Employee engagement strategies: what are they and how do you build them?

by Mike Sharkey

Employee engagement strategies

With the disruption of COVID-19 and the rise of hybrid working, keeping employees committed and connected at work is critical. Organizations that can develop strategies to engage employees – not just now, but in the long-term – will build a stronger employee experience.

What are employee engagement strategies?

We’ve all got an idea of what employee engagement initiatives look like – things like team-building days, bring and share lunches, counseling programs, speaker events – they’re all things that can support people in an organization and bring them together.

But they’re not employee engagement strategies.

A strategy is a rationale and overarching plan for a long-term program to engage employees. Effective initiatives are the result of a well thought-out strategy. Without a system to guide them, initiatives will lack clarity, reducing how effective they are.

Building effective employee engagement strategies

An employee engagement strategy begins with identifying so-called ‘drivers of engagement’. In other words, what are the things employees care that can connect them more closely to the organization?

Drivers of engagement are pretty consistent across most organizations. They include things like:

  • Wellbeing
  • Work-life balance
  • Recognition and reward
  • Career progression
  • Workplace benefits
  • Personal autonomy
  • Leadership
  • Diversity and inclusion

Strategies often focus on the issues organizations need to address. Topics like absenteeism and low productivity that businesses can improve by achieving better employee engagement. Once you’ve decided what the key drivers of engagement for your organization are, the next stage in building your strategy is to find out how you’re performing around them. You can use this as the basis for your strategy and as a benchmark for continual improvement.

Benchmarking employee engagement

To build an effective strategy, you need to measure your current level of employee engagement and those areas where you need to improve. Running a regular employee satisfaction survey based on key drivers of employee engagement is one way to discover this.

Employers can analyze the results of employee engagement surveys to uncover patterns in the data. The survey might indicate where engagement is high or low within the company and which other factors (such as workplace environment, management style and frequency of feedback) correlate with it. You can use these insights to shape further exploration, helping leaders develop and refine their employee engagement strategies.

You can view the results in two ways: In terms of relative engagement – for example, by personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and age - or by job characteristics like job role and working pattern.

The more you interrogate the data for detail, the more targeted your employee engagement programs can be. For example, you might discover that wellness is particularly poor in a specific department or that workers from a particular age group feel they need more reward and recognition. You can then set goals and build initiatives around these issues. Using your original survey as a benchmark, you can survey again after a set time to see if there has been any improvement.

Using an online survey has clear advantages in making results easier to collate and analyze and reducing error and administrative effort. It's also easier to reach and connect with frontline deskless workers using a digital survey you can distribute to mobiles and tablets.

What does an employee engagement survey questionnaire look like?

Employee engagement surveys typically use a Likert scale question format. The survey follows a statement with a set of responses on a scale from ‘strongly agree / agree / neither agree nor disagree / disagree / strongly disagree.’

Likert scales are well suited to employee engagement surveys as they allow employees to express themselves without too much effort. They’re also easy to measure and analyze since the individual responses are all provided in the same format.

Here are some examples of employee engagement survey questions you could use:

  • “I am proud to work for my company”
  • “I would recommend my company as a great place to work”
  • “I feel noticed and listened to by my managers”
  • “I can see myself at this company 2/5/10 years from now”
  • “I am kept informed about major changes in the business”
  • “I know the company vision and believe in it”
  • “This company provides me with training and opportunities beneficial to my career”
  • “The systems and processes in place help me to do my best work”
  • “I receive recognition and feel rewarded for doing a good job”

Learn more about measuring employee engagement.

Who is responsible for employee engagement strategy?

The HR department is crucial in developing strategic plans and maintaining employee engagement since it directly controls essential factors like pay and benefits, training, wellness programs, and paid time off. It also has an important linking function, connecting leaders, departments and individuals across an organization.

HR will take ownership of setting standards for employee engagement and designing strategies that support it. It can provide standards and best practices for employee experience and benchmarks for employee engagement that guide the entire organization.

But HR isn’t the whole story. Research by Forrester showed that although HR was the most common answer to “who owns employee experience in your company?”, fewer than 30% of employees gave that answer. Instead, responsibility for the experience was distributed across the whole company.

So while HR may set the strategy, it’s managers who will be mostly responsible for putting it into action: Gallup's research suggests that a manager alone controls 70% of the variance in team engagement. And in practice, some of the responsibility for engagement is also down to the individual. A study published in the Organizational Journal of Behavior found that differences in employee personality traits account for 48% of the variance in individual engagement.

Employee engagement strategy ideas

You can apply some basic principles to creating effective employee engagement strategies:

Communicate and listen

A recent research paper by Kang and Sung identified a link between employee engagement and two-way communication. As well as giving clear messages to employees, businesses with engaged people were also receptive to employee voices and provided plenty of opportunities for feedback.

Train and develop

Employee engagement involves personal fulfillment and commitment over the long term, so providing career development and training can have a positive effect. By investing in employees and helping them meet their potential, you show that you are as committed to them as they are to you.

Go beyond workplace identities

Employee engagement is holistic and involves the employee as a complete person, not just a professional function. Work-life balance and wellness programs have a role to play in employee engagement, as do workplace celebrations of life events like birthdays, marriages and new babies. A 2019 study by Workhuman found that employees who are satisfied with how an organization celebrates life events in the workplace are nearly twice as likely to agree their company is a good place to work.

Use technology to promote engagement

Modern businesses are increasingly dependent on workplace technology to enable people to complete tasks and communicate with one another – not least in the wake of COVID-19. There’s an opportunity for better engagement for those organizations that choose technologies that are accessible, easy to use, and make it easier for people to connect and innovate.

Creating an employee engagement strategy for Millennials

People born after 1980 – Millennials (also known as Gen Y) and Gen Z employees – are forecast to make up over half the workforce in the coming decade. Some evidence suggests that these generations have quite different attitudes to issues like company loyalty, remote work and job satisfaction than their older counterparts.

For example, PWC research shows Millennials are more committed to personal learning and flexible working than cash when it comes to workplace benefits. According to Gallup, they’re also the least engaged group in the US workforce, with only 29% engaged and 16% actively disengaged.

So do Millennials need their own employee engagement strategy? It might be worth considering the particular concerns of Millennials when creating plans. But it’s also vital for organizations to look at their own workforce, gather evidence, and act based on what they find.

The benefits of employee engagement strategies

Prioritizing, measuring and optimizing employee engagement in a systematic, thought-out way brings business benefits both immediate and long-term.

It can boost productivity and enhance team relationships, make managers more effective, and build resilience during periods of high stress. Engaged employees can deliver better customer experiences and come up with more innovative ideas.

High engagement also helps you attract and retain talent since high-quality employee experiences are often shared interpersonally and in employer reviews. When you value engagement, you’ll also be building strong communication channels and best practices within your business that will help set it up for future success.

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