If you’re worried about employee engagement, you’re not alone. But what does it really mean? Why is it so important for business? How do you measure it objectively? And ultimately, how do you improve it? 

Does this sound familiar?

You’re manging a successful long-standing businesses in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

But lately, things have been going downhill. Increasingly, the company figures seem to colour red. The culprit, you’ve identified, are the employees. They’re no longer doing the work.

With things as they are, you crack the whip. 9 to 5 means 9 to 5. You start checking employee internet activity, office cameras make sure everybody does what they are meant to do at any given time. Anybody who’s out of line deserves a right telling off.

The employees?

They’re not engaged AT ALL.

In their book, it’s all give, no take. They feel any attempts to have a conversation is nipped in the bud.

It’s a tough and common problem.

As managers, we often know the industry inside out. Managing staff on the other hand just comes with the job as your responsibility grows.  So here’s a question: how often do you sit down and think about what it takes to motivate employees and make sure they are engaged at work?

What is employee engagement?


Terms like employee engagement, productivity, job satisfaction are often used interchangeably. And although there is an overlap, they’re not the same thing.

So what do we mean when we talk about employee engagement?

There is a consensus that employee engagement goes beyond employee happiness and employee satisfaction. Employee engagement considers not only how an employee feels in the workplace but also how they interact and connect with the company and the job they do. It’s about workplace culture and the crucial elements that contribute to it.

80% of managers acknowledge it’s important to have engaged employees because it’s the greatest lever to business success.

80% of managers acknowledge it’s important to have engaged employees because it’s the greatest lever to business success. An engaged employee is committed to the organisation. They care and they’ll go out of their way to contribute to the organisational goals.

There’s plenty of research to back up the idea that engaged employees are more innovative, more productive and more likely to stick around.

Why is employee engagement important for business?

Gallup is the world authority on the subject of employee engagement, tracking 50 years of experience on the subject and renowned for their worldwide polls and meta-analysis.

Gallup states that disengaged employees cost U.S. organizations around $450-550 billion each year. They also claim that businesses with highly engaged staff increase their profit by 21%.

Or in other words, employee engagement is the key to activating a high performing workforce. Forbes sums it up with a quote by Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell’s Soup: “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace“. We’ll go as far as saying it’s one of the most important things you can do for the success of your business. But as a nation, we’ve got some way to go.

New Zealand employers on the whole think they’re doing pretty well, but according to Gallup’s yearly State of the Global Workplace report only a 14% of New Zealand and Australian employees care enough to move the company forward (2017). In 2021 Gallup rates that around 20% thanks to increasing employer awareness and our successful Covid-19 response. But it’s still well behind the US figures of 30-35%.

Peakon (an employee success platform) reckons a whopping 65% of employees were not connected or even actively disengaged (2020 survey with over 255,000 employee surveys analysed in NZ alone)

The question on your mind by now is likely ‘I wonder how my business is faring?‘

How to measure employee engagement?

How do you objectively measure something as intangible as employee engagement? Turns out, there’s quite a lot of research done on the subject.

Gauges like employee retention/staff turnover, absenteeism, exit interviews, safety incidents, product defects/quality issues, profitability and productivity give insight into the employee engagement state of your organisation. But they are not always straightforward to interpret.

However, combined with a well-designed survey, they can offer some excellent feedback.

Experts often consider the Gallup Q12 survey the standard. Gallup based its 12 questions on what they have identified as fundamental requirements for employee engagement. The survey questions sound simple enough (which is entirely the point), but behind every question sits insight into on the over 100,000 teams that were studied.

Setting up your own survey

But of course, it’s only a start and one of the many, many ways to probe employee engagement in your team.  There’s nothing to stop you from coming up with your own survey.

There are a few things to consider, though. To get the answers you need, you need to ask the right questions.

