Develop, Sustain & Improve Employee Engagement
In our work with our clients, the TWI Institute team has seen significant changes in employees’ mindsets when they receive training that encourages workplace innovation. Not only does their productivity increase — but they start to feel more valued and understand how their work contributes to the overall success of the organization. The result is a continuous cycle of improvement and benefit, all of which can be attributed to employee engagement.
What Is Employee Engagement?
Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee commits to their work, their employer and the organization’s mission. Engagement can manifest in how hard an employee works, the enthusiasm they bring to their work, the interest they take in innovating and problem-solving and their dedication to making positive contributions.
Engagement is not just something that is felt by individuals — when employee engagement is high, the effect is felt by entire teams and the organization at large. High levels of engagement foster a positive company culture, make organizations attractive to talented candidates, support both employee and customer loyalty and improve productivity and organizational performance.
However, according to Gallup, only 15% of employees worldwide fall into the “engaged” category. In the U.S., that number is slightly higher (34%), but about 50% of employees surveyed claim to be “just showing up.”
Deploying regular engagement surveys can help leadership teams determine if and how they need to support employees and increase engagement. Survey results provide valuable insights about employees’ enthusiasm, challenges, priorities and opinions of their organization and can offer tangible solutions for fostering that hard-to-engineer aspect of the workplace — company culture.
Levels of Employee Engagement
Engagement is not a one-size-fits-all metric, nor is it experienced in the same way by each individual employee. Engagement can be divided into three levels:
- Engaged: Highly involved, enthusiastic employees who own their work
- Not engaged: Detached, “just showing up,” maintaining the status quo
- Actively disengaged: Resentful, toxic, often undermining others or the company
There may be some cohesion among employees at different levels of the organization. For example, engagement might be high among the management tier, but frontline employees may have an entirely different experience and opinion of the same organization.
Components of Employee Engagement
Engagement is not always clearly defined or labeled, which can make it difficult for leadership to understand and support. Employee engagement can manifest in multiple ways:
Communication: Many workplace challenges and conflicts come down to communication issues.
- How open are the lines of communication between employees and their managers, employees and their teammates, and employees and leadership (including HR)?
- Do employees feel able to raise concerns or questions early and as often as necessary?
- In short, do employees feel heard?
Perception of the organization: How employees feel about their employer has a major effect on their engagement. Positive elements that contribute to employee engagement include trust in leadership, alignment with the organization’s mission and goals, and having their talents seen and utilized by their manager and employer.
Workplace relationships: How employees relate to their managers and each other has a major effect on their engagement. Workplace relationships are built on (and affected by) feedback, direction, motivation, training, guidance, support, check-ins, performance reviews, conflict resolution and recognition. For employees that have moved to remote or hybrid schedules, managers need to find new ways to foster connections.
Clarity of purpose: Do employees know where they fit in their organization? Do they know why they are there? Do they know how their work contributes to the overall success of the organization?
Training: In an engaged workforce, every team member understands the “why” of their work. This involves more than just training people on the practical steps of their jobs. In TWI application, people are placed at the center of work processes: workers break their jobs down into discrete, manageable steps, examine each step for its purpose and necessity, then streamline and improve the process as needed. This approach eradicates waste and clarifies the purpose of the work while instructing.
Adaptability: Engaged employees are often willing to embrace change, or at least open to exploring alternative options. They are the ones who will ask clarifying questions when management proposes changes — not to challenge the change, but to understand the need for it.
Accountability: Many engaged employees have high expectations, not only of themselves but of others. They can become frustrated when others do not take responsibility for building toward a shared goal or seek ways to improve processes.
Leadership: Employees can’t stay engaged without strong leadership, both on the front lines and in the executive suite. Leaders who invest in ongoing training, reskilling and upskilling their employees demonstrate a vested interest in employees’ success and fulfillment. Deploying regular engagement surveys is one thing; translating the results into tangible actions shows leadership is really listening.
On this last point, any improvement initiatives should not feel punitive. Leadership should position training initiatives as positive, practical enrichment opportunities, rather than remedial measures.
