What is Employee Engagement? And How Can You Improve it?

Stuart Sinclair - November 30, 2020

So, what is employee engagement? And why do you need a definition? Because employee engagement is more far complex than simply ensuring your employees are happy and satisfied.

Happiness is definitely part of the formula for successful employee engagement, but there are many other elements to consider as well. For example, a happy employee can cheerfully turn up to work and get on with the tasks of their job, but still put not put any extra effort into their role, or care about the overall success of the company. You need your employees to feel an emotional commitment to the business and its goals. This is one of the key drivers of employee engagement.

In addition, every business will have different requirements from their employees. Some may be going through a period of rapid growth and need staff to feel motivated and involved in the change taking place around them. Others may have multiple teams working across the organisation and require a close understanding and cooperation between these disparate sets of employees.

In short, employee engagement isn’t just a one-size-fits-all blueprint. It’s a formula that needs to be adapted and personalised to suit the unique needs of your organisation. In this blog, we take a deep dive into the definition of employee engagement and explore some of the key employee engagement definitions that have been proposed. We then consider practical ways to improve employee engagement across your workforce. Build some of these into your internal communications strategy and you’ll see an immediate upturn in engagement levels.

Find out how an employee engagement app can play a pivotal role in delivering an employee engagement strategy

7 definitions of employee engagement

Employee engagement is a term most business leaders are familiar with, but one which is remarkably difficult to define. Almost every article, organisation or individual has a slightly different angle on what the employee engagement definition might be, and employee engagement trends have differed over time. And from inconsistency comes confusion not only about what employee engagement is, but what businesses expect it to deliver in practice. Considering that employee engagement is so often considered essential to producing a motivated, focused workforce, getting to grips with this concept is vital for boosting your business to the next level.

1. The original definition

Let’s start at the very beginning. In 1990, at the birth of the notion, academic William Kahn defined the employee engagement meaning as:


“The harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles.”

In essence, Kahn appears to be defining a clear link between the role of the employee, and their personal perception of self. Harnessing, or achieving this link was a perfect opportunity for business to generate improved employee engagement. The best methods for achieving this, however, remained a little more ambiguous, and this remains one of the core dimensions of employee engagement.

2. The ‘well-being’ definition

The next attempt to conquer the idea came from a big player in the world of business stats: Gallup. According to Gallup, engaged employees were considered:


“Those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Gallup categorizes workers as "engaged" based on their responses to key workplace elements it has found (to) predict important organizational performance outcomes.”

The three core elements that make up this staff engagement definition are that employees should be involved, enthusiastic and committed. This builds on the initial definition purported by Kahn and offers more tangible ideas to help employers engage their teams. In addition to proposing a definition for employee engagement, Gallup has also worked to define ‘well-being’ in a wider sense; a concept which is important in the workplace. The results state that there are five essential elements of well-being which need to be met:

  • Social - having supportive relationships
  • Purpose - liking what you do each day, and finding motivation to achieve your goals
  • Financial - managing your economic life in order to increase security and reduce stress
  • Community - feeling safe and having a sense of pride in your community
  • Physical - having good health, and enough energy to get things done

Though the results can be applied to any area of life, they become particularly interesting when you apply them to Gallup’s ideas regarding employee engagement theory. By implementing these ideas into the working space, Gallup seems to be implying, you can increase employee engagement across your team, offering extensive benefits for all parties involved.

3. The ‘extra mile’ definition

These notions of involvement, enthusiasm and commitment are central to engagement, according to Gallup. This is a viewpoint that many commentators would agree with, including Professor John Purcell. As a leading authority on people management and employment relations, and academic adviser to ACAS, he knows a thing or two about engagement. He expands Gallup’s idea with his employee engagement meaning, stating that:


“Engagement is a combination of attitude and behaviour. The attitude is ‘commitment’, and the behaviour is ‘going the extra mile’”

It’s interesting how Purcell adds an extra dimension to the theory by suggesting that engaged employees ‘go the extra mile’. This seems to be referring to the importance of employee advocacy, and is an action that combines both an enthusiasm for the work and a commitment to getting the job done; both of which are major bonuses to both employee and employer.

