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Why Employee Thriving Is a Better Measure of Engagement

August 10, 2022 Employee Experience
Siobhan Fagan
By Siobhan Fagan

Over the past two years, with the rise of remote work and increasing turnover rates, organizations have invested significant resources into employee engagement and ensuring remote employees remain connected and committed to the organization.

But recent research from Microsoft shows that rather than pursuing some nebulous idea of employee engagement, companies should instead measure "employee thriving," which the company defines as the state of being energized and empowered to do meaningful work.

"To us, this was a reflection that we hadn’t yet set a high enough bar for the employee experience, and it motivated us to do better in measuring what matters,” wrote two of the company's people analytics researchers, Dawn Klinghoffer and Elizabeth McCune, in the Harvard Business Review.

The New Measure of Success

According to Ian Cook, VP of People Analytics at Visier, there is a growing recognition of the need to move beyond engagement as the measure of HR success. Many factors have brought about this realization that the practices that grew up around engagement were a step in the right direction, but insufficient for a modern workplace.

Engagement as a concept has only weak support from the academic literature, which points more clearly to the importance of trust, discretionary effort and commitment as it relates to organizational performance, Cook said.

The challenge that organizations have had so far with employee engagement is that there are varying definitions and methodologies for measuring it, further adding to the confusion about how it impacts people and results. In addition, the way that engagement has been measured, reported and acted upon typically followed an annual cycle, leading to a few months of focused work each year rather than having a continual program that provides insights in real time throughout the year.

As a result, the actions taken by the organization were often too late — or too overwhelming — to make a meaningful difference in the lives of employees. In the end, the investments that have been made in the engagement process have not, for the most part, moved the needle when it comes to people and performance.

Steven McConnell an HR and career expert at Australia-based consultancy Arielle Executive, said employee engagement efforts are often cosmetic. They serve to identify internal needs or issues but don't necessarily address external elements that may prevent an employee from thriving as a contributor to the team's success. Measuring employee thriving allows for the mitigation of pain points that run deeper than superficial issues at work like ineffective managers and heavy workloads.

“By focusing on how employees are thriving, an organization will not only protect its members against psychological harm but will also cultivate an environment that fosters the development of positive mental health and a sense of fulfillment among employees,” McConnell said.

Related Article: What Happens When Executives Don't Value Employee Experience?

A Modern Take on Employee Engagement

Modern approaches to understanding and acting on the elements that support people and performance follow two key themes:

1. Measurability

The focus today is on measurable items that are known to have an impact and where insight can lead to action — which, in turn, can lead to improvements for the employee. One such example is offering employees metrics to assess the extent and reach of their organizational networks. Such information can help them know how they can access organizational knowledge faster, and enable efficient ways to connect with other people to help them meet business goals.

2. Sentiment Analysis

Modern approaches are showing a trend away from surveys toward sentiment analysis. Modern technologies can detect and structure sentiments being expressed by employees without linking the data to specific individuals. Done well, with appropriate ethical controls, it is indeed possible for leaders to “listen” to employees in the flow of work without infringing on their privacy.

This approach removes the company's reliance on surveys and speeds up the cycle time to action, demonstrating that the organization not only paid attention but also acted on the factors that are genuinely important to employees.

“In the whole area of understanding people and work, the thing that many organizations lose sight of is the need to take action in support of their employees — not just ask them about their views,” Cook said.

Related Article: Why Employee Listening Matters So Much Right Now

The Importance of Culture

Hierarchies within companies can make it challenging for employees to communicate honestly and openly with their employers. For instance, there may be fear of retaliation or stunted career growth from sharing negative aspects of the work culture. Even surveys said to be anonymous can often be biased if employees don't trust the confidential nature of their response.

So, to be able to capture an accurate assessment of employee sentiment, organizations should first seek to accomplish three key goals:

  • Create a psychologically safe environment
  • Identify outlets for learning about true sentiment
  • Build a culture focused on communication and mutual respect

For employees to honestly communicate their sentiment toward the company, its processes, its culture and its workforce, Joe Du Bey, CEO and cofounder of HR and workplace technology company Eden, said they must feel cared for by their managers and coworkers, must care about the company and must feel that honesty is desired and never punished. 

This starts by prioritizing people, he said. “A company that does not prioritize its people is like a pro athlete that disregards her health," Du Bey said. "People’s sentiment is not ancillary to a company’s outcome, it drives the outcome."

Related Article: Employee Feedback Is Critical to a Great Employee Experience

Flexible Work

The pandemic has changed the way most people view work and their office environment. Lauressa-Kay Higgs, head of HR at the TMRW Foundation, said there's been a paradigm shift surrounding what work means to us; what makes us happy, motivated and passionate about what we do.

Flexibility is one of the main reasons for people seeking new jobs today. Providing the ability to balance work and life in the way that works best for each employee has become a key driver of engagement for organizations.

“Even if companies do not implement it, their employees cannot unsee it, and that’s driving a lot of people to change what happiness looks like for them at work,” said Higgs. “I love the idea that we can work from where we feel happiest, whether it may be the office, at home or with a beach view."

Thanks to the modern digital workplace, a person's physical location is no longer a factor in their professional success. "You do not have to move to headquarters to play a large and important role in an organization," Higgs said. "We can build up our days in a way that allows our personal and professional lives to coexist.”

And that, experts say, is what drives employees to truly thrive in life and in the workplace.

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