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Goodbye Employee Engagement, Hello Employee Thriving

September 13, 2022 Employee Experience
Laurence Lock Lee
By Laurence Lock Lee

Just when we thought we had a handle on employee engagement, we now hear it’s not enough. Microsoft’s Dawn Klinghoffer and Elizabeth McCune identified employee engagement measures as insufficient in an HBR article. And they certainly aren't alone in this view.

Klinghoffer and McCune define thriving as: “To be energized and empowered to do meaningful work.” Their investigations also noted that those employees who reported they were thriving talked about: “a collaborative environment and teamwork with colleagues, an inclusive culture with autonomy and flexibility, and well-being support." Additionally, they found: “the most common thread among those who were not thriving was a feeling of exclusion — from a lack of collaboration to feeling left out of decisions to struggling with politics and bureaucracy.” What's clear from these statements is employee thriving and inclusive collaboration are intertwined.

A Measure for 'Thriving' in Groups?

To unpack the term “thriving employee,” we can take from Klinghoffer and McCune's definition: “to be energized and empowered to do meaningful work.” We can also take from their research that employees do not thrive outside of their collaborative environments — their work teams, communities, networks and formal department structures.

To date, the main instrument for collecting data on both employee engagement and now employee thriving has been periodic surveying. Klinghoffer and McCune noted some of the shortcomings of relying solely on surveys, something I too recently wrote about. While follow-up interviews can fill some of the gaps, it is not scalable across whole organizations.

Klinghoffer and McCune used sentiment analysis technology along with calendar and email data to assess the impact of work/life balance, a hint to perhaps how a more continuous measurement approach could be established. Sentiment alone, however, is only a rough proxy for a thriving employee. For example, a new recruit might be very upbeat about the new perks the company is offering and speak positively about this, while they at the same time feel disengaged from meaningful work in a collaborative team.

As we prepare for SWOOP Analytics’ eighth Yammer Benchmarking Report, we have undertaken to expand our comprehensive Yammer community performance measure to accommodate the concept of a “Thriving Community.” In our 2021 Yammer benchmarking study we included a section on “Happiest Communities,” where we used sentiment analysis as the indicator. What we found was that relying on positive sentiment alone is limiting. For example, we found some perfectly happy communities working in areas where the context was negative e.g. cybersecurity. We therefore chose to identify the “energy” (both positive and negative sentiment) in communities.

Finally, another dimension we would associate with “thriving” is “growth.” We say that our vegetable garden is thriving when the produce is overflowing. Measuring growth in activity and membership of Yammer communities is therefore has a place. We need to be mindful though that for communities there can be a point where too much growth can create a loss of focus, leading to lower engagement and energy.

Our framework for measuring thriving communities looks like:

thriving community measurement

The Participation, Engagement, Responsiveness and Innovation factors are weighted according to our expert community managers group judgments. We have added the “Energy” and “Growth” factors (shaded area) and given them a collective 50% weighting to emphasize the extension of thinking beyond a “high performing community” to “thriving.”

The 50/50 weighting of the existing community performance measure and the “Energy” and “Growth” factors added to accommodate the “thriving” descriptor is somewhat arbitrary, but given the unknown effects, is as good a place as any to start experimenting.

We applied our new “Thriving” measure to more than 3,200 Yammer communities selected from 97 organizations across a breadth of industry sectors and geographies.

Related Article: Employee Engagement Programs Need a Refresh and Middle Management Is Key

So What Do “Thriving Communities” Look Like?

In applying our new algorithms, we identified an elite set of 459 communities that we assessed as “thriving.” The following table identifies some attributes that differentiated this elite group from the remainder.

Average Non-Elite Elite Thriving
Total Users  1393.05 5313.85
Total Active Users 185.13 1024.99
% Participation 34% 48%
Growth -23.21 -10.68
Energy 1.46 1.23
2021 Group Performance 48.47 57.71

What is first evident is that on average, the groups are larger, yet with higher active participation (more than just reading) rates. Perhaps the larger size is partially attributed to an additional factor we introduced for elite communities, being that they are active on at least five out of every seven days in the week over a six-month period.

Related Article: Social Networking Does Not Equal Employee Engagement

What Types of Communities Are Classified as “Thriving”?

Our Yammer community benchmarking uses machine learning techniques to classify them according to their interaction behaviors:

community types in Yammer that are thriving

It’s comforting to see the communities that are thriving are the higher connections group types of Communities of Practice and Information Sharing. Thriving Q&A forums are also well represented. It may seem incongruous to see “Low Engagement” groups making this list. They appear to be small groups that have shown high levels of growth, be it on the back of low activity levels. It’s probably not surprising to see just a single Announce group on the list.

As is our benchmarking practice, we reach out to those communities identified at the top of our rankings to hear their stories and help validate our assessment algorithms. Many we publish as case studies in our report. We are currently still in this process, but from what we have heard so far, our identified thriving communities are indeed thriving. A mix of work related and non-work related communities are definitely exhibiting extreme engagement, energy and growth. We have yet to receive approvals for publishing their stories, but look out for them when they are published in our 2022/23 Yammer Benchmarking Report.

Overall, we think our new additions to identify those aspects of group work that speak to the label of “thriving,” has been a worthwhile exercise, in a mission to arrive at a measure that really matters.

About the Author

Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.

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