staged photo of two people engaging in "water cooler talk"
PHOTO: shutterstock

As companies evolve to embrace remote employees and flexible work arrangements, the race is on to implement new processes, systems and platforms that help companies and employees stay connected across distances and time zones. For many, this is uncharted territory, which makes the need to understand the effectiveness of new platforms a top priority.

In establishing key metrics for such assessments, engagement has emerged as a key performance indicator of platform implementation success. But in this regard, executives need to proceed with caution. Not all engagement is created equal. And if employers don’t look for the devil in the details, they might find their KPIs leading them down a counterproductive path.

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'Engagement' as a Metric Can Be Misleading

Organizations that are looking to implement employee communications platforms with long-term sustainability need to focus on metrics with long-term implications. It’s understandable that engagement is a commonly cited metric when trying to understand the effectiveness of communications through a new system. But here’s the catch: Engagement with a platform is not the same as engagement with a company and its business outcomes. If executives and HR teams are judging success based on engagement with a platform rather than the organization itself, they will easily be misled as to the productivity and satisfaction of their employees.

We’ve seen the challenges of engagement as a metric manifest in other areas of business in recent years — most notably, social media. When social media emerged as a must-embrace marketing channel around 2008, businesses struggled with how to gauge its effectiveness. Seeing people interact with a company’s posts was rewarding, and certainly provided value. But how could its true impact be understood?

For years, marketers focused on surface-level counts of engagement, such as likes and comments. But over the years, marketers have realized that engagement alone doesn’t necessarily translate to the business outcomes desired. In time, their systems for gauging effectiveness of social media efforts have evolved to focus on more powerful indicators of business benefit, such as influence and actual sales.

Social media represents an apropos comparison to the realm of employee communications platforms today, not only because of the rising importance and prominence of these communications platforms, but also because they are in some cases being leveraged similarly to social media within an organization. Therein lies part of the challenge.

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Productivity Platform or Venting Platform?

Executives and HR professionals need to be thoughtful about their application of the concept of engagement as they look to implement the best possible processes and platforms to keep employees connected to the organization. As a metric, engagement can be immensely valuable — so long as what’s being measured is engagement with actual work rather than a tool that lets them chat with coworkers.

Perhaps Gallup put it best in its “State of the American Workplace” report when it stated:

“Employees may feel connected to their team members, but if, among other challenges, they don't know what's expected of them (a basic need), don't have the appropriate materials and equipment (a basic need), or are not able to do what they do best (an individual need), their affiliation with their team members is unlikely to have a positive impact on their performance. Instead, time spent with their peers may more closely resemble a gripe session than productive teamwork."

Engaged employees are a boon to an organization. And ultimately, they can drive substantial revenue growth via their engagement. But that’s only the case when that engagement takes the form of alignment with an organization and its goals. When employee interaction with a platform amounts to nothing more that virtual water cooler talk, “engagement” does not translate to better business outcomes.