A CHROs Guide to Understanding and Increasing Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is one of the best markers of a well-functioning workforce. During this time of unprecedented remote work, ensuring healthy engagement is as important as ever. This CHROs guide advises HR executives on how to best understand and improve employee engagement. 

Welcome! 

This is the Chief Human Resources Officer’s (CHROs) guide to increasing employee engagement in 2021. Your motivation for being here could be any one or more of the following three reasons.

       1. You recognize how the role of the CHRO has shifted from that of a policymaker to a change driver 

Truthfully, the same can be said of any C-suite role, but that does not excuse HR’s top person from being a change agent as well.  

With the 4th industrial revolution taking place right now, jobs are always at risk of being automated and existing jobs need significant reskilling. Building critical skills and competencies is the number 1 priority in 2021 among 800 HR leaders in a recent survey by Gartner.  

No, employee engagement does not belong to HR only, but the CHRO is expected to lead in such matters given their influence in the organization. 

       2. You understand why employee engagement is key to maximizing performance, among many other things…  

You are well versed in all the reports that link engagement to greater profitability, higher employee retention, lower absenteeism, etc. You would not be here otherwise.

      3. You give greater priority to relevance given the times we are in 

You understand that given the rate of change of culture and technology, best practices vary from year to year. There is an edge to be gained in staying well versed on the latest. 

We have written this CHROs guide for you, or other HR leadership positions, so you have a blueprint for action. We will not expound on the need for transformation, the importance of employee engagement, and the value of relevance. After all, it is why you are here.  

Rather, we will get to the heart of the matter and strictly advise on how to increase employee engagement. So, let us begin… 

Define Employee Engagement 

First and foremost, it may surprise you to hear that there is no one universally recognized definition of employee engagement.  

This is why you must define it, so you can measure it. Once you can measure it, you can improve it.  

How do you Define Employee Engagement?

Employee Engagement Survey providers tend to have a definition that you can utilize but it is still important for you to look at that definition in the context of your own unique organization and culture.  

Here are three non-solution provider sources. For the sake of this CHROs guide, we are choosing non-solution providers so we can avoid bias for any methodology of reporting engagement.  

The first source is from an HR publication, the second from a business dictionary, and the last from the biggest HR association in North America.  

Each definition is distinctive. They demonstrate various aspects of employee engagement that you should keep in mind as you identify what it is.

HR Zone defines employee engagement as “the emotional attachment employees feel towards their place of work, job role, position within the company, colleagues and culture and the effect this attachment has on wellbeing and productivity”.  

What it demonstrates: Employee engagement is separated into workplace engagement, specific role engagement, and engagement with the rest of the company. Such attachment is also tied to employee wellbeing and productivity. 

We can thus say:

  1. Engagement is multidimensional. It is not restricted to a physical location or job duties, but to the attachment, one feels with the whole of the organization. 
  2. Engagement has an effect. Its definition is causal, where it must cause productivity and wellbeing if it is to be considered as engagement at all. 

Investopedia defines employee engagement as “the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward their job. Engaged employees care about their work and the performance of the company and feel that their efforts make a difference”. 

What it demonstrates: Employee engagement is a degree of effort, as indicated by the word “level”. The words enthusiasm and dedication are purposefully picked, which are taken to be the biggest engagement factors or factors that are akin to employee engagement.  

There is feeling involved as well, where the employee must feel that they are making a difference to the organization’s goals.  

We can infer:

  1. Engagement is about attitudes and perceptions.  It is not only about what the employee does, but how interested and committed they are to their work and if they feel recognized or not. 
  2. Engagement once again has an intended effect. It should uplift the performance of the company for it to be considered engagement. 

Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) defines employee engagement as “the lifecycle employees experience physically, emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally with their organization.” 

What it demonstratesEmployee engagement is a matter of the whole employee lifecycle. From initial hiring to departure or retirement, their overall experience with the company constitutes engagement. 

Unlike the previous two definitions, it does not state in the definition what engagement should lead to, but it captures the widest possible array of engagement. 

PhysicalDeals with the body. What being physically present in the workspace feels like. 

For example: Is the temperature comfortable for engagement? Is the lighting optimum? 

Emotional Deals with the heart. What states of emotion are evoked when thinking of the work experience.  

For example: How is the daily interaction with colleagues? What is their feeling coming into work every morning? 

Psychological Deals with the mind. What do they really think of their work experience with the company?  

For example: Do they perceive there is room for growth in the existing work environment? What are their opinions about the different HR initiatives? 

BehavioralDeals with actions. How do they behave?  

For example: Do they show up on time? Do they give detailed feedback or adequately voice concerns? 

