CX Insight Magazine

April 2021

Renewing A Commitment To Employee Engagement In 2021

By: Execs In The Know

Employee engagement is not a new buzzword, nor is it something that leaders are only now focused on. However, from the impact of COVID-19 to the tense political atmosphere and issues surrounding social injustice, the events from the past 12 months have motivated organizations to place their employees’ engagement and wellbeing under the microscope.

In this article, we will review why employee engagement is so important, the elements of an effective employee engagement program, and the key drivers to improving overall engagement. But first, it is important to align on what employee engagement is, and what it isn’t.

Employee Engagement versus Employee Satisfaction

Employee engagement is a measure of an employee’s commitment to their employer and their employer’s business objectives. Engaged employees feel they are a part of the broader organization’s success because they clearly understand their roles and how it impacts overall results. They are passionate about their work and enthusiastically give more of their time, talent, and efforts to the organization.

In a report by Qualtrics, researchers devised a system for measuring employee engagement using a composite score of these five factors:

  • Discretionary effort – the desire to go above and beyond
  • Pride in work and the organization
  • Advocacy for the organization
  • Feelings of accomplishment from work
  • Intention to stay

Often, employee engagement and employee satisfaction are mistakenly referred to interchangeably. Employee satisfaction is important to measure, but it simply measures how happy employees are, and usually at a particular point in time. An organization can have “satisfied” employees, but that does not necessarily translate to their commitment and level of effort in their contribution to the overall success of the organization. For example, a satisfied employee may be happy with their flexible schedule, their colleagues, or the company’s benefits. While employees may value something about their work environment, that does not mean they are truly invested in helping the company achieve its goals.

Why is Employee Engagement Important?

Most customer experience (CX) leaders understand the importance of employee engagement in contributing to the overall success of their organization. But research bears out why employee engagement should be at the forefront of the strategic initiatives for every organization, both in 2021 and beyond. In fact, there is no shortage of research and statistics about the impact of an engaged workforce. Below is just a snapshot of some revealing findings:

In this McKinsey report, findings reveal that engaged and satisfied contact-center employees are:

  • 8.5X more likely to stay than leave within a year
  • 4X more likely to stay than dissatisfied colleagues
  • 16X more likely to refer friends to their company
  • 3.3X more likely to feel extremely empowered to resolve customer issues

Additionally, Aberdeen Group research found that:

  • Companies with an employee engagement program experience 233% greater customer loyalty
  • Employee engagement programs help companies realize 26% greater annual revenue
  • Companies with robust employee engagement programs are seven times more likely to link employee performance with good customer experiences.

And finally, Gallup had these statistics to report when analyzing results from a study of top quartile performance compared to bottom quartile as it relates to employee engagement:

  • 81% lower absenteeism
  • 18% less turnover (in higher turnover organizations) and 43% less turnover (in lower turnover organizations)
  • 10% higher customer loyalty / engagement
  • 23% higher profitability

In short, employee engagement touches every aspect of an organization’s success, from customer loyalty to financial performance. This has always been true, but it is an even more critical driver to organizations’ success at this pivotal moment in time.

Implementing an Effective Employee Engagement Program

Consistently and effectively driving employee engagement can be challenging under normal circumstances. But when the complexities of physical distancing due to COVID-19 and a largely remote workforce is added, it is an even more nuanced challenge to tackle. Before an organization can begin to implement specific initiatives to improve engagement, a robust and structured program is needed. This involves the following:

1. DOCUMENT AN EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT MISSION STATEMENT / PURPOSE: Many company mission statements focus on the customers or even shareholders. Naturally, when something is written it makes it real, and allows employees to connect with it, and provides a basis for holding leaders accountable. It’s also evidence of leadership’s commitment to the mission. Employees must see that the organization is committed to employee engagement, and not just “checking a box” or treating it as the “priority of the day.”

