Quantifying Employee Engagement: Get Behind the Numbers

With demand for tech professionals so high, HR departments and hiring managers are under constant pressure to keep a company’s teams safely in place. In areas such as cloud computing and data science, replacing talent is a long, painful and expensive process, and the fact that short-handed teams impact development schedules and business results only makes matters worse.

An important part of any retention strategy is employee engagement—how much people like working at your company. Not only are they more loyal, but engaged employees can have a direct impact on business performance. “They feel a commitment to the company and make the effort to go above and beyond,” explained David Shanklin, head of culture strategy for CultureIQ, an employee-engagement platform provider based in New York City.

In fact, most engagement professionals draw a direct line between engagement and customer retention and satisfaction. Why? Because the latter numbers “illustrate the workforce’s performance,” said Anjoo Rai-Marchant, chief customer and technology officer for HighGround, an engagement platform provider based in Chicago.

But how can an organization measure how its employees feel? Surveys are the obvious answer, but relying on data alone won’t get you where you need to be; you have to understand what factors are driving the data.

Experts say that, because every company is different, there’s no single winning approach to engagement, and thus no single way to quantify it. Still, many suggest measuring engagement is something like a three-legged stool: The process is a seat supported by a.) data, b.) listening, and c.) a certain amount of gut feel.

Gathering the Right Data

Let’s start with the data. Adam Zuckerman, Willis Towers Watson’s Chicago-based employee engagement product software leader, suggests that, while engagement isn’t easily quantified, surveys nonetheless play a key role in measuring it. “We aggregate, segment and benchmark results,” he said. “Assigning numbers helps you track things.”

In particular, Zuckerman believes it’s important to measure whether employees are engaged, energized, and enabled to do their job. If the answer to those three aspects is “yes,” the workforce is what he calls “sustainably engaged.” That’s important, he said, “because we’ve found organizations with sustainable engagement perform better.”

To determine what engagement means, HR and the company’s leadership should work together, said Shanklin: “Key engagement components are important, but they must be aligned to business strategy.” That alignment helps the employer determine behaviors that should be recognized, as well as processes that should be followed. Companies in a highly regulated industry, for example, should recognize people who follow proper processes, even if it means a development schedule falls behind.

That said, most companies should keep a few numbers in mind. One is the employee Net Promoter Score, or eNPS, which measures how likely employees are to recommend their company to others as a place to work.

It’s also worth mentioning attrition. Since attrition tracks departing employees, its value lies in identifying areas where your engagement efforts may not be working. Rai-Marchant recommends establishing a baseline to use in tracking attrition trends. If the numbers begin rising, “that tells you there’s something else going on and you have to look at it.” For example, same-day pulse surveys might reveal a certain team is consistently unexcited. “That’s a red flag,” Rai-Marchant said.

Don’t Just Analyze: Listen

Shanklin believes that surveys do more than simply collect data points. “A survey is really a communications tool,” he said, because regular surveys show that you’re interested in what the workforce has to say. “A large component of engagement is demonstrating that you care about employees,” Shanklin explained. “There’s no better way to show you care than to listen.”

Most surveys include areas where employees can enter their own free-form thoughts; Shanklin urges employers not to give those comments short shrift. “There’s a lot of color in those comments,” he said. Use what you glean as the basis for follow-up conversations with employees.

In addition, Rai-Marchant said, “You see higher retention among employers who ask for more feedback, and better performance among workers who have more frequent conversations with management.”

It follows, then, that HR shouldn’t get wrapped up in worrying about conducting too many surveys. “There’s no such thing as ‘survey fatigue,’” Shanklin said. “The real issue is inaction fatigue.” Employers get into trouble, he believes, when they ignore feedback rather than act on it. Companies ignoring feedback, he said, are sure to make employees feel less important.

Finally, don’t be ruled by formal measurement processes and scripted conversations. You’ve collected data and had conversations with your workforce, but your experience and gut feel also come into play when you’re developing and managing your engagement strategy.

“There’s always going to be a certain amount of judgment involved,” Zuckerman said. “Your own observations about individual employees and the workforce as a whole should be a component of measuring engagement.”

“The conversation about engagement is really about listening,” added Shanklin. “The metrics are about listening. You don’t want to manage to a number. To truly measure engagement, you have to get to the story behind the number.”

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