CHRO Guide - man with sticky note

Measure Employee Engagement 

Having understood what employee engagement means to your organization, you are now ready to measure it! Every insight the definitions give us, allows us to measure the construct of engagement, where it considers the range and breadth of qualities that form it.  

It is why we took ample time to first define it, so it holds true to what it is for your organization. Having identified what it is, there are some steps you must follow to measure employee engagement. 

Measurement Steps

     1. Consider the length of time that you are measuring employee engagement for.  

A new employee may have a different take on engagement compared to a tenured employee. An employee hired after a certain initiative rollout may have a different experience than someone who was hired before and has seen the same initiative many times before. 

     2. Choose the sample. Every employee should be surveyed, so no one is left out of the sample.  

But it will be wise to segment the data on attributes like tenure and department. They will serve as useful filters if you want to compare engagement between groups or ascertain if overall engagement is not skewed by any one group.  

While we are on the subject, this is a reason why Diversity Equity and Inclusion programs have soared in popularity in recent years. Companies want to safeguard themselves against unconscious bias and make sure everyone has equal opportunities to join the company and succeed.   

But it all begins with accounting for all differences in your sample before surveying them. The same logic is applied to employee engagement surveys. To know if you are successful, you should consider if there are any engagement disparities between groups.

     3. Design the survey. Consider as many data points as you can when thinking of factors that constitute employee engagement.  

Ask how they feel. Ask what they think.  

But what on? 

Items include: Duties, interactions, workspace, colleagues, supervisors, teammates, company initiatives, their own contributions, etc. 

Think back to the definitions we covered earlier. 

Tip: Be mindful of the number of questions you are asking. Based on your culture, levels of trust, and frequency of surveying, questionnaire length should follow the RIGHT approach for you, not necessarily the ‘best practice’ approach preached by some. 

Ask what they do.  

See if there is a causality between engagement and things like productivity, well-being, and company performance. If there is a correlation, you should also measure the things that high engagement should theoretically lead to.

From working with many different organizations, we know it is best to measure both behavior and attitude of employees to measure their level of engagement. We have measures for each.  

From what we saw in the prior definitions, engagement is not a static concept. We must see if the employees truly have greater wellbeing and productivity as a result of their engagement. For this, we also measure the factors that drive engagement.   

If you have been reading along and asking how each action item applies to your company, you would have come up with the best definition and measurement for employee engagement.  

It is best to survey routinely, so you can assess the health of employee engagement over a period of time. 

There are annual surveys, pulse surveys, and lifecycle survey options depending on what it is that you need.  

You now have a grasp of the employee engagement of your employees. This is no small feat because the better you can define and measure engagement, the better your improvement efforts will be. The next section is dedicated to that. 

Improving Employee Engagement

If you are delighting your employees to the extent that they are engaged all the time, that is an ideal scenario. But, given the fact that you’re reading this CHROs guide, let us assume that it is not the case yet and that there is a lot of work to be done. 

What do you do to improve the survey results if the engagement scores are unsatisfactory?

Start By Asking

You can ask and measure something, but if you really want change, you will have to ask your employees for further input! You will have to give them room and opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings beyond simple rating questions. 

It is true. Some folks can be hesitant because of their innate nature. Non-expression could be a sign that “everything is alright”. But you would not want to risk it, so make sure to explicitly ask: what is good, what can be done better, and what needs to change. 

Tip: Include such open-ended questions in the employee engagement survey itself. So, you can not only measure the concept but also get a deeper level of insight through the answers of the respondents.  

CHRO Guide - listening with cup

Action Plan for Effective Employee Engagement 

Asking for input alone will not suffice. You will need an action plan. 

Step 1: Obtain Baseline Measurements, so you can Notice Improvement Areas

It starts with obtaining a baseline measurement. You can do this by running driver analysis, which as its name implies, sees what independent variables drive the dependent variables, which in this case are the employee engagement measures.   

We recommend multiple regression because it accounts for the effect of more than one driver on an engagement measure. It is more realistic. Think about any result and its drivers which cause the outcome. It is never a one-to-one relationship, but rather a many-to-one relationship.  

The number of units an ice cream truck sells does not depend on any one thing. It depends on the neighborhood, the timing, the temperature that day, etc. But ideally, we would want to isolate each driver and see the effect it has on the sales, with everything else being the same.  

Similarly, we understand that there could be many reasons for low employee engagement, but we want to understand the strength of each one’s effect on engagement, also considering every other effect. 

Remember, we started this section of the CHROs guide with a talk about unsatisfactory engagement scores. Now would be the time to see what drivers have those poor engagement scores and if those drivers have a high correlation with negative scores on the engagement index. If they do, then they are what we call low score-high impact drivers. These are your key improvement areas to focus on.

