Article | 16 min read

What is employee engagement? (+5 strategies for improving it)

The pandemic provoked a great reset in how people think and feel about work. There’s never been a better—or more important—time to take a long, hard look at your employee engagement strategy.

By Court Bishop, Contributing Writer

Last updated August 4, 2022

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022, 34 percent of companies predict a 25-percent increase in customer engagement over the next two years. This is no small feat for support teams that are already overworked and overstretched.

While leaders are starting to pay more attention to agents’ workloads, less than 30 percent of support team members feel empowered to do their jobs well. When employees aren’t equipped with the proper training, resources, or tools they need to succeed, they’ll likely burn out and disengage from their work. For companies to keep up with customer demand and provide a work environment where people can thrive, they must take a look at their employee engagement strategies.

The more engaged workers are, the better it is for the business. When team engagement is high, employees will do their best work and bring unique benefits to the company: improved customer retention, reduced employee turnover, and more revenue (to name a few).

If you want your organization to succeed, you need to prioritize your people. Especially in the wake of the Great Resignation, it’s essential to start examining—and improving—your employee engagement strategy.

In this employee engagement guide, we’ll cover:

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is the level of connection workers have with their job and workplace. It also describes team members’ enthusiasm toward contributing to a company’s overall success.

An engaged workforce is highly self-motivated. These employees take pride in their work because they’re mentally and emotionally invested in it.

For engaged employees, the “bare minimum” doesn’t apply—they will frequently go above and beyond what is expected of them on the job. This level of engagement often leads to positive business outcomes. In the context of customer service specifically, it translates to thoughtful, helpful support and satisfied customers.

Employee experience vs. employee engagement

These terms may sound similar, but they have distinct meanings.

Employee experience (EX) refers to a team member’s overall journey at a company, from the moment they sign their contract to their last day working for the business. It includes how others at the organization treated them, along with the employee’s actions and feelings during their tenure.

Employee engagement is a byproduct of the larger employee experience. If the experience is positive, employees are likely to be invested in their work and the company’s mission.

Examples of employee engagement

Employee engagement is rooted in psychology, so Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great place to start when seeking to understand and improve it.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Image source

Each step you take to boost employee engagement will likely correlate with a particular psychological need:

  • Physiological: Employees have a quiet, comfortable workspace and access to all the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Safety: Employees feel safe at work and secure in their jobs.
  • Belonging: Employees are comfortable working with their teammates and believe their coworkers are reliable.
  • Esteem: Employees are proud to be part of a respected organization and enjoy their work.
  • Self-actualization: Employees feel fulfilled at work and are empowered to make business decisions within their scope of work.

This hierarchy of needs for employees should provide you with a helpful framework for better understanding engagement and building a happy, highly motivated workforce.

Why is employee engagement important?

Employee engagement is vital for various reasons—the most important one being that your team members form the foundation of your company. Not only are your employees responsible for the satisfaction of your customers, but they’re also playing an increasingly critical role in the revenue-generating process. If your workers aren’t taken care of, your company will likely begin to crumble.

Increased productivity

Increased productivity, person with laptop

Gallup research shows that engaged employees are 17 percent more productive than disengaged employees. Engaged employees are often consistently productive because they are more invested in their work and take pride in what they contribute to their organization.

To keep employees productive, provide them with the materials, training, and equipment necessary for them to do their jobs well.

Higher employee retention

Higher employee retention, two people speaking

According to a Quantum Workplace report, disengaged employees are more than 3.6 times more likely to quit their job than engaged team members. And additional research from Gallup reveals that teams with low engagement typically see turnover rates that are 18 to 43 percent higher than teams with high engagement.

As outlined by Oak Engage, an organization’s employee retention improves when:

  • Team members are confident they’ll be recognized and appreciated for their work.
  • Workers are aware of professional growth and career development opportunities.
  • Staff understands when and why business changes may occur.

When employee engagement improves, it strengthens the trust between employees and their employers, which often leads to decreased turnover.

Improved customer experiences

Improved customer experiences, handshake

A good employee experience is the backbone of a good customer experience. Companies that outperform their competitors in customer experience (CX) tend to have more engaged workers.

In an IDC study, 85 percent of respondents agreed that improved employee experiences can produce better customer experiences. And 62 percent of respondents said there’s a “defined causal relationship” between EX and CX.

Customer service improves when frontline employees show up every day with positive energy, passion, and purpose. They believe in their company’s mission and enjoy what they do, so they’re committed to providing standout service and finding solutions for customers.

What are the main drivers of employee engagement?

While it might sound cliché, a paycheck alone doesn’t motivate highly engaged employees. People also care about feeling valued and appreciated, and they want jobs that align with their own beliefs. Here are a few other factors that drive employee engagement.

  • Purpose and meaning

    For employees to feel engaged, they must understand your company’s vision and mission. When workers understand why the company exists (beyond generating revenue), they can connect with this purpose and find deeper meaning in their work.

  • Shared values

    When employees share common core principles with their coworkers and company leaders, it helps build a sense of camaraderie and a mutual interest in contributing to the organization’s success. It’s much easier to foster engagement when the values of your business align with those of your team members.

