A well-researched theory that leaves little guidance for working professionals.
Employee engagement encapsulates several factors that drive motivation in the workplace, but also goes beyond that—it considers the health and happiness of employees to assist in improved productivity and overall wellbeing. It can be assessed in numerous ways, from personal employee introspection to strategic people management. The theory is considered an important construct for the workplace, where organisations with high employee engagement would outperform companies with lower engagement, but this statement is easier said than done.
The definitional ambiguity of employee engagement
There seems to be no one definition for employee engagement. Early research suggested it meant the connection one held between their job and the organisation. Nowadays, employee engagement is described as a psychological state differing from job quality and management. For example, a happy employee does not mean that they are necessarily working hard, opening a further and more complex discussion surrounding the concept.
Further to the above, employees who are engaged are emotionally committed to their on-site or remote jobs. They care about their tasks and overall goals of a company, and less about added job perks. Schaufeli et al. (2004) provide a more specific definition for employee engagement, divided into three main components:
- Vigour (the resilience and drive of an employee),
- Dedication (the enthusiasm and inspiration of an employee), and
- Absorption (the concentration and determination an employee feels at work).
- The above reflects current literature surrounding the topic and its specificness allows for organisations practical advice, leading to more effective decision-making. Originally constructed to work as a concept alongside morale and job satisfaction, employee engagement remains a well discussed topic in the field of HR and internal communications, despite the poor definitional consensus.
Criticisms and potential solutions
Definitional concerns leave employee engagement a more aspirational than organisational term, largely due to its resulting difficulty in measurement. A poor definition makes the concept hard to apply in general practice, as managers are left with unspecific practical recommendations. Further, application of different definitions leaves more difficulty in comparing research findings, adding to a demotivating factor for practitioners.
Considering the above, recommendations in academic literature typically surround more specific guidelines for practitioners to apply in cross-cultural organisations and jobs in Malta or elsewhere. The CIPD, a well-established HR network based in the UK, recommend a few approaches:
- Use employee engagement as a generic term to represent different constructs when evaluating people strategy. For example, investigate more specific concepts such as organisational commitment to imply meaning in engagement. Following a more specific and focused approach helps implement strategy in an effective manner.
- When exploring employee engagement, look for reputable resources that honour specific definitions following engagement as a standard research approach.
- Be wary of broader definitions to explore more specific concepts: these can include motivation (how employees achieve work goals), organisational identification (the relationship an employee has between their values and work ones), and organisational commitment (dedication at work).
Why be proactive about employee engagement?
Employee engagement aims to improve overall employee health, happiness, motivation, and general purpose toward work. The main incentive to research employee engagement from an organisational perspective is business value loss as a result of disengaged employees. Additionally, hiring managers lose millions in recruiting talent as opposed to retaining them.
Present research shows a positive relationship between engagement and performance, including other metrics such as customer satisfaction, retention, productivity, among others. The main caveat in the literature, much like many studies, is prominent correlation but poor causation. One study conducted by Bakker & Bal (2010) indicated a causal relationship among teachers, however this relationship was weak. The study examined a small sample, which is difficult to refer results from.
Moreover, a frequently overlooked factor when measuring employee engagement is individual needs—some employees are driven by different factors that leave them to feel engaged—a generalisation may not suit the needs of all employees. In this way, research gravitated toward understanding numerous drivers to engagement, which are further discussed below.
Taking the reign to drive employee engagement
Factors for employee engagement are typically divided between personal factors (personal attributes such as resilience and personality) and organisational factors (leadership management, organisational culture, etc). Motivation, a key driver towards employee engagement, is influenced by self-determination theory—feeling empowered in one’s on-site or remote job and finding meaning in it.
Depending on the research, there are several factors pertaining to employee engagement. For example, job complexity (how far an employee feels their role to be stimulating) is related to how enthusiastic an employee feels at work. These then further relate to different aspects of engagement; be it from managerial support to other interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
In line with providing more specific advice for practitioners, Macleod & Clarke (2009) identified four components that help drive employee engagement:
- Employee voice: Involve employees in internal communications and decision-making,
- Line managers: Work as a role-model to empower, motivate, and support employees,
- Leadership: Like the role of line managers, with the added responsibility to spread the business culture and value across employees, and
- Organisational integrity: Where values instilled onto employees are practised, for example, an organisation that values the environment regularly donates to charities that support climate action.
With the above in mind, it is important to note that managers and leaders alike can be great motivators to employees, but can also opposingly become demotivators when employees do not feel supported. As a leader, one needs to be aware of what factors can be motivating or demotivating, in order to better guide an inspiring organisation.
In considering employee engagement, nowadays, research is more inclined to follow the needs of individual employees to better understand what compels them to work in an organisation, and the values they hold generally. Employee engagement can be measured in numerous ways, from one-on-one interviews to surveys and group discussions. Whatever method is chosen, the priority remains the same—place the employee needs first to help foster a more positive workplace culture as a whole.