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What drives employee engagement?

Employee Engagement |Talent
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By Patrick Kulesa , Angela Paul and Stephen Young | April 2021

Willis Towers Watson experts share secrets to understanding what drives employee engagement and how you can improve it.

Employee engagement is all about sustaining effort at work. It is the intensity of the relationship between employee and employer, marked by committed effort to deliver in an environment that supports and nurtures performance.

Employee engagement surveys are a powerful tool for better understanding what drives employee engagement for your organization. Once we define employee engagement and slot a measure of it into a survey, we can add content on the experiences at work that predict greater engagement.

This content can range from senior leadership effectiveness to teamwork, voice on the job, capability-building, support from managers, and more. With a well-crafted engagement survey, results uncover where an employer should focus to have the best chance to improve employee engagement and performance.

Correlating is NOT the same as driving employee engagement

At Willis Towers Watson, we use rigorous statistical techniques to determine what are commonly called the drivers of employee engagement. Some survey providers use correlations with engagement to identify its drivers, but that can be misleading. Not all correlations are sensible to study.

For example, there is a significant correlation between divorce rate and the import of bananas. Clearly one does not predict the other. Also, many correlations between survey items and employee engagement scores may appear large and are often all about the same size, with no clear way to distinguish among them. To be a true driver, we must go deeper. We need to know what matters most.

How we identify what matters most in employee engagement

We've helped thousands of clients identify the strongest predictors of employee engagement across industries, from small organizations to large complex, global behemoths. It can get pretty specific and downright technical.

To illustrate some of the complex statistical analysis needed to uncover drivers, let's walk through another example. Let's say we want to know how to control weight gain. We'd start by gathering lots of information such as what foods we eat, genetic predisposition, how often we eat out versus at home, how much we exercise, and even how long we sleep. We then apply statistics that allow these things to compete to uncover which matter most to weight gain.

We might find that the foods we eat matter more than how often we eat out, but that exercise matters most of all, that how long we sleep is far less important, and that genetics is higher than we might imagine. In this way, we are uncovering the priorities, or what truly matters among many potential factors. The priorities are not merely what correlates, but what highly predicts the result we want. The statistical technique we use to get to this goal is known as 'multiple regression.'

Image of box on left representing inputs into employee engagement, like surveys and other possible drivers of engagement. Box is followed by an arrow representing statistical analysis, in this case, multiple regression analysis, a technique to identify drivers that matter that most in employee engagement. Finally the arrow flows into a box representing outputs of the analysis that best predict engagement scores.
Effective employee surveys include items likely to drive engagement along with an engagement index, which allows us to apply multiple regression, an analysis that uncovers which items in combination best predict engagement scores.

Engagement drivers vary from one organization to the next – they are not generic

In a typical annual employee survey, we include an index of engagement, around 6-9 items, and build in the aspects of employee experience that we expect are drivers of engagement for each specific client. For example, we know that engagement drivers differ by industry. In high-technology companies, personal empowerment is important and is all about openness to new ideas and challenging traditional methods. In addition, access to new and better technology on the job (the best 'toys' to work with) is also a top driver in tech.

By contrast, in the retail sector, the latest technology is not a top predictor. Rather, strong belief in the products and the quality of customer relationships highly influence engagement. Personal empowerment is important, in the form of flexibility to serve customers and answer their questions immediately. The implication here is that there is no one set of universal engagement drivers; they vary for each organization. Employee survey content needs therefore to be designed around the strategy of each organization to best understand what drives employee engagement.

There is no one universal set of engagement drivers; they vary for each organization. Employee survey content needs to be designed around the strategy of each organization to best understand what drives employee engagement.

The payoff from higher employee engagement is substantial. Improving employee engagement need not be hard. The drivers vary from one company to the next, and so the best approach combines a well-designed employee survey with the right statistical techniques. Armed with the results, companies can drive improvement in the aspects of corporate life that will truly accelerate engagement levels and organizational performance.

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