Inside HR Tech Column the Engagement Needle

Here are three areas HR leaders should consider when faced with the challenge of raising employee-engagement levels.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015
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It could be the most vexing paradox in HR and talent management today: Employee engagement has emerged as one of the most pressing challenges-if not the most-for business leaders, while overall employee-engagement levels remain depressingly low in most organizations. The most commonly cited "macro" employee-engagement survey from Gallup reports about 31 percent of U.S. employees as "engaged," with more than half (51 percent) of workers "not engaged," and a worrisome 17.5 percent "actively disengaged" in 2014. These engagement levels, while up a bit from 2013, still remain stubbornly low when compared to most HR leaders' goals.

It is a troubling set of circumstances-we know engagement levels are too low (and have been for a long time); and we know that increasing engagement levels will improve productivity, increase innovation and enhance customer service. But for many organizations, moving the needle on engagement has proven difficult.

Over the last few years, numerous and diverse technology products have been developed to help organizations address the engagement challenge. Just as the issues and drivers behind employee engagement are myriad and complex, the approaches and capabilities of the various "engagement" solutions are multi-varied and attack the engagement challenge from diverse points of view.

Since I am a technology enthusiast who firmly believes that modern HR technologies offer organizations significant opportunities to improve work and workplaces, (and increase employee engagement), I wanted to share at least some of the solutions HR leaders and organizations might consider when faced with the challenge of raising employee-engagement levels. These offerings are grouped (roughly) into categories based on the facet of engagement they focus on, and are meant to be viewed as representative of what's available today. (Please no nasty emails from vendors noting I left their solution out.)

Employee Recognition

One factor that is often identified as being an important driver of employee engagement is how often and by whom, employees are thanked and recognized for their efforts. Presence of recognition programs, more specifically ones that are measurable and reportable, have also been linked to increases in productivity and employee retention. Technology-driven approaches to help facilitate, encourage, and measure employee recognition have now been on the market for several years. Generally speaking, these solutions provide capability for peer-to-peer, manager-to-direct-report and really anyone-to-anyone categories of recognition and feedback. The solutions can make these recognition moments visible to everyone in the organization, and therefore help to instill a more widespread culture of saying "thanks" and publicly calling attention to employee contributions. These platforms can also be tied into more traditional rewards-fulfillment programs so employees can convert their accumulated recognition points into goods such as gift cards, products and even perks like time-off. Leading solution providers in this category include Achievers, Globoforce and OC Tanner, all of which have created robust capabilities for employee recognition implementation and management.

Employee Check-ins and Pulse Surveys

Traditionally, the annual employee survey has been the most commonly used tool for organizations to measure employee-engagement levels (and to help leaders devise interventions aimed at improving areas of weakness). Many HR and business leaders now believe that annual surveys do not provide timely or frequent-enough information about engagement levels to be truly valuable tools and sources of information. Recently, shorter, targeted and more frequently administered (sometimes even daily) "pulse" surveys have become more popular. In addition to assessing current engagement levels, these more-frequent surveys give employers the ability to identify workplace issues that might need near-term attention. These pulse surveys can sometimes even be a single question such as "How was your day today?", and are meant to gauge specific employee feedback, and to highlight trends over time. Pulse surveys might not be ready yet to replace the annual engagement survey, but they are growing in usage as a tool to augment the information in the annual survey. Providers of such tools include TinyPulse, CultureAmp and OfficeVibe.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Many younger workers consider an organization's reputation in the community and commitment to being a good corporate citizen when making decisions about which companies to apply to and which ones to remain at once they join. While many organizations have a natural and obvious cause to rally around (hospitals, charitable organizations, many nonprofits, etc.) others, such as industrial manufacturers, have a more difficult time identifying with a kind of noble purpose that resonates with many of the younger generation particularly. These employees are likely to be more invested in the organization and engaged in their jobs when they feel like the organization stands for more than just financial results. While organizations for years have installed corporate-donation "matching" schemes to show support for employees' personal charitable interests, some new solutions have also emerged to help facilitate, communicate, socialize and make highly visible both the organization's and the employees' commitment to "the greater good."

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One example I'd like to highlight is recognition and rewards provider YouEarnedIt , who have partnered with online charity to enable employees to use their earned recognition points to help local public-school classroom projects. A second example is Causecast, one of the HR Technology Conference's "Awesome New Technologies for HR" in 2013. Causecast's platform provides an efficient means to set up, manage and track workplace giving and volunteering programs. With a focus on social sharing and employee interaction, the technology enables organizations to realize the full potential of employee-led giving and volunteering programs.

As employee engagement and employee retention continue to be named their top talent-related priorities in 2015 by HR and business leaders, attention to these kinds of technology-driven approaches as a way to improve engagement and retention should increase as well. With the added benefit of enabling HR leaders to gain rich insight into program participation, trends and effects on related talent management and business goals, the application of the "right" technology to help foster a more engaged and loyal workforce represents one of the most exciting opportunities that HR technologies can provide.

Steve Boese is a co-chair of HRE's HR Technology ® Conference and a technology editor for LRP Publications. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at


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