Issue 115

Engagement @ Work - A hype or a continuous point of attention?

John Bax
Senior Consultant, Trainer, Coach, Speaker @ TRYACT International


Engagement a hype? At a first glance, it is a hype, for sure! If you google the word 'engagement', you get 51.200,00 hits. When googling 'work engagement' you get 82.200,00 hits.

At a second glance, however, paying continuous attention to the 'engagement' of the people within an organization pays off, both for the employee and for the employer. Allow me to prove my point.

Originally, the word 'engagement' meant 'a formal promise', first used in fights between armies or fleets in the 1660s, then used as a promise of marriage in the 1740s, and then adopting the meaning of 'appointment' from 1806 onwards. As a side note, in some cultures and religions, the word 'engagement ring' dates back to 1840.

In am not a fan of debating too long about definitions, but as I have been studying the concept of work engagement intensively since 2017, I could not get around validating various definitions. Finally, I chose the following definition under the label 'engagement@work':

'Engagement@Work' is about the extent to which people feel passionate about their job, put great effort into their work, and feel committed to the company they work for!'

With this definition as a framework, I have been working closely together with several companies and in particular an IT-company in Romania. The collaboration with them was and still is intense on this subject thanks to a general manager and a human resources manager who consider work engagement a top priority.

During our collaboration we have been inviting various specialists in the field, some with a populistic and others with a scientific approach, to share their views with us and the project managers in the company. And, together, we have come to the following five leading views:

  1. Engagement is a state: you are in it, you can get out of it, and come into it again.

  2. The level of engagement has a range: from feeling very engaged to feeling fully burned out.

  3. You cannot engage people: you can only create the premises for employees to feel engaged.

  4. Engagement is individual: the premises that make an employee feel engaged differ from person to person.

  5. Engagement is built on offering employees challenges that fit them best during a certain period of their professional career, and on facilitating the necessary resources to deal with those challenges.

Once a CEO of another client called me in for a meeting to discuss how to make his people feel more engaged at work. I asked him whether he knows what makes them feel engaged, to which he answered with an honest and straightforward 'no'. Then, I replied by saying; "once you do that, then it is the right moment to meet".

There are quite some companies that put effort in getting a picture of what makes their employees feel engaged by using engagement questionnaires. While studying a lot of them, besides some crappy ones, I have also seen some quite good ones. Unfortunately, many of those companies don't analyse the responses thoroughly, nor design and initiate interventions based on the outcome of these surveys. And if they do, the interventions tend to have a hype-like vibe.

A less efficient but more effective way is to train managers that lead people on all levels in having regular one-on-one talks with each team member. I am speaking about talks that do not focus on the performance part, which is also important, but mainly on the well-being of the employee, their psychological well-being in particular, not from the vantage point of a psychologist but rather from that of a good coach or mentor.

Psychologization within organizations is increasing day by day, as a necessary response to the complex changes in our work environment, some of which are mentioned below:

Stability Continuous change
Monoculture Diversity
Individual work Teamwork
Detailed job descriptions Job crafting
Vertical hierarchy Horizontal networks
External supervision and control Self-control and empowerment
Dependence on organization Own responsibility (employability)
Fixed schedules and patterns Boundarylessness
Physical demands Mental and emotional demands

And what could be said about the following statement "we live in a VUCA world, a world which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous" which is being used as a context that calls for many companies to move from Waterfall to Agile project management? Isn't this a clear example that fits in with the above-mentioned complex changes in our work environment?

On top this, employees have been confronted with one of the professional consequences of COVID-19, namely the obligation to start working from home. Never ever has anyone been confronted with a crisis that had such a huge impact on the feeling of belonging and work-life balance. A considerable change in our professional as well as our personal life! In this context 'Engagement@Work' entered into a whole new dimension…

During this period there was a clear distinction between companies which were mostly concerned with how to make the employees as productive as possible while WFH, and those companies which were mostly concerned with how to support their employees get through this difficult period as healthily as possible, especially mentally and emotionally. This second group of companies for sure had a better understanding of what 'engagement' means, going both from employer to employee, as well as from employee to employer.

Let me give some illustrative examples of the IT-company I mentioned before. First of all, they belong to those group of companies which focused more on supporting their people to manage all the changes well. When WFH became the norm, these companies did not push for performance at all cost. They applied many of the ideas mentioned in the overload of TIPS & TOPS articles on the internet, ranging from online team-breakfasts and online gaming competitions to online webinars about topics of interest and free psychologic help.

However, those interventions were event driven. It was and still is a time of crisis. In parallel, the general manager has regular one-on-one talks with the project managers, varying from a short update small talks to talks about their well-being. Based on the wishes and needs expressed by the project managers during those talks, consultations with the HR-manager follow around what to pay extra attention to, sometimes individually, sometimes as a group.

As a next step, they organised an online training project with the title 'How To Be A Coaching Manager' to support the project managers who organize similar one-on-one talks with their project team members.

And, as a last example, they designed with me a format in which we look at 'engagement' from different perspectives. These are a few items on the list:

  1. employee life cycle stages and Engagement@Work

  2. workforce tenure and Engagement@Work

  3. workforce generations and Engagement@Work

  4. cultural diversity and Engagement@Work

  5. Engagement@Work remotely

Together with the general and human resources manager, we select one of these topics at a time and pay extra attention to them. At this very moment, we are discussing the topic of workforce generations and Engagement@Work and, more specifically the topic of the 50+ employees.

In this way, the company continuously pays attention to work engagement, mostly not even naming it that way, to avoid an overkill effect. The online training 'How To Be A Coaching Manager' for instance does not explicitly refer to the concept of 'engagement'. Research has shown that the coaching style of leads has had a positive effect on the level of engagement of teams and their members.




  • Accenture
  • BT Code Crafters
  • Accesa
  • Bosch
  • Betfair
  • MHP
  • Connatix
  • BoatyardX
  • AboutYou
  • Telenav
  • .msg systems
  • Grab
  • Colors in projects