Positive Drivers of Employee Engagement
Engagement begins with having these fundamental needs met in the workplace:
- Basic (physical comfort, health and safety)
- Individual (the right tools, resources, feedback)
- Teamwork (mutual support, communication)
- Opportunities for personal growth
As discussed above, there are many factors that can contribute to employees feeling especially engaged at work. Common factors that drive employee engagement beyond the bare minimum include:
- Having a specific purpose
- Recognition of their talents
- Being valued for their strengths
- An empathetic, supportive manager or supervisor
- Positive relationships with teammates
- Opportunities for professional development
- Open-door communication policies
- The organization’s respect for workers’ wellbeing and work-life balance
Regarding supervision, Gallup found that 70% of the variance in employee engagement can be directly attributed to their manager. This isn’t to say that engagement is the manager’s sole responsibility; however, frontline leadership training can give managers and supervisors the tools they need to lead from a place of respect, positivity and support.
Benefits of Having Engaged Employees
Amid widespread workforce attrition, more and more organizations are realizing the importance of fostering employee engagement. Employees who are engaged in their work tend to stay in one job longer, participate in innovation, be considered leaders within their teams and help to boost team morale.
More benefits to having engaged employees include:
- Better business outcomes
- Better product quality
- Improved productivity and performance
- More unified teams
- Better interdepartmental communication
- Faster recovery time after recessions or industry setbacks
- Higher employee retention and lower turnover
- Higher volume of talented applicants
- Significant cost savings from low employee churn
- Higher organizational growth potential
- More internal innovation
- Happier employees
By comparison, disengaged employees can have a damaging effect on business in the form of:
- Decreased productivity
- Low team morale
- Higher turnover
- Significant annual cost — $350 billion is lost every year due to disengaged employees in the U.S. alone!
These negative effects can stem from a lack of skills development, a lack of opportunity for growth, poor management or negative relationships with a manager or teammates.
Employee Engagement vs. Employee Satisfaction
It’s important to note that engagement is not the same as satisfaction. Satisfaction can refer to employees’ level of happiness, but employees can be “satisfied” by simply showing up, doing only what is asked of them and collecting a paycheck. A “satisfied” employee may never pose ideas for improvement, seek to understand processes or challenge standard operating procedures. Employees can be satisfied with their health benefits, vacation time and in-office refreshments — none of which can have any effect on their work performance or enthusiasm on the job.
Conversely, engaged employees may not be entirely satisfied at work, but they continue to participate in raising concerns and improving conditions for themselves and others. They may also become frustrated with simply “satisfied” employees since the very satisfaction with the status quo is in direct opposition to the things engaged employees care about.
When organizations seek to improve employee satisfaction through cosmetic means such as company outings, new snack offerings or parties, they miss the opportunity to make meaningful changes that will lead to higher engagement and improved work performance.
How Do You Measure Employee Engagement?
Regular surveys provide measurable indicators of employee engagement. Not only will they measure employee satisfaction levels, but surveys will also account for their performance, strategic alignment and competency.
Employee engagement surveys should:
- Take no more than 5 minutes to complete.
- Include specific questions that align with strategic initiatives and measurable objectives.
- Provide space for open-ended response questions or comments.
- Be statistically validated and measured against industry benchmarks.
- Be sent out no more than once per quarter, if not once every other quarter.
Questions on the survey should be informed by the organization’s current business objectives, mission statement and capabilities. The goal is not for employees to suggest their “dream company”; results from these surveys should highlight current successful measures as well as areas for practical improvement.
Best practice dictates taking a “trivial many, vital few” approach, with concrete plans for implementing change or following up on employee feedback. If employees see surveys frequently hitting their inbox without noticeable changes being made, they will eventually lose interest in giving their feedback.
“Suggestion boxes” are not recommended for gathering employee feedback. Some organizations still use a literal box where employees can submit feedback and suggestions, while others maintain an online form that accepts submissions on a rolling basis.
