When I entered the corporate workforce back in the early '90s, one measure by which employee performance was assessed was "employee satisfaction." Work in those days may have been on the cusp of change, but the relationship of an employee to an employer was still largely transactional. If I showed up every morning at 9:00 and did what was expected of me for the next eight hours, I’d receive a regular salary and two weeks of annual vacation. And maybe there would be a Christmas party. Was this arrangement satisfactory? Sure, whatever, never mind.

But job satisfaction didn’t have much to say about the factors that motivated me or anyone else to be an exceptional employee as opposed to a warm body simply content to punch the clock. Satisfied employees, in other words, weren’t necessarily great employees. So, was there even a point to measuring employee satisfaction?

Employee engagement enters the picture

Things began to change around the turn of the millennium. Work was rapidly becoming more digital, complex, and subject to new and ever-changing demands. Companies started to realize a critical need to understand and seek out the characteristics that motivated certain employees to do better work than others. 

Starting in the early 2000s, employee engagement became the new-and-improved metric for employee performance. And its definition has remained largely the same ever since. Gallup, the U.S. analytics and advisory company, defines employee engagement as "the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace." And according to Gartner, the technological research and consulting firm, "employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work." 

So that’s pretty much all of us, right? 

Hardly.

Measuring employee engagement doesn’t necessarily improve employee engagement

Recorded engagement statistics have never been particularly high. The number of engaged employees has consistently hovered around only one-third of the workforce, as measured by Gallup. But in January of 2022, their research revealed that for the first time in more than a decade, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. had declined.

U.S. employee engagement trend, annual averages (Gallup)
For the first year in more than a decade, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. declined in 2021. Just over one-third of employees (34%) were engaged, and 16% were actively disengaged in their work and workplace, based on a random sample of 57,022 full- and part-time employees throughout the year. 

Given the tremendous upheavals of the previous two years, news of decreased employee engagement wasn't much of a shock. But what was surprising is that engagement levels actually rose to record highs in 2020, during the worst months of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the declining numbers were cause for concern, with only 34% of employees reported to be engaged and 16% "actively disengaged." 

Adding to the worry was that while these numbers were lowering to pre-pandemic levels, more than 65 million Americans quit their jobs. Was there a correlation between the Great Resignation and lagging engagement?

Improved communication improved employee engagement

Work drastically changed during the time of Covid-19. Millions of employees moved to home office. And they experienced for the first time the advantages and obstacles that came with it. Essential workers who didn't have the luxury of working from home toiled under incredibly difficult conditions. However, one positive outcome was that the work of internal communications came to the fore. Comms teams arguably kept many organizations from falling apart. They made sure that workers were better informed than ever. And in doing so, they solidified the position of corporate communications as the most trusted source for news and information. 

Internal communicators found innovative ways to share frequent and focused communication. They provided an anxious workforce with a sense of stability during an unprecedented period of crisis and change. And to make this communication possible, they took advantage of a host of new digital tools

But did Covid-19 transform businesses forever? It doesn't seem so. Today, a gradual return to pre-pandemic practices finds many companies forgetting the lessons they learned about the importance of internal comms. And it's no coincidence that at the same time, employees are exploring their newfound options. They're sending clear signals that they've had it with the old ways of working. And who can blame them?

It's a perfect storm for plummeting engagement.

Well, what’s so great about engagement anyway?

The benefits of employee engagement.

Historically, there’s been no debate around the idea that highly engaged companies outperform those with lower engagement. So it stands to reason that finding ways to measure employee engagement is something every company should be doing. But measurement alone isn’t enough. For many companies, the next steps (assuming they take any at all) tend to lead nowhere.

As I wrote in a 2017 look at the then burgeoning concept of employee experience, for all of our efforts to measure engagement, no one has found any surefire ways to improve it. Part of the problem is that engagement factors are undeniably complex and difficult — if not downright impossible — to attribute to any particular impetus. What motivates one employee won't necessarily motivate another. And when you get right down to it, which workplace factors don’t affect employee engagement? 

Gallup claims that "employee engagement helps you measure and manage employees' perspectives on the crucial elements of your workplace culture." Many organizations trust Gallup's well-known Q12 survey to ask what are supposedly the most effective questions for accurately measuring employee engagement. 

Are we asking the right questions?

But given the upheavals in the workplace since 2020, could it be that Gallup’s findings of decreased engagement are at least partially a result of asking the wrong questions? "Do you have a best friend at work," for instance, is less likely to be answered in the affirmative by an employee sharing their home office with a crying child and a dying houseplant. 

So, in other words, just as work has changed, does the way we define and measure employee engagement also need an update? Or did 2021 simply see a return to the less engaged norm following a period when increased engagement was vital for organizational survival and companies were more-or-less forced to find better ways to connect with their employees given the extraordinary circumstances? Is engagement at levels any higher than its historical average simply unsustainable? And what are we even talking about when we talk about engagement in today's transforming workplace?

How do YOU define engagement?

So, let’s back up for a moment. When talking about engagement, are employers and employees even referring to the same thing? Broad definitions of engagement are only useful when considering the concept in its most general terms. 

Because let's face it, employee engagement doesn't mean the same to an employee as it does to an employer. It's going to be different for a millennial customer-facing sales associate than it will be for a Gen X CEO looking at the bottom line from a corner office. Everyone defines engagement in their own way.

