Organisations have been interested in the concept of employee engagement for over 30 years. Engagement has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity, innovation, profitability, and customer services.

Employee engagement is also reported to have a positive impact on absenteeism, health and safety, retention, and employee wellbeing. As a result, engagement is a critical driver of organisational success. However, recent research by Engage for Success found that on average there was an 11% drop in engagement during the pandemic. This is a significant drop. Whilst an initial decline was to be expected, it is worrying that there has only been an average 3% increase since. This leaves our engagement levels 8% lower now than before the pandemic. So why is this important?

What is Employee Engagement?

To understand why this is a concern, it is important to consider what we mean by employee engagement. Although we know it is important, trying to define it has been problematic. Whilst there is no agreed definition of engagement, the general focus is on how employees feel about their work. The emphasis is on organisations defining what engagement means to them through discussion with employees. However, this can make it challenging for many organisations who may not have the resources to do so or know where to begin.

To help address the lack of understanding around engagement, BEIS commissioned David MacLeod OBE and Nita Clarke OBE to explore what we mean by employee engagement and examine what highly engaged organisations were doing. The MacLeod Report (2009) was presented to the UK Government establishing the four enablers to engagement:

1) A strong, visible, and empowering strategic narrative
2) Engaging managers who treat their people as individuals
3) Employee voice as central to the solutions
4) There is organisational integrity with the values on the wall reflecting in day-to-day behaviours.

As a result of the report, the Engage for Success movement was launched with the aim of sharing knowledge on good practice.

Engage for Success 2022 UK Employee Engagement Survey

In 2022, Engage for Success undertook an engagement survey from a representative sample of the UK population. The aim of the survey was to explore the impact of the pandemic on engagement levels and to establish a UK level, or benchmark, of employee engagement.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic impact on the world of work. With covid restrictions in place across the world, organisations and employees had to reconsider how they worked whilst also struggling with the anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic. Our experiences of the pandemic varied considerably. For key workers, this meant adapting the workplace to enable distance and barriers between workers with the fear of exposure. Whilst those able to work from home either had to attempt to work around the chaos of family life, or the isolation of loneliness. It is not surprising that there was an impact on employee engagement. However, there are some key learning points from the experience and its important to grasp these.

Although the pandemic had a significant impact on employee engagement levels, the degree of drop varied. Some organisations saw a significant drop, whilst for others it was only minimal. It was clear from the engagement survey that what organisations did (or didn’t do) during the pandemic had an effect. Organisations that used a wide range of methods and initiatives to help develop, support, and communicate with their employees were less likely to see a drop in engagement. They were also more likely to have higher levels of engagement before the pandemic started.

Looking specifically at health and wellbeing, employees working at organisations that offered no online health and wellbeing initiatives reported a drop in engagement of 13%. This compared significantly with employees who worked at organisations offering four or more online initiatives reporting only a 1% drop. Initiatives covered a variety of activities including virtual downtime activities, online counselling, virtual fitness, and wellbeing services. Interestingly, the majority of respondents that reported initiatives were available, did not report using them. Knowing that they were available was enough to have a positive impact on engagement. The most common method used was virtual downtime activities. However, over half respondents (56%) reported they were not offered any health and wellbeing initiatives during the pandemic.

A similar pattern was seen for learning and development initiatives. The more methods and initiatives used by the organisation, the less the drop in engagement. These initiatives did not need to be complicated, or costly. Providing e-learning sessions by internal teams was the most common method of learning and development. Even directing employees to TED talks or other online sources had a positive impact. The key was choice. Providing multiple methods to enable employees to choose how and when they could engage.

Engagement levels were also impacted by the frequency of involvement methods, specifically the frequency of meeting with their line manager. Weekly (or more) meetings with an employee’s line manager had the biggest impact. These could be both individual or team meetings. Delivered face to face, online, or a combination. The emphasis was on involvement in what was happening at work. Respondents who stated they experienced no employee involvement methods during the pandemic reported a 16% drop in their engagement with the organisation.

Not surprisingly, the most common method of communication during the pandemic was through email and virtual meetings. Again, using a variety of methods had the biggest impact. For example, using newsletters, Facebook, podcasts, Twitter etc. all had a positive effect on engagement.

What are the key take-aways from the research?

• Organisations that pro-actively try to support, communicate, and involve employees are more likely to see higher levels of employee engagement.
• Choice and variety were key. Providing an individual employee-centric approach enables employees to engage in a way that fits with their role and personal life.
• Employees might not use all the methods available but knowing that they are being offered has a positive impact.
• Sometimes it is not about developing something new but reminding employees what is already available.
• Provide health and wellbeing initiatives. These could include externally provided wellbeing services and online counselling, with internally delivered anonymous online feedback and downtime activities (e.g., social gatherings, physical activities etc).
• Use a variety of communication channels. Think about the right way to get information across. Support emails with newsletters, meetings, and town hall meetings with social media posts and blogs (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, podcasts etc).
• Utilise a range of learning and development methods. For example, supporting employees to undertake externally delivered courses, delivering internally delivered sessions by local teams (online and in-person), directing employees to online options (e.g. TED Talks, You-Tube, LinkedIn Learning etc.), and enabling employees to attend both internal and external conferences/workshops.
• Ensure line managers have the time and resources to meet on a regular basis with employees. To do so effectively, without adding additional stress to line managers, time needs to be incorporated into workplans.

Finally, one of the biggest take-aways: know your organisation. Measure employee engagement levels and then act on the information. The easiest way, use an online survey. If you are unsure how to do this, or where to start, read the Engage for Success engagement survey report on how 3 simple questions can get you started. The report and any resources are all free on the Engage for Success website.

Sarah Pass
Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University | Website | + posts

Dr Sarah Pass is a Senior Lecturer currently working at Nottingham Trent University. She has over twenty years of research experience, specifically exploring employee experience of work using a multi-method approach. Sarah has worked on a variety of projects across the public and private sector. Sarah is the project lead for the Engage for Success Line Managers Thought and Action Group (TAG), the Engagement Champions TAG, and the Organisational Purpose TAG. She is a member of the EFS Steering Group and joined in the Board in 2022.