pouring coffee into a mug that has "UGH" written on it
PHOTO: Nathan Dumlao

Engaged employees are critical to an organization's health. David Johnson, principal analyst serving CIOs for Forrester, cited it, along with cash flow and customer satisfaction, as one of three factors that determine the health of a business. 

Yet companies struggle to get employee engagement right. According to findings from Dynamic Signal’s 2019 Annual State of Employee Communication and Engagement Study, 80% of the US workforce report feeling stressed because of ineffective company communication, which marks a 30% jump from the year before. The report also found 63% of respondents stating they considered quitting because ineffective communication interfered with their ability to do their job ­— almost double from the 33% in 2018.

So it seems almost inevitable that a software market would emerge geared at helping businesses in their efforts: employee engagement software. Unfortunately, the details of what falls under that umbrella term often depends on who you speak to. 

Employee Engagement Software to the Rescue?

Can software help increase employee engagement? And does the employee engagement software currently on offer increase employee engagement or is it just good old-fashioned employee surveys with a fancy name? 

The employee engagement software market comes in many different forms and names, depending on which analyst firm or crowdsourcing site you consult.

Sites like Capterra and G2 Crowd list a number of vendors under what they call employee engagement software. On the other hand, Gartner calls software in this space “worker engagement platforms,” which it cites in its Hype Cycle for the Digital Workplace, 2018 (paywall).

According to Gartner, worker engagement platforms aim to “increase engagement and performance through such elements as recommendations, mindfulness, and connecting workers to others and to common purposes.” They include regular feedback, coaching, encouragement, learning, competition, participation in team or social activities, personalization and social recognition, according to Gartner.

Forrester classifies employee engagement software in a number of ways ways: engagement analytics software, for instance, and “systems of support” that include employee recognition, employee communications, human resource management and workforce analytics, according its recent The Employee Experience Technology Ecosystem report (paywall).

The market for employee engagement software is growing, according to Zion Market Research’s report published in March (paywall). According to the report, the global employee engagement software market is expected to reach approximately $346 million by 2025. “The integration of application programs chosen by enterprises for productive employee retention and an increase in job satisfaction is termed as employee engagement software,” read the report. Employee engagement, it stated, "sits at the center of feedback, investment, recognition and culture.”

So what should those tasked with improving employee engagement do with all this? How does employee engagement software work?

Related Article: Employee-Driven Design: Creating an Engaging Digital Workplace

As Employee Engagement Software Market Grows, So Does Confusion

“Employee engagement software” describes any tool designed to help companies measure and/or improve employee engagement, according to Brian Westfall, principal human resources analyst for Capterra. In its Employee Engagement Software listing, Capterra filters the software into three categories: 

  • Cultural alignment (examples include: SurveyMonkey Engage; Peakon; Hyphen).
  • Feedback management (examples include: Qualtrics; Trakstar; Culture Amp).
  • Surveys (examples include: WorkTango; Trivie; Aduro).

Crowdsourcing site G2 Crowd splits employee engagement software vendors between these features:

  • Employee Pulse Surveys: (examples include: 15Five; Lattice Performance Management). 
  • Survey Customization: (examples include: Officevibe; Reward Gateway).
  • Peer Recognition: (examples include: TINYpulse; Motivosity).
  • Employee Segmenting: (examples include: GetFeedback; Branch Messenger).
  • Goal and Challenge Creation: (examples include: Halo Recognition; Quantum Workplace).
  • Wellness Assessments: (examples include: Poppulo; Glint).

(Note: Many of the Capterra and G2 Crowd vendors offer multiple features and capabilities).

Westfall admitted to some industry confusion over the software category. “Organizations are showing a lot of interest in these tools to solve their engagement woes,” Westfall added, “but because this is a relatively new category of HR software, and functionality varies so wildly from vendor to vendor, it’s also causing a lot of confusion for potential buyers.”

Related Article: 9 Employee Engagement Survey Questions to Ask

Passive and Active Assessments for Engagement

The most common feature that ties these employee engagement software systems together is the presence of some type of mechanism to measure employee engagement in an organization, Westfall said. Typically, he added, this mechanism comes in the form of pulse surveys: short, informal, anonymous surveys that are sent out to workers on a frequent basis to track how happy or engaged they are at work, and common sources of disengagement (e.g., bad managers, lack of training opportunities, etc.). Forrester’s Johnson agrees that pulse surveys are common. 

Johnson told CMSWire the two main categories under employee engagement software are employee engagement surveys and engagement analytics. Some engagement software can help determine engagement without active employee involvement. Johnson cited the example of Microsoft Workplace Analytics, which can determine how employees are actually using and engaging with the software. This, he said, can help organizations understand patterns of behavior.

Johnson refers to this as “passive software” that doesn't require the user to do anything. It’s “harvesting the digital exhaust” to be able to gauge engagement. “It’s listening and watching,” Johnson said.

Johnson said sentiment analysis is also key in this area. Gathering information on how people feel is a direct link to understanding employe engagement. “A good sentiment analysis tool will apply some psychological knowledge and expertise to comments people make and derive some meaning,” Johnson said. 

Related Article: Tips for Improving Employee Engagement

Exploring Employee Net Promoter Score 

While some vendors have their own proprietary algorithm for measuring employee engagement, most use a metric called Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), which has emerged as the industry standard, according to Capterra’s Westfall. The eNPS metric measures the difference between the number of promoters in your organization (i.e., those who would enthusiastically recommend working at your company to a friend or colleague) and the number of detractors (i.e., those who would actively dissuade a friend or colleague from working at your company). “The higher your eNPS,” Westfall said, “the more engaged your workforce.”

Forrester’s Johnson doesn’t see the eNPS as the best method for measuring employee engagement, however. He called this approach “speculative” and finds that it “doesn't necessarily always correlate with engagement.”

A better method, he said, is a survey that asks questions such as: “How strongly on a scale of 1–10 do you agree with this statement: I feel inspired at work.” Those kinds of questions, Johnson said, “speak directly to how an employee feels .... Then you can aggregate maybe 10 of those factors together, and it will give you a score. Anything but that is not really valid.”

Related Article: Improving Employee Engagement Through Staff Training

Engagement Beyond the Tools: Knowing What Motivates Employees

Naturally, software is not the only consideration for improving employee engagement. Sometimes it's as basic as not eating a co-worker’s lunch: “When as employee is engaged, he/she trusts the people around them and feels an emotional connection to the brand,” employee engagement expert Jill Christenen wrote this month. “Because of this, the employee goes above and beyond the call of duty and gives the organization a lot of discretionary effort. If someone eats your lunch, trust is immediately broken as you do not know who the culprit is/who violated you.”

Knowing what an engaged employee values can help. Forrester researchers in their Employee Experience Index (paywall) found emotion is the “main governor of engagement.” They cited the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale that scientists use to capture how employees feel about themselves and their work. Forrester itself found an engaged employee feels safe (comfortable being vulnerable or taking risks in front of colleagues), is energized and wants to grow.

Related Article: How Employee Experience Design Improves Engagement