20 Years On, Is Employee Engagement Still Engaging? 

orc international1995 – The year the internet entered public consciousness, the DVD was launched and Toy Story, the first full length animated feature film, was released. It was the year Nick Leeson was arrested for the downfall of Barings Bank, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and the end of the Bosnian war. John Major was in power and the youngest Generation Ys were yet to start school. It was also the year ORC International held its first Employee Engagement Conference. Except in those days ‘engagement’ wasn’t the buzz word it is now and we referred to it as our Employee Research Conference.

Evolution of Engagement

It is strange to think of a time before employee engagement, for it has become such a fundamental part of human resource management and leadership. But in the 1990s we were still largely talking about employee satisfaction and commitment. In researching for this article I looked through our archives to source the slide decks from some of the early employee research conferences and I found that employee engagement didn’t hit the agenda until 2003.

Employee engagement evolved from a need to derive meaning and consequence from employee behaviour at a time when job satisfaction and organisational commitment weren’t holding up to the scrutiny. Whereas engagement draws on elements of its predecessors, it goes further and looks at the ways in which employees are motivated, inspired and enabled to improve business results. As such, numerous case studies demonstrating the links between employee engagement and performance pepper the HR literature and present a solid case for organisations investing in a robust engagement strategy. Indeed these days it is hard to find an organisation that doesn’t measure their employee engagement levels.


While doing my research I also found a picture of our deputy MD delivering a presentation at the first conference, using an overhead projector and acetates. Now that really dates things and shows how far removed technology in 1995 was from what it is now. PowerPoint was just gaining popularity. There was no video conferencing. Remote working was much less common and logistically difficult, and sharing information globally and regionally was challenging. We take technology so much for granted these days, but are our workplaces really better off now? Technology may make our lives easier in some respects and breaks down the geographical barriers, but it has also impacted our stress levels and compromised our wellbeing. Switching off at the end of the work day is much harder now. Getting out for a lunch break is rare treat. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we work but are we any more engaged as a result?

What Does the Data Say?

I’ve been looking back at the results of the employee surveys we’ve undertaken over the past twenty years, and technology has certainly enabled us to develop more sophisticated measurement and analysis of employee data. Broadly, employee perceptions have improved over this time. But there are some areas in which people did feel better off in 1995.

Pay and benefits were perceived to be better 20 years ago, as less people now feel that their pay is reasonable compared to similar jobs in other companies – down 3% in 2015 on 1995 – and satisfaction with the total benefits package is down 6%. The feeling that pay and benefits adequately reflects performance is down 3% compared to 2009.

There are also further negatives to be seen in feeling motivated to do the best work possible, learning and opportunities for development. The past ten years have also seen a drop in how realistic work deadlines are perceived to be (-3%). The biggest negative overall is found in having enough staff to get the job done (-11%).

However, this isn’t stopping people feeling appreciated. In fact, satisfaction with companies/organisations is up 16% compared to 1995. Feeling valued in the organisation is also up 16% on 2002.

So people aren’t as happy with their pay or their progress, and they’re feeling a bit overstretched, but they are generally happier in their jobs. How does that work?

It would seem that communication and leadership has a big part to play in this, as that’s where we see the biggest positive changes. Confidence that feelings/thoughts are communicated upwards by management has increased by 23% in 2015 compared to 1995. The same increase can be seen between 2008 and 2015 for line managers being open to ideas and suggestions for change.

It’s with some modest hope that employee engagement programs have impacted these results greatly. After all, they emphasise the importance of the employee voice. They also encourage and pursue those honest and continuous conversations that are always needed to develop and innovate, and provide consistency in times of great change.

The future

Twenty years is a long time. The world is a hugely different place now and the way that we work has evolved beyond belief. It’s hard to imagine that the next twenty years will see such great developments in the way that we work, from technology to physical locations – with 4.2 million people working from home in the UK last year – to how leadership has had to evolve to reach everyone. But it often feels like we are on the brink of something new. Perhaps it’s holacracy and a change to the traditional hierarchy.

As we head to our 20th Employee Engagement Conference on 18 June – no longer using acetates and overhead projectors – it’s good to reflect on the journey we have been through with organisations as we develop employee engagement. I wonder what it will be called next. Whatever the next 20 years may bring, one thing is certain, communication will always be key to keeping people engaged.

Author: Lindsey Armstrong, Associate Director, ORC International

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