Briefing: Employee engagement, advocacy and experience

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and is the author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

Employee engagement, advocacy and experience are terms that are used a lot inside organisations but are they always well-understood? This briefing note discusses the origins and definitions of the concepts and the linkages to internal communication.

Understanding the terms

The employee engagement concept emerged from a perceived need in the 1960s for employees to engage with their work and their organisation. Mary Welch outlines three distinct waves of engagement that start in the 1990s with William Kahn’s research on work engagement and the establishment of Gallup’s 12 question engagement questionnaire.[i] In wave 2 (2000 to 2005), academic and practitioner work flourishes around a definition of engagement as ‘a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigor, dedication and absorption’.[ii] Wave 3 (2006-2010) represents a surge of academic and practitioner interest and publications.

In 2009, a report for the UK government identified four enablers for engagement: strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice and integrity.[iii] Of these, strategic narrative and employee voice are essentially communication oriented and thus have implications for internal communication practice.

In recent years a growing distinction has been made between work engagement and organisational engagement. The suggestion is that employees can be engaged separately with the work that they do and with the organisation that they work for. This too has implications for internal communication which is more likely to be associated with organisational engagement (work engagement is mostly influenced by the relationship with an employee’s manager and team).

Work engagement Organisational engagement
The work you do The vision of the organisation, where it’s headed
The team work environment The values of the organisation, what it believes in
Personal development opportunities The perceived support given to all employees
The relationship with your line manager The way that senior managers communicate with all employees
The opportunity to have a say about what goes on in your team The opportunity to have a say about what goes on in the organisation
The response provided by a line manager to views expressed The response provided by senior managers to views expressed

 

In an extension of the employee engagement concept, the term employee experience has also emerged. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) describes employee experience as ‘The result of all the interactions an employee has with their employer. It’s about developing a great working environment to get the most out of employees.’[iv]

A separate, albeit related, concept of employee advocacy has also emerged in the past decade. It can be understood as employees promoting their organisation to friends, family and acquaintances – typically by being positive about their organisation on their personal social media. Rather than being something that results from organisations encouraging their employees to be positive, advocacy can be more constructively seen as a natural outcome from high levels of organisational engagement.

Employee engagement and experience are explored in more depth in the following sections.

Why are employee engagement and experience important?

Employee engagement has been the subject of much debate in terms of what the benefits actually are for organisations and employees. Because engagement and experience are such broad terms, the benefits are often described generally, such as performance, productivity, absenteeism, retention, innovation, customer service, positive outcomes in public services and advocacy.

The Engage for Success movement cites academic research claiming that ‘there is a firm correlation between employee engagement and high organisational productivity and performance, across all sectors of the economy.’[v]

Some of the organisational benefits include:

Income growth – organisations with high employee engagement levels outperform their low engagement counterparts in total shareholder returns and higher annual net income. The top 25% had twice the annual net income (profit attributable to shareholders) compared to the lowest quartile.

Productivity and performance – data from over 23 thousand business units demonstrated that those with the highest engagement scores (top 25%) averaged 18% higher productivity than those with the lowest engagement scores (bottom 25%).

Innovation – 59% of the more engaged employees say that work brings out their most creative ideas, against 3% of the less engaged.

Engagement is not just important for the organisation. There are well-documented benefits for employees too:

Wellbeing – engaged employees show higher levels of well-being all round, meaning that they are more likely to enjoy their work activities, are able to cope with work-related problems and are less likely to lose sleep over work-related issues.

Positive emotions – the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that those who were absorbed in their work were almost three times as likely to have six key positive emotions at work (enthusiasm, cheerfulness, optimism, contentment, to feel calm and relaxed) as negative ones (feeling miserable, worried, depressed, gloomy, tense or uneasy).

Stress – Aon Hewitt research reported that 28% of employees experienced a high level of job-related stress in ‘high engagement’ companies (65% engagement and over) versus 39% of employees in low engagement companies.

Data source for this section: The Evidence. Employee Engagement Task Force. “Nailing the evidence” workgroup. Available at: https://engageforsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/The-Evidence.pdf

Organisational engagement

The distinction between work and organisational engagement is a relatively recent development in the field. However, it is widely accepted that the engagement concept has been extended beyond a mere work-related state.[vi] William Kahn points out that employees also engage with leaders and aspects of the organisation itself.[vii] Indeed, the importance of organisational engagement may have, to date, been underestimated as research indicates that organisational engagement was a much stronger predictor of outcomes than job engagement.[viii]

Engagement is also multi-dimensional. It can be categorised as follows:

  • Cognitive engagement – the way that employees appraise their workplace climate
  • Emotional engagement – which stems from cognitive engagement and is about pride and trust
  • Behavioural engagement – the most overt form based on what an employee does.[ix]

Organisational engagement can also be understood as:

  • Identification – a sense of belonging
  • Alignment – the congruence between employees’ beliefs about where the organization should be heading, what the goals and aspirations of the organization should be, and the actual direction of the organization.[x]

Other researchers suggest that the three most important factors for engagement are:

  1. Having opportunities to feed your views upwards
  2. Feeling well informed about what is happening in the organisation
  3. Thinking that your manager is committed to your organisation.[xi]

However, if employees are not well informed then it is difficult for them to express meaningful views about the organisation. Factor one is therefore, in some respects, dependent on factor two. The combination of feeling informed and having opportunities to feed views upwards highlights the importance of internal communication for organisational engagement.

