What is employee engagement and why does everyone keep talking about it?

Companies that have high levels of employee engagement attract twice as much revenue as their low engagement competitors according to a Hay Group study.

Gallup, a management consulting company, suggests that high engagement workforces outperform their contemporaries by 202% on average, and to achieve these benefits US employers are spending upwards of $720 million a year on keeping their team engaged.  

So, what even is employee engagement? Why are HR managers obsessing over it and why are companies pouring money into it? 

Can Someone Please Explain What Employee Engagement Is…

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment each staff member has for their job and company. That commitment reflects how they feel their current employer serves their overall personal and career aspirations, how driven they are to contribute to the company they work for and make their employer successful, and how satisfied their personal motivators are by their roles. 

Am I willing to come in on a Saturday to see the success of the project? Not just because it is expected or forced but because I care about the company I work for, the mission we are on and I want us both to do well.

If I am motivated by purpose, autonomy or becoming an expert in my field, does my current role fulfill these needs?  

In simple terms, employee engagement is the passion and enthusiasm your workforce wakes up and carries into each day they come to work for you. 

What employee engagement is not…

Human capital management and optimization is rife with so many buzzwords. In order to ensure clarity, it helps to know what engagement is not. 

Employee engagement can take many forms but it is not the following:

  1. Job Satisfaction
  2. Employee Happiness
  3. Social Relationships with Colleagues
  4. Extrinsic Perks (Bonuses or Benefits in Kind, Gyms, Beer etc) 
  5. Extra effort derived under threat 

Now for the confusing part. Engagement does not mean the absence of the first 4 metrics.

While highly engaged workplaces do have items like satisfaction, perks, happiness and sociability do enhance performance, it does not mean these things cause increased engagement. 

For example, just because someone enjoys coming to work, has friends there and takes pleasure in what they do, does not mean they will stay late when it’s needed most or work harder because of an internal desire for collective success. 

Why is employee engagement important?

It is estimated in the UK that employee disengagement is costing $340 billion to the economy. 

Engaged employees transcend punching in and leaving with a cheque. They identify themselves with the purpose of their work and internalize the success of their projects. The personal fulfillment of aims means a greater commitment to results and achievement within each employee. 

Effectively, your employees treat your success as their own using their discretionary effort to achieve beyond the scope of their role. They give their best each and every day with the mantra of “A rising tide raises all ships”.

From an employee standpoint, gratification is attained from meaningful work. The opportunity to contribute to a cause they believe in with a team they are safe in unlocks intrinsic motivations far beyond the abilities of monetary perks. 

Would you know an engaged employee if they walked up to you?

Unfortunately, engaged employees don’t have a singular defining visible characteristic about them… aside from a ring of course. 

All jokes aside, knowing when you do or do not have engagement within the workforce is crucial to choosing strategies. While it may be obvious, it is useful to know that just because some employees can be considered engaged, does not mean they speak for everyone. 

  1. How focused are they?

Focus and attention to the overall project aims is a huge marker for engagement. Engagement typically occurs when an employee treats project and company success like it is a representation of themselves. A colleague who seemingly enjoys the challenge of delivering success and feels aligned to success is the perfect candidate for engagement.

This level of motivation and focus is rarely present for disengaged teammates. Indifference to outcomes, absent-mindedness during meetings, or eagerness to clock out without regard for success are typical identifiers for members out of alignment with their employer.

  1. Do they go above and beyond?

It is important to state that disengagement does not mean if an employee doesn’t stay late, they aren’t engaged as personal circumstances play a part. However, a solid hallmark of engagement is a willingness to commit to success using discretionary time and effort. 

When it comes to their role, how far beyond the call of duty does your team go? Do they take satisfaction from producing herculean effort, exceeding expectations, or offering a better than required customer experience?

  1. Do they proactively communicate?

As a leader, the employee who is more open and communicative is fully locked into the mission. You will notice them piping up in meetings, asking for feedback, or expressing their opinions on a variety of topics. Furthermore, they will discuss their problems with colleagues and leadership in order to proactively find a solution. 

For disengaged team members, this is rarely the case. Communication is less forthcoming and constructive. Employees are not actively looking to improve their workplace as they don’t tend to care as much about overall success. They view their role as a means to an income. 

  1. What are they like with colleagues?

Buckingham and Goodall found that being on as many as 5 teams leads to the highest engagement scores. However, what does it feel like to have an engaged teammate? 

The engaged team member is the one who supports and encourages everyone. They are not looking to only contribute their part in success. They want the whole team to thrive and will go out of their way to offer support and guidance to peers. They make the work atmosphere better for everyone else. 

  1. Are they solution providers or problem identifiers?

By offering autonomy to the team, you give each member the license to solve the problems and challenges they encounter. You empower their decision-making skills and impart trust.  

It is not imperative they take sole ownership of each problem but that the pursuit of a solution is important to them. They will discuss the issues with other members and consider a variety of solutions they find. If the team member simply packs it in and asks for the answer every time, you can be confident that their engagement is running low. 

  1. Do they take many sick days?

Sick days do need the caveat that susceptibility to illness does not mean disengagement and questioning employees certainly doesn’t help. What is noteworthy is that the number of sick days fluctuates by upwards of 40% depending on the level of engagement with engaged teams taking less days off. 

Sick days are taken for a variety of reasons beyond physical sickness. Mental anguish, workplace bullying and harassment, attending interviews and disengagement are a few of the most commonly reported reasons. A team that imbues a difficult to enjoy culture, will often witness far more absenteeism than those who would show up ill with the motivation to succeed.


While employee engagement may seem like the new fad about town in the world of HR management, it is a vital contributor to success for most enterprises. It is not just employees showing up with a smiling face, looking forward to meeting with friends, and enjoying free lunch meals. It is deeper and more personal to the individual. 

Engaged employees see themselves within the company vision and see the company within their own. As each team member ascends through Maslow’s hierarchy to achieve full potential, highly engaged employment can act as the vehicle taking them there. 

Retention, absenteeism, profitability, sales, productivity, safety, talent acquisition and innovation are among the many tangible areas impacted by employee engagement. When a company takes the right steps toward fostering engagement for the right teams, the rewards seep through every level of their workforce.

Photo by Clayton Cardinalli