  • Use surveys, but don’t abuse or overuse them. Treat them as a tool, not a goal.
  • Keep it simple. Collect data that is relevant to your business. When employers ask employees to complete a survey, staff also expect those employers to do something with it. In other words: it needs to be actionable. If it’s outside your circle of influence, there’s not much point. For those same reasons, the survey questions need to be specific.
  • Use open-ended questions that cover 3 metrics:
  • Satisfaction: How happy is your employee with their job, work environment, manager, pay, etc. ?
  • Alignment: How connected does the employee feel with the values and goals of the organisation?
  • Future orientation: How does the employee see his/her future within the organisation?
  • Be aware of potential blind spots. Sometimes what’s blatantly obvious to an outsider, is a lot harder to identify from the inside.
  • Ask what the impact is you want the survey to have? Consider what action would look like?
  • Make it clear who will be responsible for the follow-up of the survey.
  • Don’t just survey the ‘footmen and -women’. It all starts at the top, so don’t neglect to ask how engaged people are at the top.

How to improve it?


Managers hold the key

The ultimate question is, of course, how to move the needle on engagement?

Obviously, there’s no simple answer. No quick fixes either. But here’s somewhere to start the journey.

Often business managers consider employee engagement an HR problem that stops at the doors of the HR office. It is without question that the HR team would be concerned about a low employee engagement score and be ready to support with training, coaching, etc.

But here’s where it gets interesting: the correlation between employee engagement and salary is nowhere near as high as people think. Interestingly, according to Gallup, the manager alone accounts for 70% of the variance in team engagement. The managers hold the key.

Considering the movables

When you consider the movables in employee engagement, a lot of it boils down to communication, connection, and purpose. Frequent meaningful conversations (I’d like to put some emphasis on ‘meaningful’) with employees are high on the list. Think coaching, constructive feedback, supporting and advocating as opposed to a me-vs-you culture, micro-managing and playing the blame-game.

Employees aren’t machines

To improve employee engagement, managers need to start thinking about his business as a group of people. Employees don’t stop being people when they walk into the office building. Treating employees as individuals makes them feel seen and more likely to go out of their way to lift the organisation. Nobody works at 100% of their game the entire time. Showing you care about employees creates a safe environment where they can bring up new ideas, try new approaches, take initiative and share their opinion constructively. The result is a business that is no longer stagnant, but strides forward.

Clarity in expectations and responsibilities

We mentioned communication earlier. Surprisingly, many employees don’t have a clear idea of what managers expect of them. What the job looks like on paper (job description) and what it actually entails are often two very different things. As a result, managers hold employees accountable for responsibilities that don’t match with their job outline. Fair and reasonable goal setting, regular catch-ups and constructive performance reviews can help with that.

Show them what they do matters

More than money, people want purpose and meaning from their work. They want to get out of bed in the morning to contribute to something that actually means something to them. When managers paint the bigger picture and make it clear how the employee’s work contributes to the team effort and overall success, people feel more engaged.

No rowing without oars

Employees often find they don’t have what they need to successfully do the job we expect them to do. I’m referring to vital information as well as tools. Even if the funds are not available, it’s important to recognise the need and to be creative with solutions.

Nurturing environment

Successful managers make sure they recognise employees for their talents and position them so they get the maximum opportunity to use it. It’s a win-win. It makes people feel successful and appreciated and at the same time the company works to its best potential.

Make employee engagement a focus of all decisions

When people join a company, they go on a journey progressing through ‘the 7 stages’: Attract-Hire-Onboard-Engage-Perform-Develop-Depart. Successful companies develop a strategy that has employee experience at the centre of this entire journey.

Most managers are aware of the need for employee engagement for his business success. But collectively we seem to be in the dark about how to achieve it.

While it makes sense for managers to be held accountable for how engaged their people are, managers themselves need the coaching and training to turn their disengaged team into one that shows up in the morning with a smile on their face.

It’s journey, for sure. But a very rewarding one, on so many levels.

If you're concerned about your employee engagement we're happy to discuss your options and whether we can help. Contact us.