  • Motivating, fulfilling work

    Employees want to leverage their strengths on the job. When employees feel their tasks utilize their knowledge and skills, they’re more likely to be engaged at work. Managers need to regularly evaluate employee positions and associated responsibilities, so they know their team’s abilities are being used wisely—particularly as they grow and develop within the company.

Improve the employee experience

Learn how more than 90,000 companies across 175 countries are retaining top talent and harnessing the collective power of their people to get ahead.

Employee engagement roles

Employee engagement encompasses many facets, and each is typically owned and executed by different people. Discover the individuals and teams responsible for driving a successful employee engagement strategy.

The role of leadership

Company leaders are the biggest advocates for employee engagement and the most powerful influencers of workplace culture. They’re responsible for:

  • Creating the long-term strategy for employee engagement
  • Communicating any changes to the current engagement strategy
  • Providing company-wide updates on the progress being made toward employee engagement goals

Leadership also usually conducts employee satisfaction surveys to gauge levels of engagement across the company. From there, leaders take action to improve engagement based on the survey responses.

Leadership’s example sets the tone for the rest of the organization. They have the power to improve engagement by focusing heavily on the company culture. Businesses that value EX consistently strive to create a workplace environment that enables team members to truly thrive.

The role of HR

Human resources typically functions as the “behind-the-scenes” team that puts a company’s employee engagement plan into action. HR oversees an organization’s engagement initiatives and handles any issues that may arise. This department also:

  • Holds employees and managers accountable for participating in engagement initiatives
  • Serves as the point of contact for any problems
  • Supports managers and provides them with important resources and tools, such as employee engagement software

When employee engagement efforts run smoothly, it’s likely because HR did its part to make them happen.

The role of management

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report shows that only 21 percent of employees are engaged in the workplace. Additional Gallup research reveals that managers account for at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement scores.

Managers should focus their employee engagement efforts on:

  • Promoting diversity in the workplace with tactics like inclusive policies, mentorship programs, and implicit bias training sessions
  • Fostering professional development by making continuing education a core value and offering digital learning opportunities
  • Implementing solutions that will elevate employee performance and boost productivity, such as setting SMART goals

It’s clear that a manager’s capabilities have a strong impact on employee engagement and performance. According to Peoplebox, “Employees generally measure their connection and engagement with the organization through their relationship with the manager.”

The role of employees

Companies can provide coaching, development courses, additional learning opportunities, and more—but it’s up to the employee to take advantage of these benefits to feel engaged at work.

Employee responsibilities include:

  • Giving feedback on a company’s engagement strategy—what’s working and what’s not
  • Participating in focus groups
  • Taking charge of their professional development to learn and grow
  • Sharing updates about personal goals within the company

Employees are critical to the success of any engagement program, so they need to voice their ideas on how EX could be improved.

How to measure employee engagement

Depending on your company size and workplace culture, some employee engagement methods may be more effective for you than others. Regardless of the measurement methods you use, you should gather a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback so you can get a well-rounded picture of your current engagement strategy.

Employee engagement surveys

Employee engagement surveys are used—often by market researchers—to collect important information about an organization’s workforce.

As previously stated, these surveys are usually distributed by a company’s leadership team and contain questions that gauge employees’ satisfaction with the organization. Engagement surveys often include questions like:

  • With regard to making business decisions, do you feel your employer has your best interests in mind?
  • Are you satisfied with your organization’s management style?
  • Does your company maintain open communication with employees?
  • Do your coworkers inspire you and help you do your best work?
  • Do you feel you have adequate information to make the right work decisions?
  • When something unexpected arises in your work, do you know who to go to for help?

Depending on the company and type of work, these questions may be presented differently. The goal is to gather information on employees’ knowledge, confidence, and attitudes about the workplace.

Team conversations and focus groups

Maintain ongoing communication with your employees by inviting them to team conversations. Meet with team members weekly or biweekly, and invite only 10 to 15 employees at a time so you can keep the group manageable and on-task. Team conversations allow employees to discuss any challenges they may be facing and give them opportunities to share their ideas and get immediate feedback.

Focus groups provide another way to crowdsource feedback, but they typically have a defined purpose (e.g., answering a specific question) and intentionally selected invitees (rather than a random grouping). Focus groups are especially beneficial for larger businesses where one-on-one meetings may be more difficult to arrange. They often help leadership teams determine what employees like, dislike, and feel could improve about their roles.

One-on-one meetings with employees

Meeting with employees one-on-one (either in-person or virtually) allows you and other company leaders to gather detailed information and meaningful feedback while picking up on non-verbal cues. One-on-one meetings are particularly helpful when meeting with employees who are in a position to move up within the company or employees who need to improve their performance.

The most crucial element to successful individual meetings is making your team members feel seen, heard, and safe through active listening, open-mindedness, and vulnerability. When employees are in a comfortable environment for sharing, it makes it easier for you to get qualitative feedback about their work experience.

How to develop an employee engagement strategy

For employee engagement strategies to be effective, they must be tailored to your company and its mission. We highlight more actionable tips in the next section, but first, we’ll review some general guidelines for creating an employee engagement strategy.

