey (see our engagement survey template if you need help with yours) Your analysis should surface the ones you need to focus on most.

  • Autonomy / empowerment – are people empowered in their roles and able to innovate on the job?
  • Career progression – are there opportunities for people to grow and develop in the company?
  • Collaboration – are they able to easily work with other teams or colleagues without barriers or conflict?
  • Communication – are they getting enough info from the company about what’s happening and do they feel they’re being listened to?
  • Company leadership – do employees believe in and trust their senior leaders?
  • Recognition – do people feel that they’re recognized and appreciated?
  • Resources – are they enabled to do their job through the equipment they’re given?
  • Strategy alignment – do they buy into where the company is going and how they’re a part of it?
  • Supportive management – are managers supporting their teams to be successful?
  • Training & development – do they feel they have the training they need to do their job?
  • Customer focus – are they in a customer centric organization and are they empowered to do what’s needed?
  • Diversity & inclusion – do they feel the organization is inclusive and fair to all employees?
  • Pay & benefits – do people feel they’re fairly rewarded for what they put in?
  • Quality of product or services – do people believe in what they (and/or the organization) provide to their customers?
  • Safety – Do people feel their safety is critical to the organization?
  • Social responsibility – do they feel the company is a good corporate citizen with a worthwhile cause?
  • Work-life balance – do they feel the company allows them to achieve the balance they need between work and personal life?

Using employee engagement software to find insights

Okay, so very few HR departments have a team of data scientists on hand to help them analyze their employee engagement results.

So you’ll probably be using an employee engagement platform to automatically analyze the data.

The best platforms make running complex analysis easy, whether it’s identifying the key drivers of engagement or automatically surfacing the actions that have the biggest impact on engagement.

And if they map the results back to the organizational hierarchy, it’s all delivered straight to managers’ inboxes so they can get stuck in and start improving things for their teams.

See how you can improve engagement with EmployeeXM

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How to improve employee engagement

The best way to improve employee engagement is by taking action on the insights. Here’s out to make sure your employee engagement insights result in real change and improvements for your people

There’s a science to improving employee engagement. But unfortunately, there’s no cookie-cutter approach — it all comes down to understanding your key drivers and then taking action to improve the low scoring ones that have the biggest impact.

Employees whose employer acts on their feedback are 2 times more likely to be engaged

There are two ways to approach your improvements – on one hand there are changes at an organizational level, and on the other, improvements and actions within individual teams.

In most cases, you’ll need to do both.

At an organization level, work with your leadership team to identify the key drivers that affect everyone. Then, you can assign owners to dig deeper into the issues and identify any action plans to help improve them.

It is only ever worthwhile to measure and analyze employee sentiment if you are willing to share results back and drive action

Marina Pearce, Head of Talent Analytics at Ford

The biggest impact however, will come at a team level. The vast majority of key drivers are things managers can impact, such as help with career progressions, resolving issues at work, or helping to prioritize workloads.

In fact, it’s been shown that managers have the biggest impact on an individual’s engagement, more than anything done at an organizational level.

The old saying “people don’t leave companies; they leave managers” is a bit oversimplified, but the underlying notion is spot on. Gallup reports that 50% of employees who quit a job cite their boss as the primary reason.

Empowering your manager to drive change

If your managers have their employee engagement results, they’ll know where they have a problem — that’s the easy bit. But how do they improve it?

This isn’t something most managers will know. That is, not without a little help from the HR team.

44% of new managers say they’re underprepared for the role

You can help your managers to take action through a process called guided action planning.

Guided action planning provides managers a “double click” on their opportunity areas. It goes beyond surfacing broad areas for improvement and offers specific actions leaders can take on the feedback they receive.

Here’s how it works:

+ A manager learns they need to improve in one or more areas based on employee survey results

+ HR surfaces the specific survey statements that got low rankings

+ HR suggests specific actions — an action plan — based on the statements the manager can take to address the feedback (and improve)

Guided Action Plans create a closed-loop system with employee feedback; they give every leader the intel and power to drive impact in areas employees care about most. They also shift the dynamic from HR imposing accountability on managers — “here’s your feedback; please act on it accordingly” — to enabling that accountability.


Customer Story

What happens when you see a dip in employee engagement or key drivers of engagement? For Bright Horizons, it was a chance to “radically listen” to their team’s needs — both within and beyond the workplace.

Watch the Webinar


Automating guided action planning

Particularly in medium to large organizations, driving that kind of action at scale is difficult without the help of technology.

With EmployeeXM, managers can automatically see their action plans as soon as the engagement results are in.

The plans are all based on what their teams’ said, and the key driver analysis that shows which areas to focus on.

All a manager needs to do is log in, open up their plans and follow them step by step. They can track their progress too, and check in regularly with the team through employee pulse surveys if they need to follow up or dive deeper into a specific area.


Maintaining your engagement program

An employee engagement program is not static — it will likely evolve over time as your workforce changes or as your program matures. Here’s how to keep things fresh in yours.

If you’ve been running your employee engagement program for a while, you may find it’s no longer getting the responses or results it used to. This may just mean that it needs a refresh. Here’s what you can do…

Review your questions

Look in detail at the questions you’re asking. Some of them may now be redundant or irrelevant and need to be removed.

Keep an eye out for questions that:

  • score very highly year-on-year
  • are frequently skipped (this could be because they’re either not relevant, or the question itself may be confusing)
  • are not actionable or answerable – every item should have an action and resources connected to it
  • now feel irrelevant or outdated to your organization

Take a look at your reporting review

Assess the effectiveness and impact of your executive and team reporting so that it can be improved.

Make sure that you:

  • know who your audiences are for reporting and that you can reach each one
  • have resources in place for your managers to facilitate necessary change
  • consider other forms of reporting, such as videos and animations to communicate your results in an impactful way

Reconsider frequency

The timing of your engagement survey is critical to getting a good response rate. If you usually do an annual survey, also consider:

  • Would it be better to do it more than once a year? (A lot can change in a year)
  • Would shorter, more frequent surveys be better for the rhythm of your business?

Employees are 17% more engaged when able to participate in a regular company feedback program

Personalize engagement

Think about ways you can engage better with individual employees on the survey. You could have:

  • individual reports for each employee to view a summary of their results upon completion
  • a central place for employees to view results, or a general sharing of results
  • other channels of communication – do you rely solely on email, are there other platforms you can use?

Branding refresh

Make your survey look up-to-the minute and relevant by freshening up the design with colors and features.

If you have a creative team, let them loose on designing a new brand and theme for your program. Do you have a strong name for the initiative?

Refresh the online branding and site coding where necessary. If you have internal resources that design your website in CSS, they can help design a theme for the Qualtrics survey that feels very consistent.

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