There are a few reasons why this approach is flawed:
- Suggestion boxes create a real barrier between employees and managers, as they do not enable two-way communication.
- Most suggestions aren’t implemented and inadequate feedback is given to why or why not (the “black hole” effect”).
- This approach keeps employees’ feedback private, which isn’t always productive for teams. In a group setting, even a few people who feel comfortable bringing up their ideas in front of their manager and peers can encourage others to speak up. This invites dialogue, feedback and creative thinking from everyone in the group.
When Should Companies Measure Employee Engagement?
The ideal answer might be: “Always and often!” However, deploying frequent surveys is not practical, nor is it respectful of employees’ time or feedback. The timing of a survey can affect the results, so be mindful of when you send it out.
Follow up while things are fresh. Soon after a State of the Company meeting, a major announcement or the completion of a training module are ideal times to gather employee feedback while the experience is still fresh in their minds.
Avoid holiday or pre-break periods. Employees are thinking of other things or rushing to finish projects before clocking out. This may even result in lower response rates.
Communicate the purpose of the survey. This will help employees understand what you are trying to learn and should encourage them to be as honest as possible.
Send surveys ahead of annual reviews. Doing so may skew the results, as employees may be more mindful of how their feedback could affect their review.
Send surveys during times of high stress. If a majority of employees are feeling the strain of a high-stakes project, they may not have the patience or bandwidth to provide measured feedback.
Forget to follow up. Six months down the road, you don’t want employees to wonder why they took that survey about work-life balance and failed to see any policy changes. If, for some reason, the results of a survey did not lead to any feasible changes, at least be sure to communicate why (within reason).
Who Should Be Involved in Employee Engagement Initiatives?
While the precise personnel may vary from company to company, leadership, human resources and management personnel should have a hand in developing and implementing employee engagement initiatives. Each role will have varying levels of input.
Gallup provides recommendations for how each person can contribute to improving engagement:
- Define managers’ roles and expectations
- Provide training tools, resources and development that managers need to coach and meet those expectations
- Create evaluation practices that help managers accurately measure performance, hold employees accountable and coach to the future
- Identify needs and obstacles with their teams on an ongoing basis
- Lead regular discussions about team engagement and field suggestions for strengthening workplace culture
- Ensure that employees know what work needs to be done and how their work connects to organizational success
- Support and advocate for workers when necessary
- Get to know their team as individuals
- Find ways to utilize their team’s existing talents and abilities and make adjustments as necessary
- Review engagement survey content for compliance
- Determine the best format and schedule for deploying surveys
- Respond to individual feedback as necessary
- Develop activities, ideas and strategies to improve engagement based on survey results
- Develop an approach to reviewing and auditing any improvement initiatives
- Participate in employee surveys
- Give honest feedback about their experience of work
- Ask clarifying questions as necessary
- Proactively identify areas for improvement to the appropriate personnel
- Be prepared to offer suggestions for improvement when raising issues or concerns
- Participate in engagement discussions led by managers and leadership
Too often, there is a significant gap between what leadership expects of their teams and what managers actually experience on the front lines. Communication is the key to closing that gap and ensuring all team members are on the same page when it comes to company goals and workplace experience.
Why Engagement Programs Fail
Not every engagement initiative is going to work, but there is often a specific reason. Engagement programs fail because:
- Initiatives and engagement exercises are too sporadic
- They are too complicated or take time away from actual work
- They are built upon the wrong survey metrics
- Engagement is mistaken for satisfaction
- They are only considered an “HR thing”
- Leadership does not own their part
- Employees do not understand the need for them
- Managers are not held accountable for implementing exercises or leading regular discussions
- Employees are receiving too many surveys
When engagement programs fail and employees remain disengaged, leadership and management too often blame the tool or the philosophy. However, the right solution will be evident in the all-important survey results, provided they contain the right questions.
Sample Questions for Your Employee Engagement Survey
Questions can either be formatted as questions or statements. Employees can select multiple choice answers or rate their response on a scale (“On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being ‘strongly disagree’ and 5 being ‘strongly agree’…”).
