Employee Relations

What an employee engagement survey should look like

happy employee

Theoretically, we all know that ‘employee engagement’ is a good thing for our organisation. But how do we define, measure, and improve such a complicated metric? Putting together a good employee engagement survey, or series of surveys, is a good place to start. But the best way to do this is still hotly contended amongst HR experts, with some even suggesting that we can’t measure engagement at all.

Today, we’re looking at a few different views on employee engagement, and thinking about how you might use a survey to measure, analyse and improve it.

Is employee engagement impossible to measure?

According to leading HR influencer Professor Rob Briner, employee engagement is practically impossible to measure, because there is no centrally agreed definition.

“This definitional mess must not be ignored or trivialised” writes Rob Briner, in his article ‘Don’t believe the hype of employee engagement’. “Without a clear and agreed definition of engagement we literally do not know or understand what we’re talking about or doing.”

This means that putting together an employee engagement survey is a lot less straightforward than if we were measuring something more objective and easily defined, such as absence or retention.

What employee engagement means to most employers

I don’t believe engagement is impossible to measure and improve. But I do agree with Rob Briner, that without an agreed definition, there’s no way of knowing exactly which target you’re trying to hit.

In its broadest terms, the CIPD explains employee engagement as “a range of established concepts, including job satisfaction, motivation, work effort, organisational commitment, shared purpose, energy and flow”. They add that it can also describe an internal state of being, including behaviour such as ‘going the extra mile’.

In my own experience, the phrase ‘organisational commitment’ seems to resonate with most employers I speak to. I’ve found this to be what many employers really mean when they talk about employee engagement. And it fits quite well with Khan’s theory of employee engagement, 1990, in which he describes an engaged employee as “one who is fully absorbed by, and enthusiastic about their work”.

Of course, this is all still very hard to measure. It’s extremely broad and subjective. You can’t simply send out an employee engagement survey asking: “How committed are you to your organisation?”

Well you can. But you can’t expect to get much information of value in return – because commitment will mean different things to different people.

Don’t measure engagement – measure the ingredients for engagement

If employee engagement can mean different things to different people, and if engagement itself is difficult to directly measure, then you might actually find that it helps you more to measure the various elements that contribute to your ideal definition of an ‘engaged employee’.

Research by Office Vibe suggests that your employee engagement survey should focus on measuring the following 10 key areas:

1, Feedback

2, Recognition

3, Happiness

4, Relationship with peers

5, Relationship with managers

6, Personal growth

7, Alignment

8, Satisfaction

9, Wellness

10, Ambassadorship


This could include questions such as:

  • How well do you feel your hard work is recognised?
  • How happy do you feel at work?
  • How proud do you feel to represent our brand?

These questions are still quite subjective, but they are more focused. A sliding scale, such as a rating from 1-5, is a good way to quantify your results. And although questions like this might not necessarily give you a yes or no answer to the question of “are my employees engaged?”, they could still help you to boost your employees’ commitment to your brand – as long as you act on the feedback, and put measures in place to improve the areas where scores are lower.

Don’t restrict your employee engagement survey to once a year

There’s another problem with employee engagement surveys. Answers can be wildly different depending on the time of year, month, or even day. An employee who has just had an argument with their manager, might not rate their relationship with their manager very highly – even if they get along fine almost all of the time.

For this reason, the traditional annual survey alone, is considered by most to be an outdated and ineffective idea. It should be mixed with more ‘in the moment’ methods of gathering feedback, such as pulse surveys. This gives you a more balanced result.

Employee engagement surveys are often a good tool to use towards the end of a probation period, or prior to a probation review meeting, to help understand a new hire's perspective of the business and get fresh ideas on how to improve.

You can read more about the importance of keeping your finger on the pulse, and regularly gathering feedback from your employees, in my earlier article: What employees think of and what to do about it.

Jake Fields
By Jake Fields New Business Sales Representative

Jake Fields is a New Business Sales Representative at Access PeopleHR. With a diverse background spanning customer service, training, and sales, he is a seasoned professional in all things HR software. Jake's global training experience has cultivated strong client relationships across a range of industries. A true people person at heart, his mission is to provide tailored solutions and support individuals throughout their HR journey.