To most people, employee engagement means keeping employees happy and motivated. 

To social scientists, it is a multi-dimensional construct which is concerned with the degree to which organizational members employ and express themselves physically, cognitively and emotionally as they perform their roles.  

The Engagement Gap

Two themes have emerged since employee engagement first appeared in management literature in the mid 1990s. 

First — it is critical to an organization's success. Numerous academic studies have found that organizations with engaged employees report higher shareholder returns, profitability, productivity and customer satisfaction.  

Conversely, organizations where employees characterize themselves as disengaged report challenges including a high attrition rate with associated recruitment and training costs, outgoing employees poaching valuable clients and knowledge assets, and low productivity.

Second — time and time again we're told that employee engagement is low and on the decline. One study reports that on average only 52 percent of employees in UK firms can be characterized as “engaged” (pdf). Research shows a similar situation in the US. This problem has been dubbed an engagement gap, and some claim it costs businesses billions in lost productivity.

Where Technology Fits Into Employee Engagement 

Technology, and digital communication and collaboration technologies in particular, can have a positive impact on employee engagement in the following ways:

Making work meaningful

Researchers have recognized the psychological condition of 'meaningfulness' as an important factor in employee engagement. Work having a sense of meaning was cited as the fourth most important factor in choosing whether to work for an organization in the Deloitte 2016 Millennials survey. Technology can contribute to making work meaningful in two ways.

Co-worker relationships: Research shows individuals who have rewarding interpersonal interactions with their co-workers also experience greater meaning in their work. However, it can be challenging to develop and maintain such relationships in the modern working environment. 

My research shows that unified communications and enterprise social networks can play an essential role in enabling rich, positive relationships between co-workers.   One participant in my study of the use of enterprise social network usage in a global technology company told me, 

The emotional connection that I have to the company has been one of the biggest changes which has resulted from my use of the ESN … I’ve been able to network with different people, to build better relationships with people that I would never have met, got to become friends with those people, and those people that I am friends with, that relationship is much stronger within the organization.” 

Social identities: Individuals derive meaning from the social identities they construct within organizations. Academic research has found that social roles and relationships are increasingly inseparable from people’s interactions with information technology. 

My own research supports this conclusion. I have found evidence that developing a personal brand, or constructing a social identity in the workplace, is one of the most cited benefits and uses of enterprise social networks. For example, one interviewee told me with regard to their use of the corporate enterprise social network,

“… It’s the visibility because people see what you’re posting … you know lots of people claim to be an expert in something, but this allows you to demonstrate it.”

Enabling Flexible Working and Promoting Good Work/Life Balance

The Deloitte 2016 Millennial survey found that a good work/life balance and flexible working in terms of hours and location were two of the top three factors valued by millennials when evaluating organizations to work for.  

When combined with complementary HR policies and a supportive corporate culture, technology can play a critical role in enabling flexible working and promoting a good work/life balance. Unified communications — including instant messaging, video and voice telephony — allow people to stay connected to the enterprise while working remotely or from home. 

Collaboration technologies enable people to fully participate in team activities, and using enterprise social networks can help allay fear or anxiety of missing out when not physically in the office. 

Fostering a Sense of Pride

Recognizing and appreciating employee's competence and achievements fosters a sense of pride and accomplishment. And this helps motivate people to continue achieving in the future. 

Praise from managers and peers are powerful motivators. Digital communication and collaboration tools afford new ways to provide meaningful feedback and recognition.  

Management recognition of achievement: Managers can use digital technologies to publicly acknowledge and praise employees' achievements. One case study (pdf) showed an organization's revenues increase after the CEO started using unified communication tools to run live Web TV Shows in which he publicly asked each sales team to report their results and thanked them for their achievements. During the shows, other teams posted messages on the enterprise social network to cheer their colleague's performance.  

A less time consuming way for executives to make employees feel proud about their accomplishments is to click the “Like” button or comment on the posts of specific employees they wish to single out. These symbolic and inexpensive responses have been shown to produce substantial returns in terms of increased employee motivation.

Building a professional reputation amongst peers: My research shows that employees use enterprise social networks and collaboration platforms to build a professional reputation within their organization. One way to achieve this is through gamification techniques — where employees receive badges, points or awards for contributions made to online communities. Enterprise social networks also provide a means for employees to showcase their work. 

Developing Reciprocal Relationships Between Employee and Organizations

Employee engagement is a two-way relationship between the employee and the organization. Studies have shown how employees choose to engage themselves to varying degrees in response to the resources that they receive from employers.  

In the Deloitte 2016 Millennial survey investing in and using the latest technology was cited as one of the top 10 reasons for choosing to work for an organization.  Failure to meet these expectations can lead to dissatisfaction and disengagement as employees feel that they are not been given the resources necessary to do their jobs.

Building Trust 

Trust in the workplace is essential to building employee engagement. The relationship with one’s immediate manager can have a dramatic impact on an individual’s perception of the safety of a work environment. Technologies such as desktop video conferencing, instant messaging and enterprise social networks can facilitate these relationships, especially in work environments where employees work flexible hours or remotely.   

Creating Opportunities for Learning, Teaching and Innovation

Knowledge workers value opportunities for continuous innovation, learning and teaching. Social learning through interaction with peers while on the job has a key role to play alongside formal learning and training. Digital tools can help meet these needs in a number of very specific ways:

  • Digital communities of practice: Social and collaboration tools can be used to create virtual spaces for individuals who share common professional interests to connect across geographic and organizational boundaries to exchange ideas and information, and to work together on business problems
  • Lessons Learned: Content management and social tools enable teams to capture lessons after action reviews and to share this information across the enterprise. This provides a valuable way to share experiences that can be applied to other similar work situations
  • Transfer of good practices: Social tools can provide an efficient and effective way for different areas of an enterprise to participate in benchmarking exercises and to share good practices across the organization
  • Expertise location systems: Enterprise social networks provide a low-cost and low-maintenance way to identify subject matter experts across a distributed enterprise
  • Organic knowledge base: One of the most commonly cited benefits of enterprise social networks that arises in my research is how, over time, the platform becomes an organic knowledge base with frequently asked questions and answers

Empowering Employees to Act Autonomously

Knowledge workers value opportunities to take responsibility for their work and to manage themselves. Social technologies can help employees to act autonomously. 

For example, my research inside a global technology firm found that managers used the ESN as a key communication channel to share objectives and guidelines, to gain input and ideas, and to solicit feedback. 

Knowledge workers routinely narrated their work and activities on the network, a practice referred to as “working out loud,” providing managers with valuable insight into the status and activities of team members. These practices reduced the need for planning meetings and status updates — and as a result provided employees with the freedom to act within a flexible framework of management guidelines and oversight.