Bad news for companies battling workplace burnout, high turnover, and plummeting productivity. According to Gallup’s latest report, employee engagement has dropped for the first time in over 10 years — with just 34% of employees now qualifying as “engaged.”
The good news, though, is you can do something about it! Motivate the other 66% (and watch your productivity levels rise) with the help of this practical employee engagement guide. Below, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to get employees engaged:
- What is employee engagement?
- Why does employee engagement matter?
- Employee engagement vs. employee satisfaction
- Key drivers of worker engagement
- 15 actionable strategies to improve employee engagement
What is employee engagement?
All too often, employee engagement feels like an HR buzzword, something that’s lost any sense of meaning while we’re all “circling back” and “running out of bandwidth” and “taking things offline.” But unlike some of these more egregious examples, employee engagement does still have meaning — and as it turns out, the definition is pretty simple.
Employee engagement is a measure of how committed an employee is to their work.
More than just hours clocked in, employee engagement is about the sense of emotional connection an employee has (or, in so many cases, doesn’t have). A highly engaged employee feels invested in their work, connected to their colleagues, and motivated to contribute of their own volition.
Why does employee engagement matter?
One highly engaged employee can make a significant difference to the success of a department or project. But when you have a whole squad of engaged team members, you have the winning formula!
Research consistently shows the bottom-line organizational benefits of employee engagement. For instance, just one study from Gallup points to these major business outcomes associated with engaged employees:
- 81% less absenteeism
- 14% higher productivity
- 18% less turnover in high-turnover organizations (and 43% less in low-turnover organizations!)
- 10% better customer satisfaction ratings
- 18% more sales
Taken together, this study found businesses achieving 23% more profitability with engaged employees. Not a number you can easily ignore, right?
Is employee engagement the same as employee satisfaction?
The short answer: no.
Although the terms “employee engagement” and “employee satisfaction” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same concepts. And if you aren’t intentional about your workplace strategies, you might end up focusing on the wrong thing.
For example, an employee (let’s call her Emily) might be satisfied by a job with predictable working hours, friendly-enough colleagues, a livable wage, and an office-wide open bar every Friday at 4 pm. Emily may even be satisfied enough to stay at this job for years on end.
But does she feel emotionally involved? Does she invest her full effort? Does she take initiative to solve complex issues or proactively address problems? Probably not. Emily clocks in, clocks out, and has a few cold beers every Friday afternoon. She’s satisfied but not engaged.
Of course, employee engagement and job satisfaction are related. Employees must be satisfied with their work in order to engage in a meaningful way. So you could say that employee engagement hinges on job satisfaction — but not the other way around.
What are the key drivers of employee engagement?
So if a worker like Emily needs more than a “satisfying” work environment to feel genuinely engaged, the next question is obvious. What do they need in order to engage?
Well, as it turns out, the factors that create meaning in the workplace are not all that different from what creates meaning in life as a whole. Employees are people after all, and most of us on this planet share a pretty similar set of core needs. These include:
- Social connection
- Safety and stability
- A sense of agency
- Respect from peers
- Pride in one’s accomplishments
- The ability to feel authentic to oneself
- Opportunity to advance
Viewed from this lens, you can think of the problem of “how to get employees engaged” as a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only rooted in the workplace. The more you can support your employees as people — that is, as human beings with core well-being needs — the more engaged they’ll be.
Next up: how to translate some of these fundamental human needs into actionable employee engagement strategies. This is the hard part, but don’t worry, we’re breaking it down into practical steps.
How to get employees engaged: 15 actionable strategies
Whether you’re a small biz or a huge organization, start with these employee engagement strategy recommendations to build a more engaged (and happier!) workforce.
1. Be clear on your core values
For employees to be authentically engaged, they must be aligned with your company’s core values. If your organization works in a space that your employees find unnecessary or morally objectionable, it’ll be pretty hard to get engagement out of them, no matter how hard you try.
First, make sure that your company leadership has established clear core values. Next, make it a priority to communicate these values with candidates during the recruitment and hiring process. Regularly share them with your existing employees to build an emotional connection around this shared vision — an inspiring business video can really help!
2. Audit your company culture
Now’s the time to take a good hard look at your company culture. While company culture often springs from core values, as organizations grow, the culture can take on a life of its own — for better or for worse.
To identify the root causes of disengaged employees, start by undertaking a company culture audit to understand your strengths and weaknesses. Ask employee engagement survey questions like:
- Do employees feel supported at work?
- Are employees given fair treatment by managers?
- Do managers show trust in employees and give them autonomy?
- How are employee mistakes and errors of judgment handled?
- Do employees feel micromanaged?
- Do you treat employees as real people with meaningful lives outside of work?
Based on your findings, make some adjustments wherever you see signs of a toxic workplace. This might mean shaking up your leadership team, promoting new organizational management, or fine-tuning your internal comms processes.
Pro tip: Once you’ve made improvements in this area, share ‘em! Spread your positive approach far and wide with powerful company culture videos aimed toward the general public as well as applicants and current employees.
