Engaged employees perform better in their jobs, resulting in enhanced client satisfaction, greater productivity and ultimately improved financial returns.

Engaged employees show commitment to their work that may be beyond all expectations. A Gallup survey of nearly 50,000 worldwide businesses found that those who were rated highly for employee engagement had twice the odds of success than those businesses whose employee engagement scores were low.

Employee engagement is not the same as motivation

Engagement is broadly about getting employees onside with organisational goals. Motivation, on the other hand, sits on a solid foundation of engagement and is about firing up employees to achieve specific goals such as sales targets or service levels. HR professionals and senior management are increasingly recognising that they need to get to grips with employee engagement as a discrete issue.

There is no doubt that achieving employee engagement pays dividends and enables HR professionals to make a quantifiable improvement to the business. Towers Perrin-ISR compared the financial performance of organisations with a more engaged workforce to their peers with a less engaged workforce. It found that organisations with a highly engaged workforce improved operating income by 19.2 per cent over 12 months, while those companies with low engagement scores saw operating income fall by 32.7 per cent over the same period.

More compellingly still, the IES/Work Foundation report, ‘People and the Bottom Line’ found that if organisations increased investment in work practices relating to engagement by ten per cent, they would increase profits by £1,500 per employee every year.

Engagement taking great prominence in the workplace

As the concept of engagement is still emerging in HR practice, the first challenge is identifying what employee engagement looks like. Then the question is, how do you foster and maintain an engaged workforce in your organisation?

Engagement is both cultural – and may be fostered by addressing the wider culture of the organisation – and at the same time highly individual. What works to engage one employee may be less successful with another. An individual engaged employee would be energetic, confident in their abilities and proactive. They will appear absorbed by the task in hand. They will be optimistic and resilient. All these behaviours will demonstrate and predispose to engagement but of course all these behaviours may be affected by the attitudes and actions of colleagues and management. If other workers are indifferent or cynical about the task then the employee may adopt those beliefs.

When the going gets tough and HR professionals have to manage change such as the need to introduce an alteration in employment conditions or reduce staffing, engaged staff will be more likely to approach change positively. With engagement, a high workload can be a positive motivator rather than a negative issue and change can represent positive stimulation and development rather than a threat.

There is no question that it is in HR’s remit to take action to address worryingly low levels of engagement. Companies that fail to achieve an engaged culture will see the evidence in clear indicators, such as absenteeism, high staff turnover and poor staff satisfaction levels. Engaged employees, who are paid appropriately and challenged at the right level, are also those who are most willing to go that extra mile.

Where to start?

If managers do not support the employee, even an employee who has a propensity towards engagement in the workplace, then they will fail to develop engagement.

That is why it is vital to start at the top and focus on culture at leadership level. Do leaders understand their roles and responsibilities in fostering engagement through training and development, for example? There needs to be a top down articulation of the importance of engagement in the organisation.

Effective performance management is not done well in most organisations. As a starting point, HR must be working with management to carry out basic performance management with employees – setting objectives, appraising progress, rewarding people for doing well and supporting people who need it.

Practical Initiatives

Develop a culture of appreciation, both from Managers and peers. Recognition should range from a simple ‘thank you’ sent via a business-wide process to individual and team bonuses for reaching targets (which can be sales or service related).

Attractive employee benefits are also key and might include discounted products and services. When pay rises are hard to come by employers that utilise other means to help hard strapped families to counter the rising cost of living will reap the benefits of employees not distracted by money worries.

Ensure that each employee feels they have appropriate support. This may range from emotional support through regular conversation with their line manager or other peers, to formal training and development activities.

How to make employee engagement happen – top tips

  • Get high-level buy in to the goal of creating an engaged workforce.
  • Plan to measure the levels of engagement the organisation is starting out with –  survey tools and questionnaires such as Gallup’s Q12 allow levels of ‘engagement’ within an organisation to be measured.
  • Include attributes associated with engagement in the corporate competency framework and in person specifications used for recruitment.
  • Support performance management with reward and recognition schemes in order to achieve and maintain engagement.

The need for action on employee engagement has been recognised at a national level. A government commissioned study ‘Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement’ points out, “Because Britain’s economic recovery and its competitive strengths in a global economy will be built on strong, innovative companies and confident employees, there has never been a more important time to think about employee engagement in Britain.”  The study concludes that extending employee engagement is not an issue for legislation or regulation: it requires culture change: “More people need to ‘get it’ – and more people need to do it.”

John Sylvester is Director at P&MM Motivation, the award winning motivation and performance improvement Company.  Follow on Twitter @johnsylvester.

Ruth Patel is an independent business psychologist (DipPsych., MSc., MBPs, Level A&B accredited) and founder of Unlocking People Potential.