Communicators hold a powerful position by influencing the way things are done at work. Effective communicators establish a two-way flow of information for employees, and they also influence managers and executives to communicate better, which leads to stronger employee engagement. In fact, good communication can hugely lift employee engagement.
Definitions of employee engagement
Employee engagement is a vital workplace concept. There are various definitions of employee engagement, reflecting the complexity of the concept, but a general definition suggested by Engage for Success is:
Employee engagement involves providing the right conditions for all members of an organization to give of their best each day, committed to their organization’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, with a strengthened sense of their own well-being.
Another often-quoted definition attributed to US consultancy Willis Towers Watson is:
Employee engagement is the extent to which employees put discretionary effort into their work, in the form of extra time, brainpower and energy.
Gallup, Inc., the major US-based international performance-management consultancy considers itself to have the foremost expertise on employee engagement. In its 2017 State of the American Workplace report, “Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”
Basically, almost all the definitions show employee engagement comprising these three components:
- physical or behavioral, ie. it affects what people actually do in their roles
- cognitive, ie. it affects how people think about their roles
- emotional, ie. it affects how people feel about their roles.
In essence, this amounts to employees ‘going the extra mile’.
Gallup offers a series of statements that add up to employee engagement when done properly, as below. It can be seen that formal and/or informal communication is involved in all of them.
Employee engagement is based on trust, integrity, two way commitment and communication between an organization and its employees. It is an approach that increases the chances of business success, contributing to organizational and individual performance, productivity and well-being. It can be measured. It varies from poor to great. It can be nurtured and dramatically increased; it can lost and thrown away.
Engaged employees are fully involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and therefore will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests. Employee engagement is a measure of an employee’s emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization which greatly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work. Engagement is different from employee satisfaction, motivation and organizational culture; being satisfied doesn’t mean you are necessarily engaged in your role. Effective communication lifts employee engagement.
The HR sector is taking the concept of employee engagement a step further and has started talking about sustainable engagement. Many of today’s employees are geographically dispersed and working longer with fewer resources. Therefore, the argument arises that sustainable engagement is needed for greater productivity and satisfaction. The sustainable engagement model advocated by international HR consultancy Willis Towers Watson (itself employing 45,000 staff globally) in 2021 comprised the following three key components:
- Traditional engagement, which is about employee willingness to give discretionary effort.
- Enablement, which depends on the employer supporting productivity and performance in the local work environment.
- Energy, which results from a healthful work environment supporting employees’ physical, social and emotional well-being.
Good communication can hugely lift employee engagement
Matthew Morgan points to top three factors that influence employee engagement:
1. Leadership communication
Research shows that leadership communication is the top internal communication factor that statistically correlates to employee engagement. Internal communication teams have a powerful role in supporting, coaching and reminding leaders of communication’s importance. Line managers especially need robust communication training; many become managers because of their communication skills, rather than because they’re good at their jobs.
Senior leaders (CEOs, directors and their leadership teams) must be an organization’s best communicators, but they’re usually not. Internal communicators should be part of senior leadership teams, not only to keep communication at the top of the agenda, but also to coach and support leaders in their communication. This is especially important, as face-to-face communication about the organization’s vision, strategy and progress is strongly linked to better employee engagement.
2. The organization’s reputation
Anything that affects what employees think of the organization they work for (perceived organizational identity) or what they think their friends and family think of the organization they work for (construed external image) directly correlates with employee engagement. We spend 40% of our lives at work, so of course we want to be associated with an organization that reflects our values and identity.
We should communicate topics that elevate the organization’s reputation in employees’ minds, such as positive media coverage, awards and prizes, and corporate social responsibility. We should also provide the organization’s stance on negative media coverage. Don’t spin the news; trust employees with authentic ammunition to defend the organization to family and friends, if necessary.
Test: How keen would we be to stand behind our organization if it faced negative media coverage?
3. Employee voice
Employee voice is highly correlated to employee engagement, yet it is a mostly untapped resource. Employee voice is when employees believe they have a say, and that it leads to action. Many leaders talk about two-way communication, but they rarely practice it. What can internal communicators do?
They can support and influence leaders to encourage and enable employees to have a voice, both in their day-to-day roles and with bigger business issues (employees are often closer to these issues than managers). Communicators can also provide a platform where employees can share their opinions. Use an informal channel, such as enterprise social media, or a more formal platform, such as an employee feedback tool. Listen to employees, and share their ideas with the people in influential positions.
Internal communication has enormous power to improve employee engagement and therefore employee and business performance. Ignore it at your peril.
Further effective communication
Internal communication expert Rodney Gray believes the best types of direct communication, which can achieve the aim that communication can hugely lift employee engagement, are:
- Listening at all levels
- Mostly face-to-face communication (social media can create a conversation)
- Information kits, packs and guides
- Upward, two-way communication
He says other ways to strengthen engagement levels are to:
- Facilitate personal growth for employees through learning opportunities, job rotation and career path opportunities.
- Develop relationships through involvement and consultation with staff, a healthy culture in which staff are valued and recognized.
- Develop trust by all staff in leaders who are credible, provide vision, are open and candid, commit time to employees and seek feedback.
- Encourage change through dealing with employees with respect and dignity (no secrets, no hype), and through often varying the way narratives and other communication describe what success will look like.
Notice how all these actions depend on effective communication.
Why make the effort to increase employee engagement?
Is engagement just a ‘feel good’ factor? Not according to Gallup’s 2020 report, “Employee Engagement and Performance: Latest Insights from the World’s Largest Study.” This meta-analysis dealt with the findings of many other studies into the topic. “This research method provides a more precise estimate of the influence of team engagement on performance outcomes than any one study can capture,” Gallup consultants state.) Reporting their findings, the researchers examined 54 industries in 96 countries, 276 organizations, 112,312 business/work units and 2.7 million employees.
When comparing top-quartile engagement (in the top quarter of teams) with bottom-quartile engagement, Gallup found significant differences. Teams in the top-quartile achieved higher performance with more positive outcomes and fewer negative outcomes than bottom-quartile teams. Very emphatic results! Top quartile performance outcomes for highly engaged teams compared with the performance of bottom-quartile teams:
Greater organizational success
- 23% increased profitability
- 66% increased wellbeing (thriving employees)
- 13% increased organizational citizenship participation.
More positive outcomes
- 10% increased customer loyalty/engagement
- 18% increased productivity (sales)
- 14% increased productivity (production records and evaluations)
Fewer negative outcomes
- 81% reduced absenteeism
- 18% lower staff turnover in high-turnover organizations (more than 40% annualized staff turnover)
- 43% lower staff turnover in low-turnover organizations (40% or lower annualized staff turnover)
- 28% reduction in theft (‘shrinkage’)
- 64% fewer safety incidents (mortality and falls)
- 58% fewer patient safety incidents (mortality and falls)
- 41% fewer defects (quality).
Source: Gallup 2020 report: “Employee Engagement and Performance: Latest Insights From the World’s Largest Study“.
The above differences can be calculated in dollar terms for each organization, after allowing for variables such as the type of measurement, location/s and distribution of outcomes across business units in each organization.
Overall, a compelling argument for communication strategies in support of stronger employee engagement.
You can read further in my article about the ways in which communication can hugely lift employee engagement, “Good internal communication leads to stronger employee engagement and therefore better organizational performance.”