Engagement, as we currently understand it, covers a lot of ground. Under the banner of engagement, we measure loyalty, happiness, the employee experience and more. Since what we’re measuring is diffuse and varied, it’s extremely challenging to take the next step: action. We worry over the year-on-year change – ‘our people are 2% less happy this year!’ – and tie ourselves in knots trying to find broad solutions to nuanced problems. Perhaps we need better coffee. Perhaps we need to go out as a team more often. Perhaps we need to offer yoga, or massages, or free fruit.
We’re missing a big trick.
Helping people to understand their own work engagement is crucial. There’s no point in measuring engagement unless you’re willing to take action to influence it.
What do we actually do at work? We work. For the vast majority of our day, we perform work tasks that conform – more or less – to our job descriptions. If you ask people what single factor would best improve their experience of being at work, the answer will nearly always be the same. We want the work to be better. We know what we’re there to do, so help us do it.
This is the basis of work engagement. This is the connection we feel to the work we do. It has its origins in psychological wellbeing, but it’s firmly grounded in the world of task and team. You can make your people feel happier by giving them perks. You can improve social cohesion by buying them drinks. Unless you connect engagement to the working experience and work outcomes, however, you can’t connect engagement to performance and productivity.
Asking the right questions
Employee net promoter score (eNPS) does not measure this. eNPS is a measure of loyalty or organisational commitment. While this is a useful thing to measure and understand, it’s a far less potent predictor of performance than work engagement. Why? You can be loyal to your employer without necessarily being energised and motivated by the work you do. Think of the NHS, or the BBC, or any other organisation with strong values and broad social appeal. You may admire and respect the work they do, yet feel very little love for the specific role you perform there. Charities do great work. Does everyone working at a charity love the tasks they do there?
Gallup’s Q12 is much more varied than eNPS, and more than one of its questions has a strong bearing on work engagement. Here, the challenge is slightly different. Q12 has, unsurprisingly, 12 questions. It’s too long and involved to operate in the flow of work. While it will yield useful insight, it’s not something you’d ask people to do every month. This is important, because work engagement is something that should be measured regularly. We’re humans. We’re not impervious to life’s slings and arrows. By setting up a system that can be measured on an ongoing and continuous basis, you gain an accurate picture of work engagement over time. It shouldn’t be affected by one bad day or a dose of the flu, or a broken boiler.
You cannot link engagement to employee performance and productivity unless you talk about the work itself.
The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale is the most widely used and peer-reviewed model for measuring work engagement. It’s been tested and used successfully across multiple sectors in multiple countries. Crucially, it measures work engagement in a positive way, identifying key factors like vigour and absorption. UWES is the definitive measure of work engagement, but it still has its challenges. Originally based around 17 questions and now slimmed down to 9, it’s still a little too laborious to pass the ‘in the flow of work’ test. The more onerous the task, the more your data is going to suffer. People either won’t do it at all or – arguably worse – they’ll do it in a rush and without any thought.
UWES forms the basis of a new model that solves these problems. After extensive research and testing, it’s possible to reduce the UWES framework to three key questions designed to measure energy, immersion and purpose, plus a fourth to identify employee motivation. These questions are rooted directly in the experience of work. They’re designed to help the employee reflect on how they feel about their role and the resources and structures that exist to support it.
Linking engagement to performance
Helping people to understand their own work engagement is crucial. There’s no point in measuring engagement unless you’re willing to take action to influence it. So these questions create automated ‘nudges’ that employees can take into performance conversations with their manager. The idea is to help the employee and the manager to have more fruitful, focussed discussions about how to improve that working experience. Does the employee need new learning opportunities? Are they using the right resources and tools in the right way and, if not, how can we fix that? Would they benefit from developing working relationships with other parts of the organisation?
To be clear: there is still room for longer, more detailed engagement surveys, and there are other ways to capture employee sentiment and measure progress. Some organisations devote Slack channels or email addresses to capturing employee suggestions, and some offer anonymous ways to do the same thing. The point is that you cannot link engagement to employee performance and productivity unless you talk about the work itself. You can’t do that accurately, and link it to performance management, by doing it once a year. A light-touch, continuous approach gives you both the detail and the bigger picture. Perhaps most importantly of all, it makes engagement everyone’s responsibility. In this way, HR people cease to be the guardians of compliance and become enablers of productivity.
Interested in this topic? Read Five communication tips to give engagement surveys a happy end.