3. Rethink your work environment
For this tip, we mean “work environment” both physically and digitally.
- How comfortable are your team members in their physical work space?
- Do they have adequate equipment, rest areas, facilities, and amenities?
- Is there space for privacy when needed?
- Are there multiple workstations to suit different work styles?
- Do employees have the tools and resources needed to excel at their tasks?
You may not have the budget for a major office renovation, but even small changes can support greater comfort: new chairs, a better lunchroom, more private meeting spaces, more collaborative tools, etc.
- How many digital demands are placed on your employees? Do their computers feel like their own space or a place of monitoring and harassment?
- Are team members pressured to stay on camera unnecessarily?
- Is there an unrealistic expectation for response time via email or instant message?
- Are too many video calls keeping employees in a state of constant, “UGH, I’ll never finish my own work”?
Wherever possible, try to reduce the high pressure of constantly being “on.” For example, you might consider subbing real-time internal comms with strategic video, or at least giving employees the option of opting out of meetings when necessary.
4. Examine what you’re offering
Going back to that idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person has to feel safe and secure before they can think about lofty ideas like goal setting, self-actualization, or in this case, quarterly profit.
For the workplace, this mostly translates to the realm of HR and cold hard compensation. What are you offering in terms of salary and benefits? Is it fair across genders and orientations? Is it in line with industry standards? Do you offer regular raises or incentives?
Adequate compensation is critical to job satisfaction, which is in turn critical to engaged employees. So while an amazing pay structure won’t magically create engaged employees, a miserable one will certainly guarantee disengagement.
5. Revamp your onboarding process
Oftentimes, the warning signs of a soon-to-be-disengaged employee can be spotted immediately, as soon as the employee begins their tenure with a company. Key red flags: boredom, absenteeism, lack of enthusiasm, confusion, fear of making mistakes, lack of questions being raised…
Such early warning signs are frequently attributed to a “bad apple” of a hire, but oftentimes, the problem is with the system. The bottom line: poor employee onboarding leads to poor employee performance.
Make sure your workforce is set up for success (which in this case means engagement) by investing in the quality of your onboarding experience:
- Create a clear, welcoming, and engaging new employee orientation, minimizing mundane HR tasks and prioritizing interaction and collaboration.
- Assign peer-to-peer mentors to new hires to help with the transition.
- Avoid overwhelming new employees by providing a mix of live and on-demand training. (Interactive video lets employees watch on their own time while still assessing their knowledge.)
- Give supportive feedback at regular intervals during the first few months of work.
6. Build a work culture of learning
Extending the previous point, it’s important to continue the supportive learning environment long after the initial hire period.
Why? Because providing meaningful training opportunities hits on many of those core needs we discussed earlier — the opportunity for advancement, a sense of agency, and pride in one’s accomplishments. Allowing employees to grow in their expertise and passion is a shortcut to long-term engagement.
A culture of learning comes from investing in learning and development (L&D), which includes both formal and informal opportunities. You could:
- Publish high-quality, engaging video training for staff
- Host expert roundtables or conferences
- Make training more collaborative by incorporating live audience response
- Pay for third-party professional development courses
- Allow team members to lead webinars or in-person trainings based on employee experience
- Establish a formal mentorship program
Building this kind of culture will take time and energy from HR leaders, but the end result will be worth it!
Studies by the University of Phoenix have found that 68% of employees would stay with a company that invests in their development, and another by Udemy has found that 80% of employees feel more engaged when L&D opportunities are available.
7. Invest in management
You’ve probably heard that old adage: “People quit managers, not companies.” A 2015 study by Gallup showed that this is undeniably true, demonstrating that 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores can be directly attributed to managers. (While this study is several years old, the core dynamics are unlikely to have changed — especially as employee engagement is even lower now than when the study was conducted.)
The takeaway: in the final tally of engage vs. disengage, managers matter. Maybe even more than any other single factor in your business.
Support employee engagement and productivity through better management by:
- Promoting managers with strong soft skills like empathy and communication
- Training managers on conflict resolution and motivation
- Providing a way for employees to seek HR help with a difficult manager
- Establishing a regular schedule of communication between managers and direct reports
- Creating an objective system for setting goals and measuring KPIs
8. Ask for and listen to employee feedback
Employees who don’t feel heard won’t be engaged, so it’s critical to get employee feedback on a regular basis. Not just to collect it, either, but to actually listen and respond to it.
The simplest form of feedback would be a periodic employee engagement survey. Another option could be face-to-face check-ins or small focus groups — just as long as your company culture allows employees to express themselves freely and without fear of retribution. (If it doesn’t, go back to point #2!)
9. Consider how you’re communicating with staff
One driver of employee disengagement is without doubt internal communications. Both too many and too few communications can create a stressful working environment for staff, even more so when these communications are confusing, unpredictable, or always negative in tone.
