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Employee Engagement Theory: Tips for Success

Employee Engagement
August 12, 2021
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Gallup Europe’s State of the Global Workplace report found that the UK and Europe have the lowest employee engagement levels (11%) compared to the rest of the world. Although it may seem rather intuitive as to why employee engagement should be a top priority within an organisation, unraveling the employee engagement theory provides for deeper insight as to how to accomplish this endeavour, as well as the value it adds to a business of any size. 

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In this article, we will cover employee engagement theories and models and touch on how to improve employee engagement. 

What is Employee Engagement Theory?

The employee engagement theory was developed by psychologist William Kahn during the 1990s. 

The gist of the employee engagement theory is that each individual member within a company must be fully invested and interested in their work so that they contribute their personal best efforts to accomplish the company’s strategic goals. 

Sure, it may seem like common sense, but once we go further, we will see how employee engagement differs from common notions like job satisfaction and employee commitment (which all too often get used interchangeably). 

One of the main factors of the employee engagement theory is that devising this type of workplace culture relies on a two-way street involving both the employer and employee. Employers must adequately express their expectations with their employees and support an environment in which employees feel empowered and equipped to fulfill their duties.

What are the Dimensions of Employee Engagement?

By breaking down employee engagement into three dimensions, Khan’s theory can be applied in practice. 

The basic components of employee engagement consist of: 

1. Physical Engagement

This refers to how employees extend their physical and mental capabilities to fulfill their job responsibilities. 

2. Cognitive Engagement

Cognitive engagement encompasses how an employee understands their role as part of the bigger picture to derive the meaning and value they bring to the business. 

3. Emotional Engagement

An employee’s emotional engagement measures how much they trust and believe in the company’s values and missions (the more they are aligned with the company’s mission, the more engaged they tend to be). 

Why is Employee Engagement Important?

Perhaps the most important reason why employee engagement should be a top priority is because employee engagement is closely related to workers’ wellbeing. When people show up to work and actually are aligned with the purpose that they are meant to serve, their satisfaction and overall feelings about their life improve. 

To exemplify, 51% of European workers who felt disengaged reported feelings of stress, whereas only 31% of engaged employees share those sentiments. Clearly, employee engagement affects a human’s physical and mental health. And, vice versa. 

If an employee is experiencing defeat, sadness, or stress (personally or professionally), then they probably won’t be too focused on their work. As an HR leader, it’s virtually impossible to track the ever changing situations and sentiments of every team member at all times without the aid of technology.

A wellbeing platform can provide you with this insight on a consistent basis so you will know where to allocate resources to improve your team’s health and mental state of mind, thereby positively impacting employee engagement levels. 

Furthermore, it’s been shown that higher levels of employee engagement will result in stronger performance. The research also concluded that employees who feel more engaged have more positive perceptions of their own strengths, resilience, and self-efficacy. 

This finding helps to explain why employees who feel engaged have more confidence in their ability, and therefore, can produce better outcomes for the business overall. 

What Theories are Related to Engagement Theory?

As alluded to before, employee engagement is often used as a synonym for job satisfaction, employee empowerment, and employee commitment. While all of these elements are pivotal in creating and sustaining a pleasant work environment, there are nuances between the terms. 

Let’s unravel what they each mean individually: 

What is Job Satisfaction?

Job satisfaction is about ensuring that employees feel happy at work. Unlike employee engagement, it places the onus on the employer to develop and support a work environment that makes team members feel happy. However, satisfied employees are not always intrinsically motivated to contribute their utmost best day-in and day-out. 

What is Employee Commitment?

Employee commitment refers to the bond an employee feels towards their work. It comes down to their attitude about the work they perform. Employee commitment is affected by the conditions in which they perform their work (i.e. their physical work environment, salary and benefits, location, deadlines, expectations etc.) 

What is Employee Empowerment?

Employee empowerment is also afforded by the organisation, in the sense that it relies on an employer to provide employees with the autonomy and authority to make business decisions. 

When an employee feels empowered and trusted by their employer, they are more motivated to get their job done effectively. The importance of autonomy here is that it promotes self-motivation. So, employees themselves care about accomplishing their goals, as well as the company’s goals.  

What are the Characteristics of Engaged Employees?

Let's take a look at the difference between engaged and disengaged employees.