2. CREATE A MEASUREMENT SYSTEM: Most organizations measure employee satisfaction via surveys, but not employee engagement. And if they do, it is often just done once or twice a year. Focus the survey on the aspects most critical to employee engagement and seek this input quarterly. As we have seen in 2020, the landscape can change in an instant, so it is important to receive timely and relevant measures of engagement.

3. LISTEN TO THE FEEDBACK AND ACT ON IT: All too often, employee satisfaction or engagement surveys do not lead to meaningful action. Or if they do, employees do not hear about it. It is critical to create a process to consistently communicate results, findings, and action plans to staff, and (most importantly) follow through on those action plans. Additionally, all feedback does not have to be received from surveys. Create safe environments and forums for employees to provide feedback, both confidentially as well as publicly.

4. ACT ON “LOW HANGING FRUIT” QUICKLY: Following up to #3, leaders will find opportunities to make some quick changes from the feedback they receive. If employees see that their feedback matters and is turning into actions that make a difference, they will be more involved, and organizations will gain momentum for longer-term, more complicated initiatives.

One size does not fit all, so while the following section will outline some key findings and recommendations for driving greater employee engagement, organizations need to understand how this applies to them specifically. A structured approach, as outlined above, lays the foundation for “getting it right.”

Four Drivers of Employee Engagement

Recent research has revealed several key areas that organizations should focus on in 2021. It goes without saying that a global pandemic and social unrest has changed the way employees and organizations are experiencing their work lives. Organizations have had to shift how they service their customers, and employees have had to shift how, where, and when they work. While many, or even most, of the below should always be top of mind when thinking about employee engagement, they take on special meaning and importance in the current climate. Below
is information about each of the four drivers of employee engagement, and some examples of how to bring them to life at any organization.

1. DIVERSITY, EQUITY, INCLUSION (DEI): The Qualtrics research found that DEI (as well as overall corporate social responsibility) is one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement. Employees are watching (and listening) to how their companies react to the highly charged issues that have publicly affected so many in the last year. They want to have a “sense of pride in the company’s efforts to have a positive impact on the world.” When employees believe in what their company is doing, they will want to be active participants in those efforts. As we found through our insightful discussions with Nordstrom, Hilton, and Groupon, the companies most successful in integrating employees into their strategies, and therefore able to drive engagement, all have one thing in common: they are clear in their mission and they work hard to weave it into the fabric of their organization. This article published by Glassdoor highlights several companies, such as Salesforce and Slack, who not only support external organizations, but have robust programs which involve internal employees in improving DEI within their organizations. For example, Salesforce launched their Racial Equality and Justice Task Force to help drive systemic change within their own workplace and among their community. Employees from the company were invited to participate to help forge their vision. Slack created a program called Rising Tides which is devoted to investing in emerging leaders. It is a six-month program for talented and diverse high performers who have historically lacked access to this type of support.

2. SENSE OF BELONGING: A feeling of belonging is intricately linked to DEI and corporate responsibility. But being “included” does not necessarily equate to a sense of belonging. The Qualtrics research showed the strong correlation between belonging and overall engagement. They found that 20% of employees who feel they do not belong are engaged, versus 91% of those who feel they do — a 3.X difference. This same research also found four key factors that influence peoples’ sense of belonging:

  • “I am proud of this company’s effort to have a positive impact on the world.” (as explained in #1 above)
  • “There is open and honest communication at this company.”
  • “I feel like a valued member of my team.”
  • “I feel supported in my efforts to adapt to organizational changes.”

Creating a sense of belonging for employees has never been more important than it is now. Cecilia Herbert, Experience Management Scientist with Qualtrics, says it best when she says, “We all know what it feels like to belong, or to fit in with others. Feeling like you can be your unique and authentic self at work and connected to those around you fulfills our core need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships with others.”

Feelings of isolation are magnified in our current environment, so organizations need to create safe spaces for employees to interact and build relationships. This can be done with things as simple as book clubs, weekly “virtual” lunches, or special projects that support broader DEI or other initiatives. Involving employees in key decisions also gives staff a sense of purpose and belonging. For example, when Southwest Airlines was changing uniforms, they involved employees in that process over the course of many months. Once the decision was made, they felt a sense of pride about it and, most importantly, felt part of the solution.

