What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement goes beyond motivation and job satisfaction. It can also include an employee’s commitment to the fire and rescue service and its values, as well as a willingness to help colleagues go that extra mile and apply discretionary effort.
How to engage employees
One way to create highly engaged workplaces is to model certain behaviours. This can be supported by policy, procedures and guidance that enable autonomy.
The MacLeod Report (2009) defined four main ‘enablers’ of employee engagement, as outlined below.
|Leadership provides strategic direction
|2. Line managers
|Line managers motivate, encourage and empower their staff
|3. Employee voice
|Employees are enabled and encouraged to be involved in decision-making across the organisation
|4. Organisational integrity
|Values are mirrored in an organisation’s culture
Employee engagement is not one single entity that can be measured; rather, it is formed of different elements considered together.
Benefits of employee engagement
Employees who have good quality jobs, experience autonomy, are managed well and see a clear link between their role and their service’s objectives will not only be happier, healthier and more fulfilled, but are also more likely to perform well, driving productivity, better products or services and innovation.
In highly engaged workplaces, employees are physically and psychologically safer, healthier and more productive. They have a sense of belonging and belief in what the organisation is trying to achieve. This can translate positively into quality service provision and the perception of the fire and rescue service as an attractive employer.
For line managers, engaged employees are more likely to:
- Be more productive
- Be loyal team members and stay longer
- Suggest positive improvements
- Have a positive influence on other team members
For themselves, engaged employees are more likely to:
- Be happier and more engaged with their work and team
- Feel more motivated
- Have a good work–life balance
- Feel satisfied with their work
- Be at lower risk of burnout
Why is employee engagement important?
Most fire and rescue services invest heavily in their employees through salary, pension, training and resources, so it makes business sense to ensure that employees feel able to give their best. This also benefits the communities they serve.
In contrast, disengaged employees lack commitment to the organisation. They might be dissatisfied with the organisation, their role, or both. Disengaged employees can have detrimental impacts on managers, other team members, the wider organisation and even external stakeholders, such as:
- Decreased productivity
- Low morale
- High staff turnover
- Lack of collaboration
- Poor quality service provision
It takes only one or two disengaged employees for these negative effects to surface. Even worse, disengagement can be contagious, and an employee’s negative behaviour and attitude can spread to those around them.
Who’s responsible for engaging employees?
Senior leaders can:
- Role model the behaviours that create high levels of employee engagement within their service, so employees feel encouraged to participate in engagement activities
- Encourage managers to recognise good work in an appropriate way and, similarly, handle poor performance or inappropriate behaviour in a constructive way that supports a positive culture
- Support investment in resources that will help their service understand its levels of employee engagement
- Communicate the organisation’s vision, mission and values
- Sponsor and support all employee engagement activities and events to promote the message that engagement is important to the successful running of the service and the community’s confidence in it
- Act as the main contact for different stakeholders and those who implement engagement activities, including HR, organisational development (OD) teams and senior leaders
- Be accountable for issues identified in their area and work with their teams to understand how these can be addressed
- Recognise good work in an appropriate way and, similarly, handle poor performance or inappropriate behaviour in a constructive way that supports a positive culture
- Actively empower and develop their staff
- Ensure their team’s work aligns with the organisation’s mission, vision and values
HR/OD teams can:
- Facilitate the service’s approach to employee engagement, for example through survey administration, analysis and feedback
- Partner with managers to help them address issues in their areas
- Be willing to actively participate in engagement activities, such as surveys and focus groups
- Recognise that they will often be part of the solution to any issues that arise, so it’s important to be personally accountable for their actions and behaviours
Union/employee representatives can:
- Work with the service to develop employee engagement activities and initiatives
- Get involved with and support employee engagement activities and initiatives in an organisation and encourage members to participate
How to measure and understand levels of employee engagement
Employee engagement can be measured and understood in several ways. Typical examples include surveys and focus groups.
Surveys and survey tools/IT solutions
For surveys, to strike a balance between gaining lots of useful data while also securing as many respondents as possible, two factors are crucial: frequency and length. As for what you ask, you can collaborate with survey providers who can provide IT-based solutions and help you develop insightful and meaningful questions.
When planning a survey, you’ll need to consider:
- Timing, for example, you’ll need to avoid periods of leave and ensure any survey is live long enough for all employees to have time to complete it, including part-time employees
- GDPR implications, specifically: what are you going to do with the data gathered and, more importantly, how are you going to feed it back in a way that creates trust in the process and increases the chances that employees will complete future surveys?