That’s why the very first step in measuring engagement requires you to ask two questions: 

  • What does engagement mean to us as an organization? 
  • What does engagement mean to our employees as individuals? 

For employers . . .

engagement is defined by the positive attitudes and behaviors that lead to improved business outcomes. It's about employees feeling pride and loyalty toward their organization. Engagement is seeing your company culture reflected in employee behavior. It's evident in employees who, when necessary, go that extra mile.

Employee engagement from an employer's point of view is about utilizing your employees' knowledge and ideas to improve your products and services. And it means being innovative in how you work. 

Even more importantly these days, employee engagement is about eliciting a deeper commitment from your people. Engaged employees are less likely to quit, call in sick, or cause accidents. It's about creating a positive work environment where conflicts and grievances decline and productivity increases. For employers, employee engagement means taking actions that remain consistent with your company values. It means keeping the promises you make and being transparent when, for whatever reason, you have to change course. 

For employees . . .

engagement is about understanding one's role in an organization and how it aligns with its stated purpose and objectives. It’s about having a clear understanding of an organization’s mission. And it means being encouraged to offer ideas and express views that you’re confident will be taken into consideration when decisions are being made. 

Employee engagement is about feeling like a valued member of your team. Engaged employees focus on clear goals and feel empowered by regular and constructive feedback. They receive support in developing new skills, and recognition for their achievements. Engaged employees believe in their organization's values because they see clear evidence of trust and fairness based on mutual respect. They believe that the promises and commitments made between themselves and their employers are mutually understood and consistently kept. Engaged employees hold up their end of the bargain by achieving and often surpassing their goals.  

Employee Engagement Venn Diagram Infographic Graph

Taking these two viewpoints into account, the most accurate definition of what engagement is to you is likely to appear in the places where the answers to the above two questions intersect. That's where you'll find the shared values and purpose that allows employees to see exactly where they fit. It will illuminate ways for workers to better understand and appreciate the role they play in helping organizations reach their goals. 

But no matter what form it takes, engagement for employers and employees alike depends upon clear, effective, and relevant communication. It emanates from leadership on down and in authentic, real-time actions and feedback from employees of all stripes.

Strong internal comms create strong employee engagement

What Covid-19 hopefully made clear is that employers need to continue promoting work methods and policies that nurture the emotional connections between employees and their workplaces. Companies should be consistently communicating their values and involving employees in the culture-building process. Doing so will motivate long-lasting commitments from their people. Furthermore, it will encourage them to live up to their expected potential by giving their full selves to the work they do.

Despite its obvious negative impacts, Covid-19 has accelerated the transformation of the workplace in some promising ways. The pandemic gave internal communications professionals the seat at the decision-making table they'd long desired. They responded by taking full advantage of their newfound position with tangible evidence of the value of effective communication. The proof was in those all-time high engagement numbers from 2020. 

But even before the pandemic, most organizations were undergoing some form of transformation. New business models, burgeoning digital technologies, agile ways of working, and changing workplace demographics continue to rapidly revolutionize the how and the why of work. 

When I began my career, corporate culture was such that employers assumed that if you weren't in the office then you weren't working. And it's true that being outside of the office meant being out of the loop of communication. Remember interoffice envelopes and that unused speakerphone collecting dust on a long conference table? A list of such obsolete workplace communication relics could rattle on and on like a dot matrix printer. And even for younger employees, how many even knew what Microsoft Teams was before the pandemic?

Post Covid-19, are internal comms being seen as less business critical?

Work is happily returning to pre-pandemic norms. But in leadership's eyes, is the value of comms now less important? If so, does that mean comms teams are likely to lose their precious seat at the table? Without the means to quantifiably prove their worth under less dramatic conditions, that could very well be the case. That’s why measurement is such a hot topic among IC professionals. And why it's an issue communications software providers are rushing to address.  

If you’re measuring communication, then you’re measuring real employee engagement

We’ve established that in order to measure and improve employee engagement you must first define what it means both for you as an organization and for your employees. The same goes for finding your optimal modes of communication and the channels they require. And by optimal, that includes measurable.

Luckily, there are myriad tools that organizations can now utilize to communicate effectively to the full array of today's workforce. Microsoft SharePoint and Teams, modern intranets, employee apps, email, digital signage, etc. And every one of these communication tools provides its own way to generate measurable engagement for your particular industry and the specific needs of your people. 

Every opportunity for an employee or an employer to communicate is an opportunity to engage

With today’s multi-channel communication tools, measuring operative or strategic goals — metrics like reach, usage, interaction, and satisfaction — is also the best way to continuously quantify real engagement in real time. These trackable metrics help you to set benchmarks to gauge your success. And they will serve as effective catalysts for creating an ongoing cycle of engagement. 

Channel Metrics to Measure Internal Communication

After all, what is a “like” or a “share” in an employee app if not a representation of engagement? What is the consistently strong usage rate of a front-door intranet but confirmation that employees are engaging with tools that deliver trusted news and information on their terms? What is a high Net Promoter Score from an employee survey if not proof that employees and administrators alike believe they understand their company's goals and are confident that they have a voice in setting a path forward? 

In other words, organizations with multiple means to communicate also have multiple opportunities to engage. New employee communication management platforms are a triple threat. They facilitate multi-channel communication, measure it with clear metrics, and reinforce the positive results to generate an ongoing cycle of real, quantifiable engagement.