20 Years On, Is Employee Engagement Enough?

The idea of employee engagement emerged in the early 1990’s, replacing the notion of job satisfaction. The concept is a more all-encompassing approach, describing employees who are not only actively contributing to a company, but also at the same time feeling happy and engaged.


Contributing, engaged and actually happy? It may sound the stuff of fairy tales or a remit exclusive only to Glassdoor or The Sunday Times’ best companies to work for, but believe it or not, employee engagement is still top of the agenda for the many forward-thinking employers. According to Bersin and Associates, the annual amount being spent on employee engagement is predicted to increase from $750 million in 2012, to 1.5 billion in 2015.

But what actually constitutes happy and engaged employees?

We want happy and engaged employees, but it’s important to look at how the modern workforce has changed, and whether the concept of employee engagement is up to scratch to supporting the initiatives of today’s workforce and its employees.

To help answer this, we’re reviewing the transformation in the way organizations acquire, engage, manage and develop their people, and how this has fuelled the evolution of employee engagement.

Employee engagement: Evolving with the modern workforce

While everyone is still talking about and investing in employee engagement more than 20 years on, the landscape has changed in very different, and equally important ways.

Firstly, the employee component of the new workforce is more transient, demanding more flexibility in their day to day working lives, as well as more freedom and autonomy in how their careers will pan out. Millennials for example job hop, spending relatively short periods in the same job or with the same employer. The portfolio career has arrived. Skilled workers from around the world can selectively engage with the organizations they want to join, and work for these organizations for different lengths of time – the notion of a career for life has long gone.  Employee engagement programs have to rise to the challenge of dealing with this transiency.

Secondly, the nature of the workforce has changed. The growth in contingent workers and the rise of the freelance economy is such that over the next few years, 1 in 2 workers will not be employees but interns, temps, contractors, agencies, or other professionals that are not employed directly by the company.  If the focus of employee engagement is only relevant to 50% of those working in your business, then the company will be performing sub-optimally.

With all this in mind, we wonder whether employee engagement is enough. Surely, it’s no longer just about employee engagement, it’s about workforce engagement.  

Think about it this way

Engage for Success describes employee engagement as “a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organization’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.”

“Workforce engagement” moves beyond this, speaking not to the contained, static workplaces of previous generations, but to the new, evolving workforce who engage with their employers and each other in new ways on an entirely different level.

So if employee engagement was committing to goals and values, then workforce engagement is becoming a brand ambassador. And if employee engagement was contributing to organizational success, then modern workforce engagement will include providing new technologies to support individuals and teams, improving motivation, performance and productivity – all while being sensitive to the need for encouragement, enabling people to do their best work and ensuring work-life balance. This in turn should help to enhance an overall sense of well-being that resonates across the organization.

Supporting workforce engagement

Forbes recently quoted Donald A. Laird as part of its quote of the day feature:

“Abilities wither under fault-finding, blossom under encouragement.”

It’s a great quote and one that reminds us why workforce engagement is so crucial. While organizations begin to focus on redefining the workplace and incorporating workforce engagement strategies, there comes an increased need for support. Many are realizing that there is a need for more modern systems that can provide the necessary automation and support not only for the HR teams but across the entire organization.

Engagement is not just a HR issue – it’s a management issue, and a change management issue given the changing nature of work, the workforce and business.

Just replacing existing on premise HR and related systems with cloud based solutions is not going to be enough to manage and engage the modern workforce.  A new approach is required that enables the whole organization (not just HR) to improve engagement, and transform how organizations attract, engage, manage and develop both their employees and other team members, such as freelancers, consultants and part time workers.

There is a new breed of progressive, growing and disruptive companies emerging who realize exactly this and are transforming the way they interact and communicate with workers throughout the employment journey from the moment of acquiring and onboarding them to ongoing management, development and engaging them.

This raises the idea of thinking in terms of managing the entire experience holistically throughout this process, from acquisition and onboarding to advocacy and offboarding. In upcoming posts, we’ll discuss in more detail the changing nature of the workforce and why providing a good workforce experience is critical to engagement, performance and your brand.

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