4. The ‘workplace’ definition

A major milestone in the establishment of employee engagement in mainstream business thinking was the 2009 MacLeod Report ‘Engaging for Success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement’.

In this report, MacLeod and Clarke are placing responsibility for improving engagement on the shoulders of employers, seemingly suggesting that it is the responsibility of the workplace to ensure that this ideal atmosphere is curated and maintained. Once these guidelines are in place, they seem to be saying, the engagement will follow as a natural next step. In the report, the provide the definition for employee engagement as:

“A workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.”

Once again, MacLeod is placing responsibility on the employer to boost engagement, adjusting the existing definition to a more leader-centric employee engagement model. He also appears to be suggesting that encouraging employee engagement offers benefits for both employee and employer. The employer will enjoy a more motivated, productive workforce, with every member of the team working and striving towards a common goal. The employee, on the other hand, enjoys a boosted sense of well-being, a notion of purpose, and a feeling that they are part of a greater communal goal.

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5. The ‘employee experience’ definition

There has been a great deal of observation on the definition of employee engagement, much of which has placed the emphasis has been on what the employee must do, and less on why they should do it. Just why is employee engagement important? Can it really offer substantial benefits to your business? Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage, seems to believe so. He says in an article for the Harvard Business Review:


“When organisations make real gains, it’s because they’re thinking longer-term. They’re going beyond what engagement scores are telling them to do in the moment and redesigning employee experience, creating a place where people want, not just need, to work each day.”

6. The ‘personal’ definition

If you have any doubt about whether your colleagues share your definition of employee engagement, just ask them: “What is employee engagement?” Chances are high that there will be no single, unifying response.

This proved true when we tried asking for a simple definition of employee engagement from our colleagues. Two fascinating responses stood out for us. A highly respected HR Director (admittedly put on the spot in a classic ‘ten seconds in a lift’ moment) suggested:

“Employee engagement is the permanent on-going conversation with every employee, and their actions and behaviours.”

As one might expect for an HR Director at the top of her game, her focus was on the conversation. In contrast, an experienced engineer at a major utilities company believed it was about his behaviours and attitudes, with the emphasis on him as an employee to do the engaging. It is clear that any employee engagement initiatives need to take varying personal viewpoints into consideration.

7. ‘Probably the best’ definition

Of all the employee engagement definitions, this simple statement from David MacLeod is probably the best:


“(Employee engagement) is about how we create the conditions in which employees offer more of their capability and potential.”

This definition for employee engagement is so important because it puts the onus fair and square on the employer to create the right environment, not the employee to do all the legwork. This shift of responsibility requires an employer to take on the tasks of promoting, creating and sustaining engagement, not just instigating it.

It is perhaps this misunderstanding of engagement as an employee-led process that is causing so many employees to be disengaged for so much of their working lives. Altering the paradigm to place the responsibility on the shoulders of employers as opposed to employees can have transformative results. Crucially, it shows the impact of leadership on employee engagement.

10 ways to improve employee engagement

 So, how do you go about creating your own unique definition of employee engagement? Over the years, Talkfreely have delivered employee engagement solutions for a myriad of national and international companies. In doing so, we have identified the 10 key elements that increase employee engagement. Take a look at the list below and consider which of these are best aligned to your business goals.

employee engagement elements 1000

#1 Change

Goal: Your employees feel part of the change, not subject to it.

In any company, change is inevitable. At some point, there will be a need to change organisational methods, structure, technologies or strategies. There may be an office move required, or even a company takeover. A period of change is often a taxing time for employees, with over half reporting increased stress levels. This is one of the main barriers to employee engagement.

The key to success is ensuring that your employees feel actively involved in shaping the future.

#2 Advocacy

Goal: Your employees actively promote your organisation through a genuine belief.

