Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Measuring Employee Engagement: Beyond Surveys and Direct Measures to Business Outcomes

Employee engagement has been frequently studied and measured. It has been defined in many different ways using different definitions and measures. Scholars[1] have described employee engagement as “the emotional and intellectual commitment to the organization.” It has also been defined as “positive attitudes and behaviors enabling high job performance, which are in tune with the organization’s mission.”[2] And as to how much of it there is, in its State of the Global Workplace report, Gallup found 13% of workers are fully engaged in their jobs, 63% are not engaged, and 24% are actively disengaged.

The most common way organizations measure engagement is by using a group of survey items that measure satisfaction, effort, and commitment to the organization. Other techniques include: Mood monitors, employee opinions, focus groups, and sentiment measures of social media.

However, not much research has been done on measuring employee engagement. How valid and reliable are the above measures? Can employee engagement surveys really tell you how engaged your employees are? Are self-perceived employee engagement levels a better measure of employee engagement? How about direct measures of employee behavior? And how about linking engagement to business outcomes?

Direct measures of employee engagement

What are some of the direct measures organizations can use to better understand and measure engagement levels? A recent article in Harvard Business Review reviews some direct measures, including:

  • The amount of work outside of normal working hours,
  • Time spent with people outside of immediate team, and
  • Participation in ad-hoc meetings and initiatives.

The article outlines four broader direct measures that organizations can use to measure employee engagement:

  1. Management quality: Quality and quantity of time an employee spends with their respective manager. Levels of engagement can increase with more time an employee spends with their direct manager and also with the exposure he/she gets to leaders in an organization.
  2. Colleagues: The colleagues and team members of an employee directly impact engagement levels. The ratio of highly engaged employees vs. low engaged employees on a current team or most frequent collaborators is another metric of engagement levels.
  3. Relationships: The number of strong tie connections also impacts engagement levels among employees. The number of strong tie connections, weak tie connections, and variability of network over time are all direct measures of employee engagement. Frequent interactions with colleagues increase engagement levels, as does exposure to ideas from beyond their core relationships.
  4. Work schedule: The amount of meaningful time an employee gets to work between meetings and other events determines the engagement levels of employees. When employees are overly fragmented their engagement levels decreases drastically. Time fragmentation helps determine the real progress an employee makes on thoughtful work. For an individual, it takes 15 minutes to return to a productive state after an interruption.

The larger goal: Linking engagement with business outcomes

Traditional attitude surveys vs. new ways to directly measure employee engagement is just one part of the engagement story. The other part is defined by business outcomes and how increased employee engagement may lead to higher productivity, more innovation, and fewer conflicts.  Organizations with more engaged employees have been found to have greater return on assets, profitability, and shareholder value.[3]

The need is to have a holistic, integrated approach to measuring and driving high levels of employee commitment and engagement. Can we find measures of causal links between employee engagement and performance? Can we develop measures that have predictive validity and can help provide meaningful information for the future?

Measurement of employee engagement should be more evidence-based, and for that we need to find practical, reliable, and consistent metrics. We need to be able to track engagement sentiment and issues within organizations. We need to discover ways to make employee engagement measures more meaningful for organizations globally, and for managers and teams to be able to understand and evaluate employee engagement.


[1] Richman, A. (2006), “Everyone wants an engaged workforce how can you create it?” Workspan, Vol. 49, pp. 36-9.

[2] John Storey, Patrick M Wright, David Ulrich eds. (2008). The Routledge Companion to Strategic Human Resource Management.

[3] Macey, W. H., Schneider, B., Barbera, K. M., & Young, S. A. (2009). Employee engagement: Tools for analysis, practice, and competitive advantage. Malden, WA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Thanks to TalentSpace blog for the image.

Sarab Kochhar

Sarab Kochhar

Sarab Kochhar, Ph.D., is Director of Research at the Institute for Public Relations, and Associate Director of Measurement and Analytics at APCO Worldwide.
Sarab Kochhar

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