- Access or equality issues associated with your chosen survey format(s); completing an equality impact assessment (EqIA) will help identify and mitigate any issues
- Budget: partnering with an external provider for some or all of your survey needs may prove better value for money
- Any other data sources you already have access to, which may give you some insight into levels of employee engagement – remembering employee engagement is not one single entity that can be measured
When thinking about survey tools/IT solutions, you’ll need to consider:
- Which stakeholders, such as trade union/employee groups, should be involved in defining your survey tool’s requirements and functionality
- The size and make-up of your workforce, and which survey methods are likely to get the best return from them – would it be better to use an app or hard (paper) copies? Can employees access QR codes, and so on?
- What dashboard information a manager would find helpful
- What HR information, procedures or guidance you have readily available that could help quickly identify areas with poor engagement scores
- What support you might need when it comes to designing survey questions
- What analytical capabilities you already have within your service
- How frequently you will survey: for example, will you use pulse surveys (a small number of questions asked more often) or annual surveys (more questions asked less often)?
- How the survey(s) could be designed to help you understand your employee’s life cycle; for instance, what specific questions would be useful to ask a trainee firefighter that might not be so useful to ask a corporate employee who has been employed for a longer period of time?
- Whether to incorporate an employee recognition and/or staff suggestion functionality
- Whether a provider could give you relevant external benchmarking data
- Action planning: how could a survey tool make it easier to act on the issues and suggestions that arise?
- How you will communicate with staff about how you’ve addressed any feedback, for example using a ‘we asked, you said, we did’ strap line in employee communications
Participants in focus groups need to feel they will be heard and are able to talk openly. Any actions they suggest must, at a minimum, be acknowledged and, at best, be acted upon and followed up. Focus groups can be a rich source of relevant information, but they can take more time and effort to organise. You’ll need to consider:
- The facilitation skills of those hosting the focus groups to ensure everyone feels heard and discussions stay focused
- Which questions to use
- How you’ll capture discussions’ outcomes
- What ‘rules’ you will need to put in place, particularly if you have a mixture of people joining from different settings (including virtual and in person)
- What technology and collaboration tools will you use and what your people are comfortable using
- Who your target audience is at the individual level, team level, department level and organisation level
- How information generated during the focus group will be recorded, analysed and evaluated
- The location: will it be physical, virtual, or a combination of both?
While surveys and focus groups can give you a snapshot of how people are feeling at/about work, they cannot capture the full picture, as a colleague’s day-to-day interactions will influence their levels of engagement. For example, if an individual is recognised for their contribution to a piece of work, this could impact how engaged they feel and is likely to influence how they will respond to a survey or a focus group question, but we can’t always capture or record these kinds of interactions.
Other approaches that influence employee engagement
Engage for Success is a growing, dynamic, voluntary movement promoting employee engagement as a better way to work, and one that benefits individual employees, teams and whole organisations. Their research has identified three key influences on engagement:
Individual experiences in the workplace: this includes traditional engagement drivers such as opportunities to progress, having clear expectations or feeling supported by a line manager. In the context of fire and rescue services, this could be shaped through on-boarding and induction, line manager relationships, team development, objective-setting in performance development reviews, and promotion processes, for example.
Behaviour and values alignment: this refers to whether people believe that the behaviours of their colleagues, line managers and senior team members match with the values of the organisation. In the context of fire and rescue services, we need to consider the NFCC Core Code of Ethics, any local standards and service values, as well as how colleagues demonstrate these in their day day-to-day actions and decisions.
How the organisation works in practice: this refers to how the company treats members of the public and suppliers, how people communicate internally, and which behaviours and results the company recognises and rewards. In promotion or other recruitment processes in the fire and rescue service, for example, we need to consider the value of behaviours and the importance of not just what people have achieved but also how they have gone about it.
These resources have been selected to help you achieve and maintain better levels of employee engagement.
Making the case for and boosting employee engagement
Gordon Tredgold describes the impact of employee engagement using a rowing boat analogy. It can supplement the information in this guide and may be helpful if you need to make a case for investing time, effort and resources in employee engagement.
The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) Model, developed by researchers Arnold Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti in 2006, helps individuals to understand how to reduce stress if the organisation provides the right support. The model states that when job demands are high and job positives are low, stress and burnout are common. Conversely, job positives can offset the effects of extreme job demands, while encouraging motivation and engagement.
Tips for writing survey questions
Culture Amp (one of many employee survey solution providers in the market) sets out 11 tips for writing employee survey questions. They may be useful if you are starting from scratch, or you want to ‘sense check’ and review your current questions.
Running focus groups
Eventbrite shares seven useful tips to consider when running a focus group. Some are focused on external market research, but the principles can be adapted for an internal context.
The Institute of Internal Communication lists five top tips for running effective employee focus groups. It covers topics from how to be focused on what you need to know, through to how to facilitate a session.