What your employees share about their working day, new initiatives and company developments via their social media profiles and networking events is instantly credible. A successful employee advocacy programme will organically increase web traffic, boost social media engagement, gain contacts on LinkedIn and generate new hires and sales leads.

When it’s working well, you’ll find employees are your most authentic brand ambassadors.

#3 Improvement / Innovation

Goal: Your employees can see the value they have contributed to the organization.

If your employees are challenged by new tasks and encouraged to think creatively, it will dramatically boost engagement levels. Take employee ideas seriously. Turn promising ones into active projects and keep the workforce updated on progress. An employee app offers built-in modules to encourage innovation and idea generation.

A workplace centred on improvement and innovation will be a highly engaged environment.

30 ideas to engage your employees and transform your business.

#4 Experience

Goal: Your employees have an overall feeling of satisfaction, fulfilment and daily enjoyment.

It’s one of the key employee engagement best practices. Employee experience can be summed as anything that impacts upon an employee’s experience of the organisation they work for. This includes the company’s vision and values, how it treats customers, employee policies, on-boarding processes and the company culture, to name just a few.

In order to address experience, the logical starting point is to map out the entire employee journey.

#5 Alignment

Goal: Your employees understand and buy into the vision, values and goals of your organisation.

Walking the talk, living the values, all aiming at the same goals: these all are daily proof that employees are truly engaged with the company at a fundamental level. Note the need for understanding. Otherwise goals become sales targets and values become merely rules. This should be at the heart of your employee engagement strategy.

Employees may obey rules from a sense of obligation, but they are deeply engaged when they embody values.

#6 Peer to Peer Relationships

Goal: Your employees feel strong bonds of camaraderie and loyalty with their peers.

Promoting positive peer relationships is one the key employee engagement ideas that will really make a difference. Employees with friends at work who regularly celebrate their contributions and achievements are more likely to love their job. They are even more likely to love the company they work for. Employee engagement software provides easily accessible social spaces for networking and peer interaction.

Quite simply, work friendships increase job satisfaction. Your ultimate aim is to create a sense of belonging.

#7 Team Relationships

Goal: Your employees are kept informed with strong, clear lines of communication.

When it comes to keeping remote workers engaged, you need to step up your game. If your organisation includes geographically and departmentally disperse groups of employees, you’ll need to implement a systematic approach to team relationships. The key is to eliminate information silos, where information isn’t shared between departments or divisions. Try gathering your information into an accessible central hub. An employee app will provide a built-in module for this purpose.

Embrace a culture of communication and support for cross-departmental work. In short, get people talking.

#8 Retention

Goal: Your employees want to stay and progress within your organisation.

Employee engagement and retention are closely linked. Retaining skilled employees is critical to the success of your company. Retention results from successful employee engagement and in turn supports the on-boarding and engagement of future employees. It enables relationships to develop and flourish and for teams to bond and co-operate more easily.

Your organisation can only move forward with a skilled and experienced team in place.

#9 Recognition

Goal: Your employees are recognised for their achievements and contributions.

Ultimately, people want to feel good about the work they do. Employee recognition and reward does more than acknowledge contributions. It sets new higher standards, builds confidence, reaffirms status and rewards skills and innovation alike. Consider implementing employee engagement software that harnesses the power of recognition.

Implement both managerial and peer recognition to make it easy for employees to see how their contributions benefit everyone.

#10 Leadership Visibility

Goal: Your employees see that all senior management are active, involved, approachable and engaged.

In larger organisations, the senior managers can often become distant figureheads. But, handled correctly, senior leadership should play a significant role in defining the culture and direction of a company. Their attitude and approach is a powerful influencer. This should be one of your top employee engagement objectives.

Remember employee engagement applies across your entire organisation, bottom to top, side to side. Leaders are employees too, after all.

So now, when you’re asked, “what is employee engagement?”, you’ll not just have an answer. You’ll also have practical ideas and strategies for improving it within your organisation.

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