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How to meaure employee engagement

I think of your engegement survey as a compass. On the other hand, I feel surveys are often perceived, sold, or bought, as a map. The survey is never there for the fine details, it’s there to check if you’re pointing in the right direction.

Remember, no-one has ever turned to their boss and asked to be more engaged. What we’re really measuring are the conditions to be engaged.

Remember too, no-one has ever been interested in engagement as a pure number, what they want to know is how to preserve or improve that number.

But you do need to know what you’re measuring, and most of the big providers don’t agree.

If Gallup say that 23% of the global workforce are engaged, if Gartner say 31%, if in 2020 Peakon had the figure at 41%, and if Kincentric say it 67%. That means that they are measuring different things. In the size of surveys that they conduct, you cannot have this big a difference if they are truly measuring the same thing.

So, there isn’t any agreement on what engagement is?

Actually, I’d say there is good agreement – it’s just very hard to put a commonly agreed upon number on.

The inception of the work of Engage for Success conducted by Nita Clarke and David Macleod is coming on for 20 years ago, but I think that the four enablers of engagement remain sound. They talk about:

·         Strategic Narrative

Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.

·         Engaging Managers

Engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people.

·         Employee Voice

Employee voice throughout the organisations, for reinforcing and challenging views, between functions and externally. Employees are seen not as the problem, rather as central to the solution, to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise, and ideas.

·         Organisational Integrity

Organisational integrity – the values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviours. There is no ‘say –do’ gap. Promises made and promises kept, or an explanation given as to why not.

We all know what we’re doing, we have a great day to day experience, we have a say, we know we can trust our organisation. That’s a great starting point for conditions of engagement. It’s just a question of how to measure that.

So, are engagement surveys useless?

No, surveys are great, probably essential to measure engagement. You just have to understand their limitations.

On a topic like engagement, you will want to hear from as many people as you can. Surveys are absolutely the best way to hear the views of the majority of your workforce.

Surveys which ultimately put a number on levels of engagement, also allow you to see how you are moving the needle over time.

But they have two major limitations:

·         You can’t confidently benchmark against other organisations

·         Surveys tell you what people are feeling, they don’t usually tell you the reason why

Why can’t you benchmark?

There are the not-measuring-the-same-thing considerations as above.

But I also spend a lot of my time working with organisations on their employer value proposition (EVP). I believe that however similar on the surface an organisation is to its competitor, it will feel quite distinctive to work there. Because it will have a different heritage, purpose, strategy, values, culture, etc. You’ll be on a different part of your journey. There will be different cohorts of people with their own history in the organisation.

So, it would be absurd for me to argue that if you ask the same questions to Organisation A and B, then you’re going to get easily comparable results.

I don’t buy it and I think it’s distracting. There’s a real risk of complacency (hey, we’re doing OK compared to them) or false urgency (cripes, we’re miles behind them), or just confusion.

You need to look at your own numbers. You can compare one theme against another. Ultimately, you can see how numbers shift over time.

And if your fingers are anywhere near the pulse of the organisation, I think you’ll be able to interpret what the real priority actions are, and what successes are to celebrate.

So, you can get to an accurate measure of conditions for engagement, in your organisation. But without the reason why you get those numbers, effectiveness of actions will be limited.

Why don’t surveys tell you the reason why?

Let’s think about a traditional engagement survey – a number of statements for participants to give their level of agreement to. With a smaller number of free text comment boxes along the way.

The statements give you the numbers, the pure measures, the free text gives you a chance to understand the reason why.

Engagement may have four roots, but it has many factors that affect it. You might well experience Strategic Narrative, Engaging Managers, Employee Voice, Organisational Integrity. But if you get paid peanuts, or don’t have any opportunity to learn, or just work with terrible humans – you might very well feel you just don’t have the opportunity to be engaged.

That means you want to cover a lot of different things. And that means escalating the number of questions.

But there’s a formula at play here. The more statements that you ask people to respond to, the less energy and time that people are going to apply to the free text questions.

In other words, the more you want to ask, the fewer of the reasons behind the answers you’re likely to discover.

It’s a bind. And it’s not simply solved.

What we can be sure of is if you stick with just a survey you will need to compromise. Either on detail or on understanding of engagement.

Can you make surveys work better?

Absolutely. Not everyone has to respond to every question. Or not everyone needs to get all the questions at once.

Either will mean people have more time and energy to express themselves in open questions. That means they can explain why they have given their ratings. And they also have the opportunity to say what should be done.

But I fully understand that there is an appeal in having as many of the workforce answer all of the same questions, at the same time. Of capturing that moment in time that you know matches the previous moment in time.

Surveys do work, we need to be truly clear on their role in measuring engagement.

What is the role of the engagement survey then?

I’m a keen runner and walker in the hills. Navigation is important. Sometimes a glance at the compass tells you you’re in the right place. Other times that same glance tells you to stop, pull out the map and look at the details more closely.

I think of your survey as that compass.

On the other hand, I feel surveys are often perceived, sold, or bought, as the map.

In my mind, the survey is never there for the fine details, it’s there to check if you’re pointing in the right direction.

So, how do we get to the fine details and the reasons why?

It can be pulse surveys. Far more focused questions will take you further into the detail of how people feel, on a specific topic. But a total reliance on surveys feels like an opportunity missed.

We feel heard when we are listened to by humans.

And so, a process of getting to the shopfloor is essential. To get into detail with the people that live that experience.

Traditionally, this is done in focus or listening groups. With the interaction and sharing of ideas, they can be incredibly enlightening. There’s probably a view that they are pure discussion, sat around a table or a Teams screen. But technology offers different formats, and considered design offers many different exercises or stimulus for people to respond in diverse ways. And all of that allows us to mitigate against just hearing from the squeakier wheels; we can give more people in those groups more active voices.

But there are many other ways of gaining the ear of employees. Interviews with employees or managers. An always-on forum for people to anonymously share successes, ideas, or challenges. You can immerse yourself with teams, you can use set piece events to gather feedback, you can set up open channels for ad-hoc feedback.

All of this gives you the vital opportunity to understand why people feel the way they do, what must remain, what can be built on and what ought to change.

Because that’s the ultimate goal. Your future measurement will then tell you if you succeed.

Should I consider external help?

I understand entirely that I’m promoting my own interests, but an external voice can really help understand the conditions around engagement.

·         Employees will tell an outsider more than they would people on the inside Of course, that outsider needs to quickly gain their trust

·         An external listener can’t justify anything that has gone before, and has no existing ideas or prejudices, so they can purely listen Of course, they do still need to understand the relevant history

·         If you show you’re investing in listening, it shows you’re taking things seriously Of course, that investment needs to show results, or you lose that goodwill

When you bring in someone from outside you raise the bar of expectations. You need to be assured they can help you exceed that.

Their role might be to take on the whole project. They might just help you collect data anonymously. They might just be a mentor.

Is there a different kind of survey?

I don’t quite see it yet, but I feel a new type of survey is coming. Using voice notes or video clips, I think it’ll be possible for people to respond in a more fluid and authentic way, and for AI to take the grunt work out of unpicking that, whilst maintaining all the useful segmentation of data.

And I think that opens up ever more opportunities to see where engagement is really impacted, giving organisations the power to really improve things for their people.


Be careful with what you want to measure, and understand your efforts should be balanced between:

·         Gaining measures to compare distinct aspects of the conditions for engagement, and see progress over time

·         Understanding what’s behind those measures so you can plan far more accurately to enhance or improve

You’ll be unlikely to achieve that purely in a survey – you will need ways to get to the real opinions and suggestions of your people.

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