Engaged employees truly care about doing their very own best, and so, they don’t look at their time at work as an exchange for a paycheck (or means to an end).  Instead, they wish to make an impact on the company and its mission. Again, that’s not something that can always be easily seen. 

You can begin to recognise engaged employees as those who:

  • Show up to work with the motivation to accomplish tasks and goals
  • Challenge the norms and bring innovative ideas to the table 
  • Is passionate about contributing to the company vision 
  • Actively problem solve and finds creative solutions to overcome challenges 
  • Shares how they think and feel openly with clear communication 
  • Looks for ways to improve professionally 
  • Finds joy in collaborating with team members 
  • Is open to receiving feedback 
  • Care about the costs, quality, safety, and customer service 
  • Recognise their role as part of the big picture 

Why is Corporate Culture Important for Employee Engagement?

The recurring theme that is inherent within the employee engagement theory is the shared responsibility between employer and employee. Thus, corporate culture is half of the pie. 

Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people, particularly leadership and the system conditions impacting the workforce.In an organisation that hires and supports engaged employees, a major part of the culture will be made up of people who possess self-organization, self-motivation, and self-discipline. These characteristics make employee engagement a concept that is sustainable over time. 

What Factors Drive Engagement?

Kahn’s research shared the various tenets and practices that can boost employee engagement within workplaces, including:

  • Meaningfulness: Employees must be aware of how their responsibilities and duties affect the organisation and help it to achieve its business goals. Thus, employees have a strong sense of their value, meaning, and impact. 
  • Safety: Employees must feel physically safe and emotionally safe to express their opinions, voice their needs, and share their perspective. 
  • Environment: The work environment should support an employee’s role by providing them with what they need to get their job done, as well as providing the opportunity for individual and collaborative work. 
  • Management support: The interpersonal relationship between a manager and employee can make or break a company. Managers should provide employees with support and access to resources, professional development, and the comfort to speak up should they need assistance. This is why Emotional Intelligence is such a critical skill of leadership.

How to Apply Employee Engagement Theory at Work?

We’ve touched on the general framework and attributes of the employee engagement theory. But, it’s of great value to note that individuals, especially across country borders, vary in what they require and expect to feel engaged. That’s why the most efficient way to apply the employee engagement theory within your workplace is to deeply understand what drives your people. 

To find answers, consider the use of employee surveys. Yet, keep in mind that employees sometimes answer surveys (even anonymously) with a level of bias as they might respond with what they think their management team and HR professionals “want to hear.” 

To overcome this employee wellbeing platforms can be deployed to gauge employees’ mood and overall wellbeing within the workplace. Employee self-diagnosis tools and broad data provide insights that can aid in developing a corporate culture that sustains employee engagement over time and proactively identifies problems early on. 


How to Apply Employee Engagement Theory for Remote Workers?

It goes without saying that the physical environment for many organisations is becoming less relevant as the remote working trend takes off. Employee engagement is always going to be relevant, whether your team is in an office or working from the comfort of their home. 

To tailor the employee engagement theory for remote workers, consider the following: 

  1. Leverage recognition and rewards for a job well done 
  1. Focus on leadership and utilise technology to open communication channels between management and employees 
  1. Keep your team aligned with company goals by sharing company updates, news, success stories, and strategies 
  1. Incorporate wellbeing platforms that allow employees to self-diagnose and report their emotions and provide analytics to HR teams and management 

How to Assess and Measure Employee Engagement?

Traditionally, most organisations have relied on measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) and sending out employee engagement surveys. However, as we warned before, employee engagement surveys are often filled with bias and also don’t provide real-time access to data. 

Current engagement tools do offer insights for HR, but they often result in a long to-do list for HR teams (that most HR professionals don’t have the capacity to handle). 

Instead, leveraging a wellbeing platform can combine consultancy with technology to better understand your employee’s mental health and wellbeing. The link between poor mental health, absenteeism, and lower productivity go hand-in-hand with employee engagement, so your HR team will have access to real-time data to direct business initiatives that boost engagement.

By Priscilla Du Preez from Unsplash

Engaged Employees Make All the Difference 

Since Kahn developed the employee engagement theory in the 1990s, the theory has been in effect in practice and evolved over time. With the exponential improvement of technology, organisations are able to better understand, gauge, and support higher levels of employee engagement by measuring employees’ wellbeing.

In turn, company’s can foster environments that improve engagement and reap the rewards of increased productivity, higher profits, and boosted health and wellness on behalf of their team members. 

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