Step 2: Identify Initiatives to Improve

You have asked your employees for their thoughts. You have also looked at the scores that came back. You now have both qualitative and quantitative data which you can cross-reference to identify the most important areas that are causing low engagement.  

Initiatives to improve such areas may be suggested by the employees themselves in the answers to the open-ended questions. Other initiatives will require some brainstorming.  

Whatever initiatives you arrive at, ensure that they can be implemented rapidly for quick wins. This lets employees know that you are serious about improving engagement. It is a way of achieving employee buy-in that ensures acceptance and minimizes resistance. 

After all, engagement requires the cooperation of many. If one side sees you making immediate changes on feedback, the onus is on them to self-reflect on their attitude and behavior on the basis and merit of the new changes.  

Tip: Use other formats besides the survey for identifying initiatives. The qualitative section in the employee engagement survey is a great space for employees to make their voices heard on what is working versus what is not. That is in the engagement measurement stage. In the solution identification stage, one can come up with ideation workshops, quick online polls, focus groups, etc. 

Initiative uncovering exercises can be professionally facilitated but employee-driven. Using this approach, ideas are extracted from the bottom up, but in an efficient manner where everyone’s voices are heard inside the group, and the agenda is covered on time. 

Step 3: Communicate & Implement Action

This phase is the continuation of the idea that employees must be kept in the loop at all times. After all, the efforts to improve engagement are to serve them, based on their own recommendations for improvements. Communicate the data that lead to the chosen initiatives at all levels of the organization. Also, communicate the actions and changes that are about to occur to implement those initiatives. 

Provide the company and team leaders real-time access to this data as well. It could be that they need to be upskilled to address the areas of deficiencies.  

Communicate loudly and proudly about actions that have been taken – if employees do not know that action has happened, the action does not matter. 

Post-survey communication is so critical because:

  1. It involves everyone in the process and gives value and purpose to everyone’s opinions and insights. It all starts from the ground up, and so it is an opportunity to remind everyone why the engagement improvement initiative was started in the first place.  
  2. It acknowledges what is being currently done based on the received feedback. It starts promoting the idea of active listening (which is crucial for company culture, as we will see in the next step). 

Step 4: Active Listening through Real-Time Insights

The Baseline Engagement Survey is just the beginning. To see the impact of actions in real-time, you need to do many more follow-up surveys. They allow you to get feedback on implemented initiatives. Short pulse surveys allow you to regularly measure the identified factors (improvement areas) that you are working on and run additional diagnosticsAt WorkTango, this is what we call Active Listening. 

It is a two-way dialogue that offers frequent insight into employee engagement but also supports the ability to modify questions, diagnose emergent issues, and see the outcome of implemented actions in real-time. 

When leaders and managers are aware of the initiatives that have been taken in the previous step, they can see the impact of their actions in real-time via active listening.  

Similarly, when employees are aware of what is being done as a reaction to their voices being heard, they too get to see the sways in engagement in the rest of the company.  

The realization also sets in that it all begins with them, and the organization is serious about listening and doing whatever is necessary to bring about change.

Step 5: Wash, Rinse and Repeat 

Ultimately, you will get to see if your efforts are moving the employee engagement needle. If certain key improvement areas you identified still have low engagement scores, it is a matter of reiterating the process outlined in this CHROs guide. 

What is important is that you create the right company culture, where there is a routine baseline measurement of employee engagement, identification of low-scoring drivers, and improving those drivers via active listening, where actions and feedback perpetually inform each other.

CHRO Guide - Sticky notes

Acceptance and Dealing with Change 

You can measure and improve engagement as a part of your employee engagement strategy. They are the two core principles where one feeds the other. Measuring gives you areas to improve. Improving leads you to measure, to confirm that improvement.  

Sometimes, however, there are wrenches that get thrown into the system that disrupts everything.  Times are changing. The whole shift to remote work itself is a massive shift in how things are done. So, it is normal that not everyone will have the same reaction.   

Even if the scores and opinions reveal something unpleasant or unexpected, you have a pulse on it. The two concepts of engagement and retention are linked where greater engagement elongates one’s span in the company.  

But if every scenario does not turn out the same way, that should be accepted as well. Sometimes people are very engaged but must move because of a better opportunity or because of other life circumstances. 

Lack of engagement cannot be scapegoated for a particular type of performance or end result. But yes, the employee’s wellbeing, safety, and productivity should be maximized while they are with the company in all their various roles. The well-being and resilience of the employees were identified as one of the top trends in 2021 by a forum of CHROs.  

To march ahead with the evolution of the workspace, here are some things HR should focus on: 

Safety and Wellness

Put safety and wellness first. Create a safe environment for everyone to work. Protect employees from internal and external threats.  

