March 22, 2017    |    By

How to Find Out Just How Engaged Your Employees Are and Assess Your Overall Company Culture

Forbes defines “employee engagement” as the emotional commitment an employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. An engaged employee can be thought of as absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and taking positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests.

Conversely, a disengaged worker can demoralize the team, adversely affect newly hired employees by setting an undesirable standard, and can cause productivity to plummet across the organization.

Finding out just how engaged your employees are might seem to be a very straightforward task, but doing it right, and getting actionable data, is not so straightforward.

Employee engagement is just one measure of a company’s overall culture and it is an important one because it is an excellent, and very visible indicator, of how cohesive the company or organization is. It is also an excellent indicator of productivity and profitability as stated by a recent Gallup poll which found that companies with highly engaged employees enjoyed a 20% boost to productivity and profitability as recruiting and training costs go down and retention goes up. The same study also reported that only about a third of American workers, and one tenth of global workers are truly engaged in their jobs.

There are many ways to assess engagement:

  • First-Blush interviews with new-hires
  • Survey employees periodically
  • Informally talk with employees in social settings
  • Ask managers, supervisors and other leadership
  • Ask customers and end-clients
  • Measure sign-ups for extracurricular/other activities
  • Watch social media for positive comments by employees regarding the organization
  • Evaluate internal and external correspondence
  • Track indicators of poor engagement including perhaps sick days
  • Measure the amount of work done after hours
  • Measure the amount of non-routine interaction with other staff; with outside organizations; with customers/clients
  • Exit interviews

Gallup uses their Q12 Technique (twelve questions) to assess engagement:

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • At work, my opinions seem to count.
  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • I have a best friend at work.
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  • In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

We find that these questions are an excellent starting point for a survey about engagement and how you deliver these questions matters.  People are more inclined to answer 4-5 questions that pop up on their mobile phone at lunch, rather than responding to 100 questions on their laptop/desktop.   And, yes, there are apps for that.

Today’s workers expect their employer to keep them happy at work and they want to be part of something larger than themselves.  When those things are in place, today’s employees are likely to be engaged.

Measuring Employee Engagement Without Surveys

But what if surveys are not utilized at your workplace, perhaps because they have provided limited, actionable information.  Aside from the earlier list of collection methods, there are other ways to get this information:

  • Look at written correspondence
  • Talk to employees one-on-one, preferably not at performance-review time
  • Look at involvement across staffs and across organizations
  • Interview colleagues, direct reports and peers

But there is no “cook book” methodology for doing this.  The information needs to be gathered and reviewed by trained HR and other managers who understand how to motivate employees and measure attitudes.

Assessing Internal Correspondence for Existing Communication Patterns

Look for emails, tweets and messages that tie together other parts of the organization.  Look for offers to go beyond the basics expected of that employee.

And there is more to this than just the quantity of correspondence: Watch for the tone of the correspondence – – – is it friendly and helpful or coldly professional.   Warm usually means more engagement.

Also, think about how you are collecting the internal messages, emails, etc.  Are you violating the employees’ expectations of privacy, however misplaced? Disclosure of the collection itself could actually drive down engagement if it is considered overly intrusive.

Reflective Meetings with Middle and Upper Management

Employees often say they feel more engaged with their organization when they get to spend more one-on-one time with their managers. It does seem reasonable that the more meaningful conversations a person has with their supervisor, the more they will feel a part of that organization. But there are two sides to this story and they must both be examined: The supervisor’s portrayal of those conversations with the employee, and the employee’s impression of that same chat.

Any private conversation between employees and bosses should always end with the boss asking, “What can we do to make you feel more a part of this organization?”  And that information needs to go into a central database where HR and senior leadership periodically review the unvarnished opinions of their workers.  They will almost always find that employees want coaches, not bosses, and they want resources to do their work, and opportunities to excel. Managers who provide those things will have engaged employees.

Tracking and Measuring Staff Sick Days and Time Sheets

Organizations often are tempted to track and measure employees’ sick days as an indicator of engagement.  For example, one company was annoyed to find that employees were apparently taking Fridays and Mondays as sick days so they could enjoy three-day weekends. But when asked what percentage of employees called in sick on Mondays or Fridays, the HR department responded that 20% of the people had called in sick on Fridays and roughly 20% had called in sick on Mondays. Statistically speaking, this is exactly what we would expect to find with employees who are sick on random days since Mondays occupy 20% of the workweek, as do Fridays and every other workday in a five-day week! This company had no misuse of sick days, at least not evidenced by this data collection.

