Walk into any boardroom and the performance-enhancing benefits of employee engagement splits opinion. Believers want to religiously measure it (usually every 12 months), demonstrating its beneficial impact on performance, whilst non-believers see measuring engagement as nothing more than a lagging indicator. Believers select metrics like absenteeism and attrition rates to show that engagement works with non-believers quick to point out the irregularities of reporting sample averages and the lack of statistically significant differences between year on year scores. In this article, I am going to explore the merits of both arguments and the role that employee experience and employee wellbeing play in achieving the holy grail of ‘total’ employee engagement.
Engagement-performance metrics do work
The correlation between metrics such as absenteeism and increased engagement scores does suggest that organisations that increase their engagement levels do see material benefits. Engagement is however multidimensional and actual measurement is only possible when there is an agreed definition of what engagement is. To be able to improve engagement you need to understand what drives it and what causes disengagement.
Engaged employees enhance the customer experience and business performance
There is also a considerable body of research demonstrating the relationship between customer experience and business performance, aptly summarized by Pepper and Rodger’s Net Promotor Score (NPS). It is therefore reasonable to conclude that employee experience and employee engagement or the lack of it has an impact on performance. If the employee experience is not positive and employees are not engaged, any customer experience strategy created will fail because of poor employee-customer experience. It is therefore reasonable to assume the correlation between employee experience, employee engagement, customer experience and business performance.
Timing is crucial when assessing engagement
Organisations invest significant time and costs into enhancing engagement throughout the year but measure it only once or twice. Engagement scores do provide a snapshot of employee opinion but don’t necessarily reflect their overall feeling. If an employee is momentarily happy or unhappy (about something that their manager or colleagues have done) their responses might not reflect their overall engagement, providing a false positive or negative outcome. Averaging aggregated scores may address these outliers but this only provides an ‘average’ view of engagement, if 50% are unhappy and 50% are happy then on average the feeling is at best mediocre. Whilst it is financially and practically not feasible to measure engagement more frequently, organisations need to find a way to measure and manage the drivers of engagement throughout the year. A short “Pulse” survey allows them to do this and many organisations are moving towards that approach.
Are we engaged if we turn up to work?
Physical attendance (presenteeism) might not be a true reflection of an individual’s state of mind in addition an employee’s mental state will also be affected by challenges outside work. These Life Challenges, also impact performance and have little to do with work. Engagement surveys generally do not ask questions relating to Life Challenges and as a consequence it is very difficult to know how to support employees. Engagement occurs at the physical, emotional and cognitive levels and that in turn manifests as nourishing or toxic behaviours at work. We can observe engagement i.e. we can say if a colleague is engaged or not by looking at their behaviour, but to affect if we need to understand what is driving the behaviour.
Should we be measuring engagement at all?
It would be easy to conclude that organisations should continue to measure engagement once a year and use short surveys to test various aspects of engagement, but as engagement is a lagging indicator are there better things to measure? If it is about improving performance by getting employees motivated perhaps engagement is too late in the process. When we measure employee engagement, we are hoping that employees consider their relationship with their team, manager, training and support in an objective manner. In reality however rational thinking is superseded by our emotions and we measure employee feeling rather than employee engagement.
Should we measure emotional engagement?
It is reasonable to assume that if you are not feeling good about work, your manager or your colleagues, you are going to be disengaged and this will affect how you perform. Whilst disengagement impacts performance, it is a symptom, and not the root cause. Therefore to enhance engagement organisations need to identify what causes disengagement. Simply measuring engagement alone does not create a positive, happy, inclusive and engaged team. Indeed high engagement scores don’t always correlate at the individual level with attrition. It is very common to see engagement scores in the 70 – 80% range but with high attrition rates.
Will wellbeing and the employee experience drive engagement?
To enhance engagement, we needs to understand the drivers of engagement and the employee experience, i.e. what affects how they feel in general and how they feel about work. Measuring and improving how employees feel means understanding their physical, mental, financial, social, societal and professional wellbeing challenges and addressing them. Engagement surveys don’t factor in these drivers of engagement and therein lies their fundamental problem. We must start by asking simple questions about how employees feel and address their individual challenges if we hope to maintain or improve engagement.
COVID has now shifted the work-life balance
The past two years have seen a seismic shift in how people work and live. The balance between work and personal lives ceased to exist and in a perverse way, many employees started working harder and longer hours as work became their only outlet when confined to our homes. This might demonstrate a higher level of productivity, but may not be due to higher levels of engagement and/or be sustainable. Burnout due to hyper-productivity is a new consequence of the work from home culture.
Address wellbeing to enhance engagement
It is important to understand employees wellbeing challenges as it helps understand the root cause of why they feel the way they feel. Organisations can also identify the impact of poor wellbeing on employee engagement and performance. KAYA wellbeing index, allows organisations to start that journey. KAYA helps organisations measure, understand, support, improve and capitalise on the professional wellbeing of employees. That insight then helps understand how engagement and performance get impacted as a result. Before you make that decision to invest in another wellbeing intervention, you need to audit your organisation to understand where to focus and what interventions to pursue.
Dr Ram Raghavan is the founder of the Kaya Wellbeing Index.