3. EMPLOYEE WELLBEING: Once again, the Qualtrics research found close correlation between belonging and wellbeing. In fact, their data showed that people who feel like they belong are three times as likely to have a sense of wellbeing. It is understandable that when organizations ensure employees feel safe, secure, and supported, they demonstrate a higher level of care and commitment to their work. In addition to belonging, there are many factors that influence employees’ wellbeing such as:

  • Confidence and trust in leadership —This is always critical, but especially in times of disruption. When employees follow their leaders with confidence and certainty about the direction of the company and the decisions it is making, they will be more engaged. Most importantly, all levels of leadership must lead from a place of empathy and compassion.
  • Communication / change management — Communication and change management are drivers of trust in leadership. Consistent and transparent communication instills trust in leadership and fosters a “we are in this together” mindset.
  • Work-life balance — With a large remote workforce, employees are more “connected” than ever before. This
    is causing “burn out” for many who struggle to balance (or separate) their work lives from their personal lives. Flexible schedules and “enforced” vacation time (even if not traveling anywhere) can help. Additionally, creating “non work” virtual activities, or “digital detox” days (as one organization calls it) are all ways to foster a more balanced approach to our new normal.
  • Adequate tools to be successful — Most employees want to do a good job. And when their tools (or lack thereof) hold them back, it is at minimum de-motivating, and at worst incredibly stressful. With much of the workforce shifting to a work-from-home (WFH) environment almost overnight, this has been a struggle for many. Given that many organizations maintain at least some level of WFH staff, providing adequate tools is even more important.
  • Recognition / appreciation – It is important to continue with recognition programs. Small but frequent rewards can go a long way, especially when presented in a public forum. When people feel appreciated, they are motivated to keep working hard for their leadership and their company.
  • Feeling “heard” – Soliciting employee feedback and measuring their level of engagement is one piece of the puzzle. But as mentioned earlier, the key is acting on it and communicating about those actions.
  • Access to support resources – With the challenges of the past year, employees need more support than ever. Leaders need to recognize the level of stress their staff are under and make resources available to help them. This could be in the form of counseling, financial services help, or providing access to fitness and wellness programs.

4. LEARNING, DEVELOPMENT, AND GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: Once again, this is always a driver of employee engagement, and McKinsey’s research found that promotional opportunities account for 14% of an employee’s satisfaction, and of course promoting high performers from within sends the message that good performance will be rewarded. Beyond that though, employees respond positively when organizations invest in their development. This can be in the form of “formal” internal training and upskilling opportunities, but can also be offered more creatively via external webinars, special sessions with an industry expert, and specific reading material or podcasts of interest for the employee. Structured mentorship programs, “career coaches,” or shadowing opportunities are becoming more popular as well. Most importantly though is taking a genuine interest in the career goals of employees. This requires effective managers with structured goal planning capabilities and effective feedback mechanisms. Employees generally know what their gaps are but need support in understanding how to close those gaps. They also need their strengths to be reinforced so they understand where their skills can be optimized. Ongoing and consistent feedback from their managers is a key component, but 360-degree feedback from peers and other managers provides an even broader perspective.

The power of engaged employees should not be underestimated. Industry research and, more importantly, employees, are telling us that it will be a key differentiator for many organizations in 2021 and beyond.

Notice that none of the key drivers mentioned above included “pay.” While pay is always important, engaged employees are focused on more than their paycheck. They want to be a part of something. They want to feel that their work matters and has value. Twenty-twenty was difficult, but one of the silver linings that came out of it was the emphasis placed on culture, purpose, social responsibility, inclusion, wellbeing, and growth. The key is to take the learnings from 2020, understand what they mean for an organization and its employees, and take action to make a real difference for the entire team in 2021.


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