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Good communication can hugely lift employee engagement

01 Jun, 2020 Employee engagement, experience, satisfaction, Internal communication

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

Communicators hold a powerful position by influencing the way things are done at work – as a manager or supervisor of their staff, and in  communicating about good practice in employee relations, which leads to stronger 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.

Sustainable 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 40,000 staff globally!) in 2016 comprised the following three key components:

  1. Traditional engagement, which is about employee willingness to give discretionary effort.
  2. Enablement, which depends on the employer supporting productivity and performance in the local work environment.
  3. Energy, which results from a healthful work environment supporting employees’ physical, social and emotional well-being.

Good communication leads to effective 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 needed to increase 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 it just a ‘feel good’ factor? Not according to Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” survey, which estimated the cost of lost productivity from disengaged employees within the US workforce at more than $483-605 billion per year. The survey found that only one third of US employees are engaged in their work and workplace, and only 21% of employees agree their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work, and about 14% become actively disengaged, which is destructive.

In 2016, Gallup researchers conducted the 9th edition of a meta-analysis across a range of organizations about the difference in performance between organizations scoring well on the employee engagement 12-elements measure compared with their operational performance. The researchers reviewed the performance results of business units who were in the top quartile (top 25%) of engagement scores compared with business units who were located in the bottom quartile (bottom 25%) of engagement scores. (A quartile measure is used to divide the overall results into 4 groupings or quarters.)

The organizations in the 1st quartile (top 25%) of employee engagement scores achieved dramatically better operational performance than organizations in the 4th quartile (bottom 25%) as follows:

  • 10% higher in customer loyalty/engagement
  • 21% higher in profitability
  • 20% higher in productivity — sales
  • 17% higher in productivity — production records and evaluations
  • 24% higher in turnover for high-turnover companies (those with more than 40% annualized turnover)
  • 59% higher in turnover for low-turnover companies (those with 40% or lower annualized turnover)
  • 70% higher in fewer safety incidents
  • 28% higher in reduced shrinkage (shop stealing and similar)
  • 41% higher in less absenteeism
  • 58% higher in patient lower safety incidents
  • 40% higher in quality (fewer defects)

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 employee engagement.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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