‘Lack of worker engagement is a real risk factor for business’

Engagement is trickier to achieve than job satisfaction but much more valuable

Job satisfaction and job engagement are not the same thing. Satisfaction is largely passive and transactional; at its simplest it involves an employee doing X for a payment of Y. Engagement is discretionary, active and a lot more complex.

Successful engagement wins the hearts and minds of employees by offering them a deeper connection with their job than mere satisfaction. It is typical of what millennials say they want from employment: challenges and meaning.

Satisfaction levels are easy to raise. Free food, flexi-time and pay increases are all wins on the satisfaction scale. Where companies go wrong is in assuming such fixes also buy them engagement. In reality they are short-term gains that can cost a lot of money before quickly becoming the new normal.

The upside of having a satisfied workforce is that they will get the job done. The downside is that they will rarely raise their game.


“Satisfaction is so 2010,” says Tom O’Connor, chief executive of rapidly growing IT services provider Version 1. “Of all the disciplines within business, I would say the one that has seen the most change in its thinking over the last decade is HR, not least because of the constant battle for talent and the fact that you can have people who are satisfied but not engaged. Lack of engagement is a real risk factor for business.”

Like many fast-growing tech companies, Version 1 is in constant need of high-calibre staff and it has identified engagement as a potential point of differentiation.

The company, which ranked sixth in the 2017 best large workplaces in Ireland, began developing its engagement strategy eight years ago when it ran a basic employee satisfaction survey to establish a benchmark. Since then it has used the international Gallup standard to refine its programme, which now involves quarterly surveys of its 900-strong workforce.

Feedback can be anonymous or signed, and the response rate is over 70 per cent. Typical topics covered include interactions with management, career discussions, business objectives, training and recognition. Each engagement group comes up with its own plan for the three things it wants to achieve in the next quarter.

“We were outperforming the international norms for engagement, but with such a big workforce we wanted to make sure we were not missing anything, so we set up around 30 engagement groups,” says O’Connor. “These smaller groups allow us to see at a local level and more broadly what needs to be done to improve.

“We were trailblazers in engagement in 2009, but more and more companies are now taking it very seriously. An engaged workforce can make all the difference when it comes to growing and outperforming your competition.”

Culture of development

According to Gallup, a global performance management consulting company, some 87 per cent of employees worldwide are not engaged and many companies are experiencing “a crisis of engagement” without even being aware of it. Gallup also says that companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147 per cent in earnings per share and that the time has come “to move past satisfaction surveys and create a culture of development”.

Engagement is supposed to improve staff retention, but O’Connor says it’s not that simple.

“There are no official figures, but we know that attrition levels in tech companies can be as high as 20 per cent. Ours is 7.8 per cent but you can’t put that solely down to engagement or lack of it, as people leave for many different reasons. What I do know is that you don’t stand a chance of holding on to people if you don’t have engagement. Our employees could move every day for a higher salary if that was all that was driving them. Engagement must become part of the daily rhythm of managing your business, and it’s never static. It’s evolving all the time.”

American multinational Salesforce employs more than 1,000 people in Ireland and was ranked as the second-best large workplace by Great Places to Work Ireland in 2017.

"Engagement is about what the company is doing for me in my broader life. It's not just about pay or being a nice place to work – they are expected hygiene factors. It's more to do with the culture of an organisation and how my work and personal lives blend together," says Terri Moloney, director of employee success at Salesforce.

"Our culture is based around Ohana, which is Hawaiian for 'family' in an extended use of the term. For us it means shared responsibility for making customers, partners and communities feel they are in a strong, two-way relationship with Salesforce and that everyone is pulling together collectively for mutual success."

Engagement app

In February this year Salesforce launched a new feedback app that allows anyone within the organisation to comment up or down the line. Employees provide monthly feedback based on a set of questions and there is also room for free comment.

“We see it as a very dynamic and immediate way of getting engagement data that we can act on to stay ahead,” Moloney says.

Acting on feedback is crucial says Peter O'Connell, managing director of Career Development Associates. "Successful engagement is all about ensuring delivery and action on the issues that are identified in the engagement process. Engagement means listening to employees and acting on their feedback, ideas and/or suggestions.

“It does not mean acting on all the issues raised, but it does mean responding on all of them and acting on those aligned to the values and strategy of the business.”