Managing employee engagement during the pandemic

Human resource managers have noted the importance of employee engagement in raising organisational performance for many years. During the tough economic times associated with the current pandemic, maintaining and even raising employee engagement takes on increased significance. Dr Sue Shortland explains the concept of engagement and how it can be fostered in the environment of home working.

The HR profession has focussed on engendering employee motivation, commitment and loyalty for many years. Today though HR’s focus goes beyond these concepts, setting out increased employee engagement as the ‘holy grail’ of HR endeavours.

There are significant benefits to organisations when they have an engaged workforce. For example, engagement leads to employees ‘going the extra mile’ for their employers, putting in discretionary effort to help to boost organisational performance. Engaged employees are invested in their organisation’s success and work collaboratively with colleagues to achieve a common goal. They also typically display high communication and performance levels. In addition, engaged employees can help to create a friendly, supportive and approachable workplace environment. Excellent working relationships with line and senior management are also usually in evidence where there is high employee engagement.

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement exceeds motivation, commitment and loyalty. Improving employee motivation concerns employer actions taken to support employees’ desire to reach particular goals. Employee commitment suggests dedication to a task or work-related objective and loyalty highlights organisational allegiance, reflected in low levels of turnover. Employee engagement, however, refers to the positive emotional connection an employee has with their organisation, linked to both an employee’s state of mind and behaviour. Work engagement is thus considered to have three main elements: vigour (encompassing energy, resilience and effort); dedication (including enthusiasm, inspiration and pride); and absorption (being engrossed in one’s work).An employee’s state of engagement will of course vary over time – individuals are unlikely to be fully engaged every working moment. Nonetheless, organisations will wish to maximise engagement as it links to increased productivity and performance. This is because the concept of employee engagement comprises three key dimensions all of which contribute to organisational outcome improvements:

  • Intellectual engagement – this refers to employees thinking how to do their job better and being absorbed in their work;

  • Affective engagement – this refers to employees feeling positive emotional connections in relation to doing a good job;

  • Social engagement – this concerns employees making the most of opportunities to discuss work-related improvements with colleagues at work.

What drives employee engagement?

There are a number of antecedents to employee engagement. These include senior management vision and integrity, and good two-way communications between management and employees, where employee voice is listened to and action is taken in response to employee feedback. Engaged line managers who encourage employees to feed their views upwards also play an important part in driving forward employee engagement. In addition, a supportive work environment, a good fit between the employee and their job role, and appropriate job resources to support the employee to do their job well act together to promote a climate that facilitates employee engagement.The characteristics of the job role are also of importance in driving engagement. For example, employee engagement is enhanced when employees are given work that is challenging and varied which enables them to use a number of different skills. Engagement is also supported when employees can display autonomy and personal discretion, and can make a meaningful contribution.

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