Recently, we ran a webinar on the subject of performance and engagement. One of the polls we put to our audience asked how often they conducted engagement surveys. The comfortable majority — almost 60% — said annually.
There’s a lot to be said for measuring employee engagement annually. It’s deeply satisfying to present the board with a 2% uplift in the engagement score, showing the context of the efforts you’ve gone to in the past year. It shows that things are working as they should be and, in this rather hazily defined world, we’re doing what we need to do.
But what is engagement actually for? What is the purpose of making people more engaged? We know we want people to be engaged. Every business looks for ways to motivate its employees. It touches on that tricky subject of non-financial rewards: how can we motivate people beyond the pay rise? How can we make this a better, more rewarding place to work?
Work engagement is the key to productivity
The operative word in that last sentence is “work”. It’s what we spent most of our time doing, after all. If we want to measure the right thing, we need to focus our engagement efforts on making the work better. We need to measure work engagement.
Work engagement is characterised by a sense of positive wellbeing and psychological health in the workplace. Through work engagement, we’re more likely to have energy when we apply ourselves to our tasks and teams. We find a sense of purpose through the work that we do. We’re more likely to immerse ourselves in our tasks; to improve our focus and resilience. But for organizations to affect these vital attributes, their efforts to boost engagement need to be grounded in the work itself. And their efforts to measure it need to be both continuous (because work engagement is a continuous phenomenon that should prove resilient to life’s daily ups and downs) and connected to performance.
How do you measure performance continuously? It’s a legitimate question, especially for those whose annual engagement surveys can run to 50 questions or more. There are far briefer ways to capture information related to engagement, but do they give the data we need?
The key to employee engagement
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How the measures of engagement stack up
The quickest, undoubtedly, is the eNPS measure. It’s based around a single question — “How likely are you to recommend working at (this company) to a colleague or friend?”. The respondent answers on a scale of one to ten. Usually, in calculating eNPS, the respondents answering 9 or 10 are characterised as promoters. Detractors are those whose answer falls between 0 and 5, and passives score 6 – 8. The challenge here is twofold. First, this is a question about loyalty, not engagement. They may pay particularly well. They may do admirable work in charity, or the public sector. They may be prestigious or particularly well known. None of these things has any relation to the tasks the worker performs when they begin their day. Secondly, passive scores are usually removed from the equation after the survey to give a clear view of the outliers: the active promoters or detractors. If you’re passive, your score doesn’t count. But if we want to get a clear picture of our employees, why are we focusing on the outliers? Doesn’t everyone’s opinion count? And wouldn’t it be useful to understand why people are scoring 7? How do we get them up to a 9?
The other widely used measure is the Q12. Although many of the questions on the list do touch on work engagement, 12 questions is a little cumbersome to use continuously. In an ideal world, we would recommend that engagement is measured monthly (we’ll come on to why in a moment). Asking people to step out of their flow of work for 12 questions every month will soon create cynicism. The quality of the data will suffer. Adoption rates will fall.
Why measuring engagement in a continuous way is essential
The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale is the most robust and effective measure for work engagement currently in existence. It uses 9 questions which, again, is too onerous to work continuously. But through extensive research and testing, we believe it can be honed down to three questions. These are designed to measure energy, immersion and purpose. Supplemented with a fourth question to interrogate employee motivation, these questions provide a clear picture of how employees feel about their work experience. Supplied continuously, this all works together to build an ongoing picture of work engagement over time. This then feeds directly into the performance management process to prompt conversations with managers and employees which lead to genuine, meaningful action on work challenges and opportunities. The continuous element is crucial. Why? Because we need to ensure that results aren’t influenced by a bad commute, terrible weather or an argument with a spouse. And we need to see change, and how performance management is affecting engagement over time.
To affect work engagement, we need to understand how people feel in an ongoing way. Action on this should happen at a manager-employee level, not at the HR level. And this all needs to work when action is needed — there and then — rather than in an annual survey. If we do this, we can make a difference to both engagement and performance.
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