A prominent topic for many of us involved in employee communications is engagement. Engagement has become a proxy for everything from evaluating the effectiveness of internal communications to assessing the psyche of contemporary workers. For the past few years, the news about employee engagement has been mostly negative, with the economic downturn making working conditions tougher than ever and employees feeling increasingly overworked and disillusioned. That may be changing. With the global economy slowing improving it appears employee engagement is also slowly turning the corner. Indeed, recent global surveys show some positive trends in employee engagement, with several studies showing slight improvements in overall engagement. Still, the picture is far from idyllic. Despite pockets of improvement there is still a stubborn, sizeable minority of passive or actively disengaged workers; Aon Hewitt puts this at 4 out of 10 workers. And the gap between the best companies (with the most engaged and productive employees) and the global norms is still substantial.

One implication of the economic recovery is that the pendulum will shift towards employees to a “seller’s market” for talent, and global firms will face a mass talent exodus as labor market conditions improve. Hay Group, for example, expects considerable turnover in coming years, predicting a global average annual staff turnover of 25 percent. Beyond the engagement trends, it’s interesting to see the major research/consulting firms striving to refine their models and further close the loop from engagement to productivity…and how fixing the former will impact positive outcomes.

Gallup, for example, uses a core 12-question survey that measures engagement and identifies key engagement levers. But the real value comes after the diagnosis. Once the data are collected and analyzed, Gallup works with clients to improve engagement levels in order to drive critical business outcomes – such as productivity, profitability, retention, safety incidents, and absenteeism – and encourages companies to track correlation and progress over time.

The folks at Hay go one step further. They focus not just on engagement (which they define as commitment to the organization, notably loyalty, and willingness to provide discretionary effort) but also enablement (or helping productive workers to actually do more, not just think about it.) This metric seeks to identify and address the barriers that prevent companies from unlocking the full potential of their best employees, or to turn motivation into productivity and outcomes. I think this is an important improvement to their formula. In my career, I’ve witnessed too many examples of star employees willing to do more but frustrated by prosaic issues like IT limitations, illogical processes or stifling bureaucracy.

Aon Hewitt has also refined its approach and aims to help organizations go beyond diagnosis of engagement to identifying and facilitating desired behaviors. As they put it; A finer point must be put on that core engagement question. Leaders must ask themselves not only “what do employees need in order to be engaged?” but also “what behaviors are we asking them to engage in? Without those clear answers and specific directives, even the best workers are likely to perform below their intent or potential.

Whatever their approach, it’s good to see these consulting firms apply their considerable intellectual capital to adjust and improve their approach to employee engagement. But the innovation and refinement needs to be sustained and shared across the industry. In that spirit, I suggest extending our approach on engagement even further to include additional research variables and outcomes:

  • Advocacy: Though some firms (like Aon) consider employee advocacy in their formula, I would argue that measuring and facilitating employee advocacy – both internal and external – should be a higher priority for organizations. At minimum, there is opportunity to use social media analytics to develop more sophisticated, real-time evaluation of the extent and intensity of this advocacy.
  • Influentials: A cursory glance at social media developments confirms the importance of identifying, monitoring and engaging with those select few who are most influential in their relevant community and drive opinion and action. If this is such an important and self-evident focus for external social media planning and evaluation, why not inside organizations?
  • Innovation: Encouraging innovation and IP has long been a focus for many companies, but I’ve rarely seen this be a variable featured as either a priority or desired outcome of engagement. The advent of sophisticated crowd-sourcing platforms and more informal collaboration tools not only encourage employee contributions, but provide a ready source of data on participation and outcomes. You could likely make a similar argument with employee collaboration, which is a popular buzzword in many companies but rarely facilitated or measured as a driver of engagement or positive outcome.

What other factors would you consider as part of our efforts to define and drive employee engagement?