The 'dark matter' of HR is employee engagement – here's how to master it

It's a fluid concept that leaders have long struggled to understand and capitalize on

The 'dark matter' of HR is employee engagement – here's how to master it

In astrophysics, dark matter is a material that makes up 83% of all matter in the universe—four times more common than regular matter. However, dark matter emits no light. It’s completely invisible to our eyes, our telescopes, and our machines. We only know that this influential matter exists by the effects it has on other, more visible objects, such as stars or planets. Speaking to HRD, Steve Sonnenberg, founder and CEO of Awardco, told us that he believes elusive employee engagement is the dark matter of the HR world.

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“Engagement is massively influential on vital aspects of any business, such as productivity, retention, and motivation,” he told HRD. “But engagement is also a vague, nebulous concept that’s hard to pin down. It’s not limited to employee happiness, satisfaction, or commitment - though it encompasses all of those - which makes engagement hard to define and even harder to measure.”

Employee engagement has always been the holy grail of HR. It’s a somewhat fluid concept that’s very hard to detect and measure – but one that’s heralded as the lynchpin of organizational success. HR leaders have long grappled with how exactly the can monitor and improve engagement – something which Sonnenberg thinks is no secret at all.

“The secret to employee engagement isn’t really a secret at all,” he revealed. “The most important thing that any business leader can do to improve engagement levels is to show employees that they are cared for and valued, both professionally and personally. When talking about professional care, some of the strategies available include meaningful professional development opportunities and making sure each employee’s work clearly ties in with the company’s mission and goals. Leaders have to make sure employees know that their growth is a priority and their work is meaningful.

“For personal care, it’s crucial for leaders to show that they value an employee’s happiness more than the bottom line. Offer flexible scheduling to help employees maintain a work/life balance. Provide frequent, meaningful rewards and recognition for both work-related accomplishments and events like birthdays, holidays, and work anniversaries.”

So, how exactly can HR leaders measure real-time engagement?

There’s a few effective methods for measuring real-time employee engagement – ones that have been tried and tested both pre and post-pandemic.

“One is anonymous pulse surveys sent out on a weekly basis,” added Sonnenberg. “These surveys should be comprehensive—they can’t simply ask ‘how are you feeling today?’ Surveys need to include questions relating to feedback, recognition, happiness, work relationships, and personal growth.”

The key to making pulse surveys effective is action. Once leaders know what their employees want, they must try implementing changes. Do employees bemoan the lack of flexibility?

“Find ways to increase that for them,” added Sonnenberg. “Do they wish they received more feedback from their managers? Train managers on providing helpful, frequent feedback, and make sure that gets done! If employees don’t see improvements after answering honestly on these surveys, both engagement and trust will decrease.”

Another similar method would be stay interviews. Many companies already do exit interviews, but those only provide insight into engagement when it’s too late. Stay interviews, on the other hand, help leaders learn why employees stay (not why they leave). These are great for helping leaders understand what is engaging employees already, and how those aspects can be improved.

Not all engagement measurement methods require interaction with employees, though. Businesses can use analytics, specifically absenteeism and retention information, to see how engaged their people are.

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“Do employees call in sick or use their PTO for mental health days often?” questioned Sonnenberg. “Are employees frequently late or gone on longer lunches than is recommended? While some of this is normal, frequent absences indicate employees aren’t invested or committed to their work. As for turnover, some of that is unavoidable and out of any leader’s control. However, if turnover rates are high, or if many people quit for similar work- or culture-related reasons, employees most likely don’t feel challenged, inspired, or valued by their organization—all of which are signs of low engagement.”

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