- Do you feel excited to come to work?
- Do you feel your supervisor is helping you succeed?
- Do you feel like you are contributing to the success of the organization?
- So you see a career path here?
- Does your supervisor help in the development of your career path?
- My organization is committed to my professional development.
- I have opportunities to apply my expertise.
- I am able to make decisions regarding my work.
- Communication between senior leadership and employees is good.
- My supervisor and I have a good working relationship.
- I have a good working relationship with my coworkers.
- Employees treat each other with respect.
- Senior management and employees trust each other.
Tips to Support Your Employee Engagement Plan
Building an engagement plan begins with leadership making a commitment to employees’ well-being and skills development — not to delivering better business outcomes or increasing revenue, though it may seem counterintuitive. Rather than focusing on “perks” to drive engagement, explore employee development opportunities that will have a direct effect on employees’ performance and, ultimately, their happiness and satisfaction on the job.
To be an effective and engaged leader, five basic needs must be met; these can also extend to frontline employees:
- Knowledge of the work
- Knowledge of their responsibilities
- Skill in improving methods
- Skill in leading
- Skill in instructing
Workplace training programs that address not only the what of work, but the who, why and how are the key to building a strong foundation for engagement. The suite of proven TWI training programs follow a model for addressing all aspects of the workplace, including:
Job Instruction (JI): This foundational course coaches workers to break down individual jobs into the “one best way” to execute them. This method also helps to get the worker interested in learning the job.
Job Relations (JR): By moving employee relations out from under the HR banner, JR coaches managers and supervisors to recognize problems, issues and conflicts early and find opportunities to improve working relationships.
Job Methods (JM): This course leads workers and their supervisors through developing new processes for completing jobs by breaking down the steps, questioning every detail and experimenting with better methods of execution. This helps to create an environment for continuous improvement and adapting to change.
Once frontline leaders develop the skills to lead their teams using these foundational TWI programs, they find that employee engagement increases significantly.
Of course, higher engagement can be observed informally, but surveys will help organizations quantify any changes in engagement. If employees experience issues or challenges within a new training or coaching framework, it will be easier to identify patterns that might lead to any issues.
Formal programs aside, managers and leadership can organically increase engagement by:
- Defining and discussing explicit and implicit expectations
- Asking employees what they need to do their jobs well
- Giving frequent recognition for employees’ high performance and innovation
- Advocating for employees’ constructive ideas
- Asking employees what makes them feel valued on the job
- Soliciting regular feedback
- Finding ways to make use of employees’ natural talents
- Making adjustments to processes to capitalize on employees’ skills
In short, there is no one program or course that leads directly to higher employee engagement. Engagement is a result of a holistic approach to meeting employees’ needs, providing managers with the right tools to support their teams and developing leaders into informed collaborators who can coach their employees to continuously improve.
FAQs about Employee Engagement
What’s the difference between employee engagement and employee satisfaction?
Employee satisfaction can refer to employees’ level of happiness, but employees can be “satisfied” by simply showing up, doing only what is asked of them and collecting a paycheck. A “satisfied” employee might be content at work, but may never pose ideas for improvement, seek to understand processes or challenge standard operating procedures.
By comparison, employee engagement is the extent to which an employee actively commits to their work, their employer and the organization’s mission. Engaged employees may not be entirely satisfied at work, but they continue to participate in raising concerns and improving conditions for themselves and others.
How can I increase employee engagement?
There are several ways to increase employee engagement, both organically and through formal programs. A few practical ways include:
- Investing in training programs that prioritize employee innovation
- Regularly asking for employee feedback through surveys or discussion
- Frequently recognizing employees’ high performance and innovation
- Finding ways to make use of employees’ natural talents
Do I need an employee engagement plan?
If you’re looking to increase employee engagement, it helps to have a plan. Rather than deploying a series of “perks” and seeing what employees respond to, determine what employees’ actual on-the-job needs are and identify practical ways of addressing those needs. Training programs that essentially help employees help themselves often have a positive effect on workplace engagement.