Traditionally, surveys have been the tools of choice for measuring employee engagement, and the data collected from them has formed the foundation of many engagement initiatives. But it doesn't take a doctor of psychology to recognize the weaknesses in this self-reporting approach. When asked about workplace habits and feelings, will employees truly be honest? And even if HR managers could guarantee that survey results accurately reflected workforce opinions, a survey still only represents a snapshot bound to a specific point in time.
But new technology could enable a shift from static self-reporting to dynamic observation, according to Yvette Cameron, research director for human capital management (HCM) technologies at research firm Gartner, which is based in Stamford, Conn. "Rather than continuing to ask employees if they're engaged, we can start intuiting and deriving [their engagement] based on their actions," she said.
Another common pitfall with surveys cited by Kenneth Finneran, chief people officer at the Americas division of logistics services company Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, is that simply rolling out a survey is many HR managers' idea of an employee engagement initiative. But moving the needle requires taking action after the survey results are in.
While Finneran stressed the importance of holding managers and other business leaders accountable for increasing engagement, Cameron pointed out that technology can also help in this area -- and it doesn't have to be the flashiest or most hyped tools.
Sentiment analysis allows HR managers to observe employee engagement
Cameron explained that today's surveys are becoming more attuned to the ample and sometimes not immediately obvious measures of engagement, from workplace enablement to having friends at work. Still, while she said surveys can be useful for taking the pulse of the workforce, she characterized them as traditional approaches. "They're a good start, but with today's technologies we're able to do more."
Cameron pointed to the marketing function as an example of how HR departments can more effectively measure employee engagement in real time. Advances in customer relationship management systems have made customer "listening" possible -- observing and analyzing consumer attitudes through behavior on social media outlets or other online forums. Cameron said it's only a matter of time before this technology will be turned inward.
"We will start applying all the lessons we've learned in consumer sentiment analysis to employee sentiment analysis," Cameron said. "We're not doing it with email and social connections very heavily yet, but that kind of mindset will emerge over the new few years, and it will become a key factor in the new measurement techniques of employee engagement."
And this will be facilitated by the increased adoption and use of enterprise social collaboration tools. "Are [employees] contributing content? Are they responding? Is their connectivity increasing or decreasing? That's going to tell us a lot about the workforce," Cameron said.
In addition, by using analytics software, HR managers can begin to mine data, which might help to uncover the root causes of disengagement. "A lot of people will do a survey of their employees, or they might move to the next step and do some social network analysis, but what about mining the data behind absenteeism? That can tell you a lot about the drivers for disengagement," Cameron said. "So taking that mindset of big data analysis and mining the data that's available can be an important part of … driving engagement."
Culture and technology are mutually beneficial in employee engagement
Measurement techniques aside, what role does technology play in the effort to increase employee engagement? Today, vendors of gamification systems, social recognition tools and collaboration platforms often cite boosting employee engagement as a key value proposition of their products. However, Cameron said technology won't be effective on its own.
"Some people might say, 'Give [employees] a social collaboration tool, and engagement will be great,'" [but] that's one piece of a much broader strategy," she said.
Because employee engagement springs from complex feelings that are difficult to engender simply by implementing a system, such as enablement and sense of autonomy and purpose, Cameron said organizations should first strive to create an open, collaborative culture that fosters these values.
However, technology and culture can support each other in a symbiotic manner. For instance, the success of an enterprise social networking platform can both benefit from and enable transparent communication. Even something as seemingly mundane as a labor-scheduling system can have an impact on employee engagement because it supports a culture of workplace flexibility.
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"If you have a modern time and labor solution where employees are able to very quickly see their work schedule [and] do some shift swapping with their peers, you're enabling employees to make the work-life balance work," Cameron said. "Flexibility is a component of employee satisfaction and engagement, [and] so even a technology like that can be an important tool in an overall employee engagement strategy."
In addition to enterprise collaboration platforms, Cameron said social recognition systems are top of mind for many organizations today, to demonstrate to employees that their contributions are meaningful and valuable. "Social recognition [tools] are a great way to help foster employee engagement, to drive visibility [and] start shifting the culture from being a closed door, manager-to-employee communication style to a transparent peer-to-peer culture of continuous recognition," she said.
Finneran of Hellmann Worldwide Logistics said his organization is just getting started with some of these new technologies. "We are just now implementing gaming tools into our rewards and recognition program, and we have a very limited collaboration platform at this time," he said.
However, similar to Cameron's point about the importance of culture, Finneran stressed that it takes more than technology to make an employee engagement initiative successful.
"Technology is only an enabler of engagement and certain initiatives, but engagement generally stems from the specific actions of supervisors and managers that are not directly tied to technology," he said. "We have had some good initial feedback on the reward and recognition tools, but the [managers] who are using these tools best generally tend to be the ones who were already engaged with their employees."
Performance review software uses natural language processing to asses feedback