The other caution to bear in mind when evaluating sick day usage involves individuals: Parents sometimes takes sick days when a child is sick and must stay at home and there is no babysitter available. Employees sometimes take sick days when a major project is due in a training class they are taking at night or on weekends.  So don’t just assume sick days equate to poor engagement.

The intricacies of using time sheet data to measure engagement are beyond the scope of this article. It can be done but you had better know what you are doing or you will get gibberish for results.

Measure the Amount of Work Completed Outside of Office Hours

In years past, a company could measure engagement by looking at the amount of work completed outside of normal office hours. But that is not as easy to do now since employees work non-continuous hours in many cases, telecommuting is common, and casual overtime is the norm.  Organizations still find that a project requiring a great deal of evening and weekend time, when the employee is also working a conventional daytime shift, is a good indicator of engagement. Another reasonable measure is the number of messages and emails either initiated or responded-to outside of the employee’s normal work hours.  Lots of these connections and exchanges can indicate high engagement.

Measure Interactions with Other Staff that Are not in the Same Team

The number and quality of interactions an employee has with colleagues outside their immediate circle is usually a reliable indicator of engagement.  But care must be taken to compare the individual’s numbers with the average numbers of other people in that same organization.  And numbers should not be compared across-departments due to the number of complex dynamics at work (types of communication, sensitivity of information such as HIPAA data and legal data, for example).

Engagement typically decreases as the number of large meetings increases: Sitting in meetings with 20 or more people seems to have a demoralizing effect on many employees. This is possibly because it is difficult to express yourself adequately in front of such a large group due to the possibility of embarrassment plus just the lack of time when so many people are involved in a conversation.   People like to work where their opinions are heard and their advice is taken.

Measure Participation in Unplanned Meetings or Ad Hoc collaboration sessions

An employee’s participation in unplanned meetings or pop-up sessions also indicates engagement. But this is an area where the details really matter: Too many ad hoc meetings and unplanned brainstorming sessions can annoy employees, especially those engaged in activities that require time to think.  The result is sometimes less engagement overall!

Conversely, an employee’s refusal to participate in frequent pop-up meetings may just be frustration at what is seen as poor planning by the meeting organizers.  Clearly though, some reasonable involvement in sporadic, ad hoc meetings is a good indicator of engagement.

Track How Frequently Staff Go Above and Beyond Scope to Keep a Customer Happy

There are apocryphal stories of employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in order to take care of the client. The one most often told involves Nordstrom in New York City where an elderly lady told a salesclerk she would like to return four car tires. The salesclerk could not seem to convince the lady that Nordstrom didn’t even sell tires, and so she could not possibly have bought them there. The lady refused to back down on her insistence for a refund so the salesclerk called in the department manager who asked the lady when she had bought the tires. The customer responded that it had been some years and she didn’t remember the exact date. To the salesclerk’s surprise, the manager then asked how much she paid for the tires and was told it was about $100 per tire.  The manager handed the lady four $100 bills and apologized for the inconvenience. That department manager was engaged.  It turns out there had been a tire store on that same corner many years ago, where the lady had bought the tires.  And that story, true or not, has given Nordstrom’s corporate image a boost like nothing else could have!

Your organization’s awards system can also be a great indicator of engagement.  How many employees are being “caught doing something right” or whatever your team calls its “above and beyond” awards that one employee can nominate another for recognition?

When employees are defending the organization to clients, going the extra step to protect the team’s reputation, or “bending the rules” to please a client (a la Nordstrom’s), they are showing engagement.

Measuring Employee Engagement With Surveys

Surveys are a common tool for measuring lots of things about people and behavior as people like to be asked how to improve things. Every employee engagement assessment toolkit should employ surveys but they should not be employed cavalierly nor should they be the only tool used. We have found that surveys should be a combination of scales, where the employee provides their opinion along a sliding scale from bad to good, plus a free-text area where employees can provide ideas for improvement and suggestions to management.

How we interpret questions, the things that we sometimes read into questions (that were not put there by the authors), the filters through which we see things, all determine how we answer those questions. Survey questions can inadvertently shape responses: the use of can as opposed to could and other seemingly unimportant word choices, can skew the results of surveys to the point of making them useless for determining something as hard to determine as employee engagement. Our advice is to use professionally crafted survey tools and professionally authored questions.

Lastly, be sure to publish the results of your surveys, at least at the top level of findings.  People want to see what others thought and to compare their opinions to their colleagues’. Not publishing the results causes people to question management’s motivations in doing the survey to begin with, and/or the actual results of the surveys (“Wow, management is sure quiet after that survey – – – wonder what THOSE results showed, that they are afraid to tell us???”).

