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Employee engagement: Why you're measuring it in the wrong way

Meeting Engagement

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.

Our lat­est webi­nar — Per­for­mance, Engage­ment and Tech; The future of work­place pro­duc­tiv­i­ty — is avail­able on-demand.

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