Start by looking at your current internal comms strategy and asking yourself:
- How often are we communicating with staff?
- Are our communications regular and predictable?
- Are we sharing positive news with employees?
- Are employees given the opportunity to have a two-way conversation with leadership, or are they simply receiving information with no way to have their voices heard?
- How many real-time meetings are required? Is this reasonable?
The key is to find a balance of just enough information that employees feel valued and informed without getting overwhelmed. If you aren’t sure what that balance is, ask about it in your employee engagement surveys from point #8.
For the vast majority of companies, the right course of action will be to simplify and reduce. For example, replacing even a few hours of mandatory meetings with more convenient internal comms videos can free up significant time, boost morale, and give staff more control over their workflow.
10. Recognize employee accomplishments
Engaged employees feel respected and valued at work, which is why regular recognition is extremely important. It doesn’t have to be a big fancy award ceremony, either; smaller but more personal gestures are often just as effective:
- A personal “thanks” from a direct supervisor
- A handwritten thank you card or letter
- A catered lunch for the team
- A quick shout-out on the company Slack channel or email listserv
- A feature on the company social media page or print newsletter
Recognition does more than motivate individual employees to work harder right now. According to an analysis of 1.7 million employee surveys by Great Place to Work®, employees who are recognized at work are 2.6x more likely to say that promotions are fair — a belief that further reinforces job satisfaction, buy-in, and engagement over time.
11. Provide leadership opportunities
Not every employee can be a manager or have “chief” in their title, but every employee can take a leadership role. In fact, this sense of motivation and proactivity is one of the key differentiators of a great employee experience.
Give employees at all levels the opportunity to lead, whether it’s a weekly meeting, a presentation to C-suite staff, a new initiative, or the byline on an important white paper. Leaders naturally feel more ownership over the work they produce, and ownership = engagement.
12. Give employees a sense of agency
This tip boils down to giving employees as much choice as possible so that they feel like the master of their own destiny, so to speak. These choices can be big or small — and ideally would include both!
For example, you might allow employees to:
- Work flexible hours based on family needs
- Choose their preferred office location
- Set their own lunch hour
- Leave the webcam on or off
- Switch between offices during the week
- Prioritize their own project workflows
- Set certain hours as “no meeting” times
- Rotate teams or managers upon request
- Pursue new paths based on employee experience and interests
Choice is an important means of signaling trust in your employees and demonstrating that their preferences matter — both of which help to improve employee engagement.
13. Look for opportunities to build meaning
Again, think back to our core needs as human beings. We all want to have a greater sense of purpose in our lives, and when we’re spending 40+ hours a week at work, we need that work to have purpose, too.
Not every job can entail saving the world, but every workplace can build in opportunities for greater meaning that engage their workforce. These might include:
- Company-wide volunteer days
- Work-related donation or charity drives
- Employee-led fundraising
- Opportunities for professionally relevant pro bono work
- Opportunities to tackle intellectually stimulating challenges and pursue new ideas
- Optional social activities and teambuilding to build a sense of community and social connection
14. Show employees the impact of their work
When we’re stuck in the grind of the workweek with a million tasks on our plate, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Why am I working on this 17-page Excel sheet again?
To combat these (very normal) feelings of periodic employee burnout, make a habit of highlighting the organizational “why” for your employees. Send out an email recapping the impact of their efforts. Have the CEO do a quick screen recording to show the bottom-line results. Share a customer testimonial video expressing gratitude for the work of your team.
By highlighting the bigger picture, you’ll help employees find more meaning in the day to day.
15. Have a remediation plan in place
So you’ve followed ALL the recommendations above and are still dealing with some disengaged employees? It happens! The key is to be ready when it does.
Take the time now to create a step-by-step plan for dealing with a disengaged employee and then share it with your managers so that every team approaches the problem in the same way.
This plan will vary based on your team’s needs, but it might include:
- Having a one-on-one meeting to openly discuss frustrations or potential extenuating circumstances
- Recognizing the employee’s strengths and positive behavior
- Rating the employee’s job duties and performance on an objective scale
- Requesting written feedback or proposed solutions from the employee
- Reshuffling tasks to better meet employee experience, skills, or interests
- Switching teams to address a management or colleague conflict
- Creating a personal development plan with SMART goals and next steps for checking in
With a plan at the ready, you’ll be much more equipped to objectively evaluate the root source of disengagement and create a productive plan for moving forward.
Which employee engagement strategy will you try first?
We’ve covered a TON of information in this guide, but don’t let it overwhelm you. If you want to improve employee engagement, any action is better than none!
Just take one or two of the most feasible strategies above and create a plan for implementing it over the next few months. Maybe you start with an employee engagement survey of staff. Maybe you promote some long-deserving managers. Maybe you brainstorm videos to streamline internal comms or improve your L&D program.
Wherever you start, the secret is just that: get started! With a little experimentation, you’ll find an employee engagement strategy that works for your team and unlocks the productivity that can only come from people who are genuinely invested in their work.