The Importance of Anonymous Response Opportunities

Always tell the employee, up front, what data you are collecting, why you are collecting it and how it will be used. State that you will only use the survey responses for the purpose of gauging employee engagement, to make the workplace more enjoyable and to lower turnover rates.

Almost without exception, employees will be more likely to provide open, honest, straightforward answers if the survey is anonymous. People do not want to have their answers to questions attributed to them and provided to managers who might take offense and seek retribution against the employee. The exception might be to provide an attributable survey as well, so that employees who want to speak with management about their opinions can actually do so. But this should be the exception, not the default position for your surveys. Most surveys should be anonymous.

There is one school of thought that detailed surveys should be done in hard copy so they are completely untraceable to the responder. Electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops and tablets, while providing an easy way to respond to questions posed, provide no anonymity. Everything electronic leaves digital breadcrumbs.

The Optimal Length for Employee Feedback Surveys

The time people spend answering a survey’s questions is inversely correlated with the number of total questions in that survey.  In other words, the more questions there are, the less time people will spend on each question. So, to get the responder to give us the most thoughtful response, we would just ask a single question, right?  Well . . . yes . . . but then we wouldn’t get much info at all, would we, with only a single question being asked on the survey.  Survey Monkey studied this and their results are here:

In years’ past, people would spend 10-15 min completing a quarterly employee survey of 30-40 questions: Now, on a mobile device, it is 5 minutes, tops! So, to get a reasonable “pondering time” of 20 seconds per question, we suggest asking no more than 15 questions total.  Longer surveys sometimes anger people and skew their responses negatively!

But an annual or biennial survey, designed to measure employee engagement/satisfaction, and used to then prioritize HR initiatives and measure employee contentment, could have 35-45 questions and require 15 minutes before you risk “survey fatigue”.

The Optimal Frequency for Employee Feedback Surveys

We want employees to conclude the organization cares as least as much about its performance in engaging the employee as it cares about assessing that employee’s performance against the organization’s standards of performance/behavior.  Some HR teams want to survey at least twice as often as the annual performance reviews.  But the average frequency is annually, with 1-2 “pulse” surveys in the interim, as new projects/initiatives warrant.

How to Structure Survey Questions

Look at Gallup’s questions, don’t just “wing it”. Humans are complex and you may get worthless answers, in units like furlongs per fortnight.

Your surveys should be a mix of Likert-type scale statements and open-ended questions. This lets busy people quickly check the scales/dots and lets others write a few lines.

Sequence matters: Start with macro issues first, then get more and more specific as the survey proceeds. This follows the way most people like to address issues – – – high level first, then more detailed.

Types of Information You Should be Collecting

This is going to depend greatly on the industry you are in, the ages of your workers, the country and state where you are based (think lawyers here) and what you will do with the data. There are firms that specialize in this kind of data collection and number crunching. Consider getting a professional team to oversee your engagement measurement activities.

Plan to collect opinions on how to do things better, how specific initiatives are going, and precise opinions about individual corporate policies. But the real value will come from questions about the degree to which the employees share the values and culture of the organization. See Gallup’s Q12 series, earlier in this post.

How to Assess the Feedback Collected

First, be sure to crunch the numbers and assess the data quickly. Pondering over it for three months will render it stale and less-than-ideal data upon which to base opinions. And it will make employees wonder why you had to massage the data so long! Consider how the collected data, and your findings, track with customer-churn and employee retention numbers?  Do the things you think would correlate actually move together? If so, you may have found useful indicators of employee engagement.

Compare your data to similar collections done in the same department, but at different times. See if there are trends. For example, does the engagement score drop at your Syracuse, NY-based firm in November-March? If so, it could be the drab, dismal weather that makes everyone sadder and meaner during those months!

Compare your data to that from other departments, if available. And compare it to other firms in your industry. Look up studies done by reputable firms and compare their findings to yours.

Lastly, be sure that the data collected is fair and accurate and then deliver the employee feedback, along with your assessment of what it means, to line-managers directly.  That’s who the employees see most often and who they expect will care about their level of engagement.

If you want management to be fully committed to employee engagement, there is one proven way to do it:  Once your organization’s metrics are established (you know what you will measure and how), and after a year of measuring engagement and tweaking the process for better effectiveness, make employee engagement one of the key performance indicators for each manager to get his/her bonus!  That will get everyone’s attention!

Make a great first impression at your next job interview.

This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created between the author and reader of this blog post, and its content should not be relied upon as legal advice. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel when seeking legal advice.