Staff engagement is marriage of various factors at work

An organisation’s culture, employee characteristics and experiences, and the jobs on offer all influence levels of engagement.

Employee engagement is big business in management consultancy. There is a widespread belief that it brings business benefits, yet surprisingly little research evidence.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has carried out research to define engagement, create an engagement measure and provide an engagement diagnostic tool. Its research has been widely tested, firstly in the National Health Service, then in eight organisations in a variety of private and public sector settings. The good news is that engagement is measurable via employee attitude surveys, and that its drivers can be identified. More challenging is that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to pay dividends as engagement levels and drivers vary depending on the organisation, the person and the job.

Asking senior managers and HR professionals what they mean by engaged behaviour resulted in consistent views: employees’ belief in the organisation, a desire to make things better, respect and helpfulness towards colleagues, and a willingness to go the extra mile.

The IES defines engagement as: a positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation. The organisation must work to develop and nurture engagement, which requires a two-way relationship between employers and staff.

When measuring engagement, employers could look at factors such as employees’ pride in the organisation, belief in its products or services, belief that the organisation enables them to perform well, a willingness to behave altruistically and be a good team-player, understanding of the bigger picture and willingness to go the extra mile.

Scratching below the surface of engagement shows very clearly that an organisation, personal characteristics, job characteristics and employee experiences all influence engagement levels. Engagement is highest among the youngest employees (especially the under 20s) and the oldest (60 years plus). There is often a dip in mid working life.

There is no clear pattern relating engagement to organisational type. Managers have the highest engagement levels, and operational or hands-on employees are usually clearly engaged. Staff providing back-room support are less likely to feel engaged, while professionals have the lowest levels of organisational engagement of all groups.

Engagement levels also decline as length of service increases. Having an accident at work, or experiencing harassment (particularly if the manager is the culprit) have a big denting impact. Staff who have a personal development plan, and are satisfied with access to development opportunities, meanwhile, typically have high engagement levels.

Employers, then, need to work hard to prevent bad experiences. They must ensure employees’ development needs are taken seriously; pay attention to, and value, support staff; and maintain the interest of longer-serving employees.

The drivers of employee engagement vary depending on the organisation and employee group. Usually, either job satisfaction (job variety, job interest and challenge, and job accomplishment) or feeling valued and involved will come top of the drivers list. Line managers clearly have a very important role in both aspects, which is yet another illustration of the critical importance of the employee-manager relationship.

Satisfaction with pay and reward is associated with engagement; it is a significant driver, but other things are usually more important. One organisation in our sample of eight, however, did show the impact of pay dissatisfaction on engagement. In this company, business software consultants were in dispute over some benefits that had been removed. Although not worse off financially, they felt the loss of their special benefits keenly. Here, unusually, pay was an important driver. This seems to support the notion of pay as a hygiene factor. It assumes more importance as a disengager than an engager.

Dilys Robinson, principal research fellow, the Institute for Employment Studies