Internal threats include: harassment from other employees, abuse of power, bullying, etc. External threats include: natural calamities, virus outbreaks, economic downturn, toxic foods, etc.  

When people feel safe and are physically and mentally well, it automatically boosts the effects of all other points mentioned prior. 

Promote Collaboration

More work than ever before is being done through teams. As the pandemic has forced everyone to work virtually, the importance of team building is at an all-time high. Virtual team-building activities are very effective. Virtual games are an entertainment option. 

The concept of engagement has a component of collaboration built into it, so it is important people feel comfortable working with their colleagues. Lone wolves can also have great engagement with the rest of the company, but to truly succeed but also enjoy their time, they must have a certain level of engagement with their team members.

Embrace Digital Transformation

While there is a component of upskilling involved, almost all industries are having to adapt to the latest trends and hiring new generations of the workforce. It is a good time to embrace digital change. Tools save time, but only in the hands of someone who knows how to work them. Another reason why something like a CHROs guide help! 

In the HR space, many software companies claim to do many things at once. It is important you find the best-in-class tools for each HR function because they have the experience in helping organizations, specifically in those areas. As it relates to engagement, different areas include: Employee Surveys, Recognition, Incentives, communication, etc.

Improving Engagement by Improving Everything Else 

Engagement comes down to management. The supervisor-direct report relationship is commonly employed by organizations of all shapes and sizes. It is simple, personal but also hierarchical which ensures that organizational goals are being communicated from the top-down.  But to make such one-on-one meetings effective, you need tools. You need to ask the right questions. You can find all the general questions managers ask here. 

Good management is so essential to the process of employee engagement because they are everyday practices. It is one thing to start an initiative to solve a problem, it is another thing to improve all basic interactions in general, so employees feel energized to maintain high engagement levels. 

Organic engagement from the bottom-up is possible but is often the result of investing in an employee engagement strategy in the first place that changes the culture for the better. But if the existing practices are not up to par for producing engagement, then sometimes it’s the leaders that have to be the ones to drive top-down change, and that’s why pieces like this CHROs guide are so important. After all, leaders are employees too, whether at the managerial level, directorial level, or in the C-suite. 

Forewarning

So far, we have worked under the assumption that just like the customers, the employees are always right. This is the right approach because you are more receptive to their concerns and issues when you are making zero assumptions about their motive. 

While it certainly helps to give them the benefit of doubt when it comes to engagement, it is also good to actively identify disengaging behaviors. Tracking tools like survey platforms can reveal disengaging behavior via lower ratings or absence of response.  

The first move is to fix what is necessary and see if such trends can be reversed.  But sometimes it may be so that employees still feel no connection to work, and show it in their behavior and actions by complaining to others, focusing on the bare minimum, etc. 

It is important to keep tracking such trends because it may reveal a deeper issue that’s at stake! Especially if the survey results indicate that every group in the company has a substantial percentage of folks feeling this way.

Parting Words

We hope you found this CHROs guide to be insightful and to the point when it comes to increasing employee engagement. CHROs guide the workforce and are seen as “future of work” experts. Workforce planning for the future is a tough ask. There will be many forces at play such as work environment and behavioral shifts.   

But whatever the new norm is, investing in employee engagement is a safe bet. With an engaged workforce, no one person is alone is responsible for navigating problems and exploring opportunities. It is a collective effort built on mutual respect. 

 

References: 

https://www.hrzone.com/hr-glossary/what-is-employee-engagement 

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/employee-engagement.asp 

https://blog.shrm.org/blog/defining-employee-engagement#:~:text=Employee%20engagement%20is%20the%20lifecycle,more%20productive%20for%20the%20organization. 

https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-3-priorities-for-hr-leaders-in-2021/ 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2019/01/08/the-chros-role-as-the-organizations-future-of-work-expert/?sh=1253874e7427 

https://worktango.com/2020/05/28/owns-employee-engagement/ 

https://worktango.com/engagement-survey-methodology/ 

https://worktango.com/a-guide-to-employee-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-surveys/ 

https://worktango.com/2020/12/11/how-leadership-influences-employee-engagement-where-do-surveys-fit-in/ 

https://www.willistowerswatson.com/en-US/Insights/2020/12/top-priorities-and-trends-for-chros-in-2021  

https://www.managementtraininginstitute.com/how-to-increase-employee-engagement-and-retention/ 

https://www.flashpointleadership.com/blog/leadership-and-employee-engagement  

https://worktango.com/2021/02/09/webs-most-popular-1-on-1-meeting-questions-studied-and-organized/ 

https://www.topchro.com/article/employee-engagement-the-number-one-chro-priority 

Additional Resources

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