Employee experience

Employee experience can be understood as ‘the employee’s holistic perceptions of the relationship with his/her employing organization derived from all the encounters at touchpoints along the employee’s journey’. [xii]

This requires organisations to truly understand and empathise with employees and to think about the entire experience rather than just discrete events. Employee experience is based around meaning, trust, respect, feelings of worth and relationship that lead to greater innovation, engagement and retention.

Six principles are suggested for employee experience:

Deeply understand people and their needs – research for employee experience engages employees in deep conversations with other employees to surface their stories and perceptions about their work, their workplace and their relationships.

Embrace expansive and holistic thinking – the employee is considered from multiple perspectives: cognitively, emotionally, socially, politically, economically and physically.

Make the intangible tangible – the employee’s journey can be represented in a journey map – a visual depiction of the stages of the journey, its high and low points, what the employee sees, thinks, uses or feels at each stage and opportunities for improvement.

Insist on radical participation – radical means that participation is extensive, broad, multi-level and egalitarian. Instead of consultants conducting interviews with employees to gather trends for analysis, employees interview other employees.

Iterate and experiment – employee design teams are encouraged to experiment with new ideas, try them out in isolated parts of the organization and adjust based on feedback and new discoveries.

Trust and appreciate the process – processes used to develop employee experiences start positive and optimistic (opportunities to be discovered) rather than negative and pessimistic (problems to be fixed.[xiii]

This approach is grounded in meaning and purpose for the employee. In many respects it is similar to organisational engagement with a focus on conversations about the workplace and employee voice. It extends the organisational engagement concept by including social, political and economic perspectives together with an emphasis on collaborative working.

Internal communication practice that is associated with employee engagement/experience

Three communication-oriented activities feature in definitions and principles for employee engagement/experience:

  1. Strategic narrative – a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose.
  2. Storytelling – stories that are told by all employees about their work and their day to day experiences of working at their organisation.
  3. Employee voice (or listening to employees) – systematic processes that are in place for employees to have a say about what goes on, coupled with managers who are prepared to consider what is said and who respond appropriately.

Internal communication that is centred on these three aspects of practice is likely to result in higher levels of employee engagement/experience with all the consequential benefits for the organisation, and for the employee, outlined earlier in this briefing.

Final thoughts

This briefing is focused on internal communication and the associations with employee engagement and employee experience. However, the benefits outlined are for engagement not communication. Internal communication is associated with engagement which, in turn, is associated with a range of benefits.

Internal communication is, of course, also directly associated with a wide range of outcomes which are beneficial both for the employee and the organisation. For example, internal communication campaigns about new processes, customer service improvements or wellbeing – to name a few obvious topics.

Internal communication is also integral to successful change management, as reviewed in the PR Place Guide to Change Management.

 References 

[i] Welch, M. 2011. The evolution of the employee engagement concept: communication implications. Corporate Communications: An International Journal. 16(4). pp. 328-346.

[ii] Shaufeli, W.B. and Bakker, A. B. 2010. Defining and measuring work engagement: brining clarity to the concept. In Bakker, A.B and Leiter, M.P. (Eds). Work Engagement: A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research. Hove: Psychology press.

[iii] MacLeod, D. and Clarke, N. 2009. The MacLeod Review. Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement. Department for Business Innovation and Skills. London: Crown Copyright.

[iv] Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). No date.   Employee experience roles. Available at:    https://www.cipd.co.uk/careers/career-options/employee-experience-roles

[v] Rayton, B. 2012. Engage for Success. The Evidence. Employee Engagement Task Force. “Nailing the evidence” workgroup. Available at: https://engageforsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/The-Evidence.pdf

[vi] Meyer, J.P., Gagne, M., Parfyonova, N.M. 2010. Toward an evidence based model of engagement: what we can learn from motivation and commitment research. In Albrecht, S.L. (Ed). Handbook of Employee Engagement, Perspectives, Issues, Research and Practice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

[vii] Kahn, W.A. 2010. The essence of engagement: lessons from the field. In Albrecht, S.L. (Ed). Handbook of Employee Engagement, Perspectives, Issues, Research and Practice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

[viii] Saks, A. M. 2006 Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology. 21(7), pp.600-619.

[ix] Shuck, B., Reio, T.G. 2014. Employee Engagement and Well-Being: A Moderation Model and Implications for Practice. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 21(1), pp.43– 58.

[x] Fleck, S., Inceoglu, I. 2010. A comprehensive framework for understanding and predicting engagement. In Albrecht, A. (Ed). Handbook of Employee Engagement, Perspectives, Issues, Research and Practice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd

[xi] Truss, C., Soane, E., Edwards, C., Wisdom, K., Croll, A., Burnett, J. 2006. Working life: employee attitudes and engagement 2006: Research Report. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

[xii] Plaskoff, J. 2017. Employee experience: the new human resource management approach. Strategic HR Review. Vol. 16 No. 3. pp. 136-141.

[xiii] Plaskoff, J. 2017. Employee experience: the new human resource management approach. Strategic HR Review. Vol. 16 No. 3. pp. 136-141.