Lessons in Lifting Employee Engagement in Times of Change

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One factor can make a big difference for a company regardless of whether it’s growing healthily or struggling: employee engagement. Improving the workforce’s level of interest and investment in their company can pay significant dividends; research shows that increases in employee engagement are linked to revenue.

The latest research shows that last year’s employee engagement levels rebounded to an all-time high – from 63 percent in 2016 to 65 percent the following year.

Although most companies continue to face disruption and uncertainty from a variety of external factors, a robust and expanding economy offers more opportunity to invest in people. The most successful organizations help employees better understand the opportunities that arise during times of change. “Organizations need to identify what is most important to their own employee population and then focus on improving the drivers of engagement to yield the best return,” said Ken Oehler, Leader of the Global Culture and Engagement practice at Aon.

In Depth

Aon’s 2018 Trends in Employee Engagement report found that the biggest markets in Asia and a major surge in engagement in Africa are largely responsible for the upturn in global engagement. The U.K. experienced the biggest drop among the 29 largest markets examined in this study, due in part to uncertainty around Brexit, while the U.S. was unchanged.

While global levels have returned to their all-time high, overall, levels of engagement varied by country, with economic, political and cultural factors responsible for the differences.

APAC’s Big Rebound
After experiencing a three percentage point drop last year, the APAC region bounced back to its highest engagement level, at 65 percent of employees. The region’s largest countries, China and India, experienced two points of growth. Malaysia also contributed to the region’s rebound with four points of growth. Only three of the region’s largest markets saw engagement decline over the past year – Australia, South Korea and Thailand fell by a single point. Singapore as well as Hong Kong stayed flat.

“Right across our region, having a highly engaged workforce has never been more important,” said Stephen Hickey, Partner and Head of Employee Engagement & Culture, Asia Pacific and the Middle East, Aon. “Many organizations are undertaking transformational change programs as they manage their way through digital disruption, macroeconomic challenges and needing to meet the ever-changing needs of their customers.”

Uncertainty in North America
Employee engagement in North America stayed flat at 64 percent, with both Canada and the U.S. seeing little change over the previous year. In the former country, overall engagement dropped by one percentage point, to 69 percent of all employees.

“2017 was an intense year for many people in the U.S. Dialogues on political and social issues have spilled into the workplace, and many organizations are paying closer attention to defining their stance and taking action on these issues. The country is also facing low unemployment rates, which makes attracting and engaging talent to fuel their growth agenda a top priority,” said Teryluz Andreu, Aon’s North America Culture and Engagement Practice Leader.

A Lagging Europe
Engagement in Europe has been bouncing back and forth from 58 percent to 60 percent since 2014 but has generally improved over the past seven years.

Nonetheless, of the top-improving countries globally, four of them are in Europe. France saw engagement increase by six percentage points; the Netherlands improved by seven points; and both Austria and Sweden rose by a robust nine points.

However, one standout result was in the U.K., which saw engagement falling three percentage points. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit is likely to be a major contributing factor to this decline.

“Europe experienced economic growth and political stability last year. Employee engagement in the U.K. dropped significantly as they are still trying to find their way after the 2016 Brexit vote,” said Dan Riley, Aon’s European Talent Practice Market Leader.

Africa Surges
Africa had the largest increase for a region, where engagement rose from 61 percent of employees to 66 percent, and that’s up from 51 percent in 2012 – by far the biggest jump of the five regions surveyed in this study.

“Africa’s improved employee engagement across manage engagement drivers puts the region’s organizations in a great position for business growth,” explained Khalid Youssef, Senior Consultant, Middle East, Aon. “Africa’s recent economic struggle resulted in leaders placing an increased emphasis on creating growth-driven business environments through more engaged employees actively listening to them.”

Looking Ahead
“Companies with employees who are above average in engagement levels will see better employee productivity, lower turnover rates and higher customer satisfaction scores – all factors that can significantly contribute to improved financial performance,” notes Oehler. Amid a shifting economic and geopolitical landscape, companies that focus on creating a culture that supports employee engagement can be more resilient in the face of such external factors.

Further Reading

2018 Trends in Employee Engagement” – Aon, 2017

Why the millions we spend on employee engagement buy us so little” – Harvard Business Review, March 10, 2017

How to establish a culture of employee engagement” – Forbes, January 4, 2018

How to use employee engagement to drive rapid growth” – Chief Executive, February 5, 2018