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the meaning of employee engagement

6 min read

Now you might think that this is quite an obvious topic to be thinking and talking about as a company who prides itself on being the ‘employee engagement people', but I wanted to bring it up, and this is the reason why.

Last month, whilst looking for inspiration for a new blog post, I stumbled across an article that explained the ‘definition’ of employee engagement as:

"The willingness to invest discretionary effort at work.”


My immediate reaction was firstly ‘I didn't know that’ quickly followed by ‘I wouldn't describe it that way’. Don’t get me wrong, it is an accurate statement; it just didn't fill me with much inspiration, motivation, or desire to engage.

At Reward Gateway, my job is to spark a chain of engagement that passes down from supplier, to client, to employee. Being an Engagement Manager means that I use the motivation and inspiration I get from my job to engage my client contacts, who in turn are motivated and inspired enough to work with me to engage with their employees. Their employees, in turn, are then motivated and inspired enough to become loyal, hardworking, productive and happy employees. Now that’s a lot of people who need to be engaged!

the meaning of employee engagement

So I got thinking, given the amount of people that need to be engaged for this to work, if I wouldn’t describe employee engagement as the willingness to invest discretionary effort at work, then what would I describe it as?

Would my colleagues describe it the same way? Would my clients describe it the same way? And would their employees describe it the same way?

When I couldn’t immediately give a perfect one sentence definition of what employee engagement meant to me, I thought: perhaps this isn’t such an obvious question to be asking, maybe there’s more to employee engagement than a one-sentence-fits-all approach.

I decided that it was worth investigating.

When I got to this point, I wondered, what do I actually want the result of this blog to be? What is it I’m trying to prove here, or what point am I trying to make? I realised that I wasn’t really sure, but I was interested enough to ask the question and let the responses speak for themselves, in the hope that a natural conclusion would form, one way or another.

Now I thought, for this to be fair, I need to ask a range of people the same question, and not give them much time to formulate their response. I wanted it to be their words and their opinion on what employee engagement actually was, rather than a textbook response, or researched answer. I couldn’t manipulate or predict what people were going to be saying to me.

The BIG question: what does employee engagement actually mean?

First I asked my colleagues to write down the first thing that popped into their heads, and these are the results I got...

the meaning of employee engagement"When people care about the company they work for."

- Cat Wright, Engagement Manager, London

the meaning of employee engagement
"A belief that the work you are doing matters and makes you happy, and that is what drives you to do better."

- Rob Marsh, Consultant, London

the meaning of employee engagement"The alignment of an individual employee with the goals and vision of the business."

- Jeremiah Bird, Inbound Technology Manager, New York

the meaning of employee engagement"Something that keeps employees going, working hard, striving to achieve goals, because of some purpose; the thing that keeps them going."

- Vasil Krumov, Client Support, Plovdiv

the meaning of employee engagement"Happy employees that are committed to their company and aligned with their company goals. They really believe in what they are working for."

- Olivia Hyde, Account Manager, Sydney

I even asked some of Reward Gateway’s big dogs what employee engagement means to them:

the meaning of employee engagement"People being happy where they work, and wanting to contribute where they work and make the company they work for a better place. Also them not seeing it as work, but something they want to do."

- Richard Hurd-Wood, COO, London

the meaning of employee engagement"When people are doing the jobs they love! When you are doing a job you love, it ceases to be absolutely about a job, it becomes something you absolutely choose and want to do.
People that are engaged do more, give more, and want the company to work better."

- Seb Aspland, Head of Product, London

Based on these responses, I started thinking, maybe it’s the personal agenda of the individual that dictates what you believe employee engagement is. The fact that our agenda as a company is making the world a happier place to work makes happiness the most prevalent idea.

But what is the agenda of our clients?

I thought I’d ask some of them, so again I set out, and asked ‘what is employee engagement?' Here's what my clients had to say:

the meaning of employee engagement"How to ensure employees are engaged/motivated/committed to the organisation, both in their role and to the journey we are on as a business. An engaged colleague is likely feel more valued, will be more enthusiastic about their role, will feel closer to the business and be more open to change than a disengaged colleague. An engaged colleague will also be far more willing to go the extra mile meaning increased performance."

- Ricki Steel, Rewards Executive

the meaning of employee engagement"Creating work places where each individual is encouraged, nurtured and enabled to be their best and where the culture, the environment, the tools to do the job and (importantly for us) the rewards for working at that Company promote recruitment, retention and motivation."

- Mary Jane Seddon, Head of Reward and Policy, Specsavers

It's no surprise that retention and performance are top of both our HR contacts' agendas. Our clients know that the way to increase performance is to show value and nurture employees to promote engagement. Nothing here about employees’ loving what they do, it’s more about being loyal to the business.

At Reward Gateway, we form a relationship with a specific HR contact and we work together to formulate a strategy to engage their employees. However I was curious that as our definitions of engagement seemed different to our clients’ definitions, what did employees think? The end person in the chain who all this engagement strategy is meant to reach.

With this in mind I again asked people at Reward Gateway, this time asking the question from a different perspective:

"What does it mean to be an engaged employee?"

These are some of the responses I got:

‘Someone, whose thoughts and views are listened to, respected and responded to.’


‘Feeling valued and cared for and therefore cares back, and will be willing to go the extra mile for their company because of that care’.


‘To be focused on your role, and to be motivated by your day-to-day requirements. With an active interest on what is happening around the work place in terms of development opportunities.’

So, time for the big conclusion.

I’m hoping readers may come to some of their own conclusions here, but my musing on this process has been interesting and diverse.

Not only are there ten completely different responses here, none of which are ‘the willingness to invest discretionary effort at work’ (phew – it’s not just me), - there also appears to be a pattern to the divergence, as each layer of the chain is misaligned. If HR's goal is to get more committed employees for the sake of their retention and productivity, and we want happy clients, then we both need to realise what employee engagement means to our employees. We need to understand what our employees believe it means to be engaged, and align our engagement strategy to focus on the matters that are important to those employees.

In each organisation that might mean something different. So the best place to start is; why don't you ask them what employee engagement means to them? It might just make your life a lot easier.


Perdie Alder

Perdie Alder
Reward Gateway

The making of an agile working office and its effect on employee engagement Watch Video »
The making of an agile working office and its effect on employee engagement Watch Video »
The making of an agile working office and its effect on employee engagement Watch Video »
The making of an agile working office and its effect on employee engagement Watch Video »

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