Track employee engagement with quantitative (e.g., surveys) and qualitative (e.g., one-on-one meetings) measurements. Choose KPIs and metrics that will provide both types of feedback, such as:

  • Employee resilience. Send a survey or poll that lists statements and then prompts employees to rank their level of agreement or disagreement with those statements on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The higher the score, the higher the employee engagement. A few example statements:
    • “I am satisfied with my current work environment.”
    • “My work-life balance is good.”
    • “I connect with other team members easily.”
  • Absenteeism. Use your HR software to determine an employee’s rate of “unexcused” absence. If you find a few employees whose figures seem abnormally high, talk with them to figure out what’s causing their missed days.
  • Employee turnover rate. Use the following formula to calculate turnover: (Number of employees who left the company within a specific time frame ÷ Number of employees during that same period) x 100. A rate higher than 30 percent indicates a deeper issue.
  • Decide which metrics work best for your business, and analyze the data to find potential engagement blockers. You can improve employees’ work-life by soliciting feedback from them about any issues, roadblocks, ideas for improvement, and wins they’ve experienced within the company.

    Your employees are your best resource for engagement improvement initiatives, so keep your door—and ears—open for them.

Tips on how to improve employee engagement

According to a Gallup study, only 36 percent of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace. Help team members feel more invested in their roles by implementing an employee engagement program. While there’s no set way to boost motivation, these best practices are a good place to start.

Nail the onboarding process

High-quality onboarding gives new hires the knowledge they need to become invested in your company. They learn about your core values and their primary job responsibilities, so they know what success means for the business and how they can contribute to it.

Feeling unsure about the best way to onboard employees? Learn how to craft an onboarding program to support and integrate new hires during their first year of employment.

Listen to your workforce

Employees tend to feel engaged when they believe they’re truly making a difference. Employers who listen to the ideas and concerns of their workforce stand to benefit greatly from it.

Actively listen to employees by asking follow-up questions and encouraging them to elaborate so you can gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts, concerns, and needs.

Collecting feedback through surveys—and then acting on that input—is another powerful way to show you’re listening to your workforce.

Offer professional development opportunities

It’s hard for employees to feel invested in their work if they don’t think they’re performing at their highest potential. Increase their confidence with employee development programs so they feel prepared and excited to come to work.

Improved workforce engagement is just one of the many benefits of continuous employee learning. Training and coaching also give your company a more skilled workforce, so you’ll likely see better growth and be able to promote from within when looking for new leaders.

You can offer development opportunities in the form of leadership or management training, professional certifications, technical skills training, or (if it’s feasible and makes sense for your company) employer-funded college or university programs.

Recognize and reward achievements

Many support agents aren’t feeling outwardly valued by their employers. Our CX Trends Report found that only 17 percent of agents are “extremely satisfied” with how their team is perceived by the broader company. Business leaders need to be more vocal about the good work their employees are doing.

If you’re giving public praise, you don’t want to make it seem like you’re playing favorites with certain team members. Explain why the recognition is deserved, and describe how the employee contributed to a concrete organizational goal. This transparency will help everyone see the positive impact of that team member’s work and will hopefully motivate them, too.

Keep in mind that some employees may feel shy and reluctant to receive public recognition. For these team members, you can always share positive feedback in a one-on-one setting.

Give employees flexibility

Empowering team members is key to driving engagement. But sometimes, employees need to know that they can take a break to feel more invested in their work.

Businesses often fear that flexibility leads to a decrease in productivity and efficiency, but in reality, the complete opposite is true. A healthy work-life balance reduces employee stress and illness by giving employees more time to focus on their well-being, effectively decreasing absenteeism and increasing productivity. And by supporting your agents, you’re supporting your customers, too.

Some of the key considerations for creating a flexible work environment include:

  • Embracing a performance-driven company culture—focus on outcomes and achievements instead of the number of hours spent working.
  • Setting clear expectations—make sure your employees know what success looks like. If deadlines, goals, and regular check-ins exist, communicate them to your team.
  • Practicing accountability—the acceptance of personal responsibility breeds self-motivation.

With regard to employee experience, company culture is now a powerful recruitment tool to land top talent. Don’t let your organization miss out on opportunities to hire high-performing people because you’re too afraid to change.

Employee engagement and customer experience go hand in hand

When your employees are engaged, they understand the role they play in organizational success and will work passionately toward maintaining that success. Your frontline workers directly represent your company by providing customers with the support they need, so they deserve just as much support from you on the backend.

Strengthen employee engagement by showing your staff how they’re contributing to the company and providing a flexible, healthy work environment. These actions will help make team members’ jobs more enjoyable and meaningful, so they’re eager to bring their best selves to every customer interaction and their job as a whole.

Improve the employee experience

Learn how more than 90,000 companies across 175 countries are retaining top talent and harnessing the collective power of their people to get ahead.

Improve the employee experience

Learn how more than 90,000 companies across 175 countries are retaining top talent and harnessing the collective power of their people to get ahead.

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