Building an Employee Engagement Plan – Mistakes, Steps, & Tips

Engagement & Motivation
June 17, 2024

The term "employee engagement" is often used in the HR sphere and can start to sound like just another corporate buzzword. Yet, in the day-to-day reality of a workplace, how engaged employees are impacts so many important workplace metrics like morale, productivity, and overall organizational performance. 

The case for employee engagement is strong – it’s not just a fluffy corporate concept but a key driver of company performance. Research by Gartner reveals that higher employee engagement is associated with tangible benefits for organizations, such as increased revenue growth, net profit margin, customer satisfaction, and earnings per share. 

Despite the widely recognized importance of employee engagement, recent statistics paint a bleak picture. Gallup's yearly State of The Workplace report reveals a significant decline in employee engagement, with a staggering [85%] of employees not engaged at work. This marks the lowest level of employee engagement in 11 years, highlighting the urgent need for action.

So, how can businesses achieve such a nebulous goal? It would be similar to trying to reach a personal goal, like being happier and leading a more fulfilling life. Of course, these goals can't be reached overnight by implementing one or two changes in your life. It is a multi-step process that requires strategic thinking.

Thinking about employee engagement long-term

To that end, companies need to think long-term to combat employee disengagement. Building an employee engagement plan is a great starting point. This is an actual action plan that should be well thought out, implemented, and, of course, documented.

This article is designed specifically for HR professionals ready to take a more strategic and comprehensive approach to employee engagement. Whether you're looking to revamp your existing initiatives or build a new engagement plan from the ground up, this guide offers valuable insights and practical steps to help you achieve your goals.

We will explore common mistakes when creating an employee engagement plan and outline key steps to creating and implementing an effective strategy. Additionally, you'll find tips to navigate common pitfalls and ensure your engagement efforts yield long-term benefits. By the end of this article, you will understand how to cultivate a thriving workplace culture where employees feel valued, motivated, and committed to your organization's vision.

5 Common Mistakes When Building an Employee Engagement Plan

1. Your business isn’t approaching engagement holistically

"Employee engagement" is a big, cloudy term. It's a concept that, when understood, can bring significant benefits to a company. Yet, ask different people what it means, and you will receive various answers. This lack of a unified understanding can lead to skepticism about the ROI of employee engagement. If you can't prove with some level of certainty what kind of benefit the company will derive from it, your initiatives may not be approved. 

As a result, most companies don't even have an employee engagement plan in place. Rather, they favor low-cost or single-stroke solutions, and employee engagement isn't looked at holistically. For example, businesses may lean towards surface-level initiatives like mindfulness training, snacks in the breakroom, and social events. Of course, these programs and activities can improve work culture and boost temporary morale, but they aren't strategies. 

This idea is explained in the Psychology Today article When Workplace Mindfulness Training Is Worse Than Nothing. The author explores how using "token gestures" like mindfulness training to help employees cope with stress and burnout can backfire. When serious, underlying issues are overlooked, these gestures appear hollow to employees. In turn, they can actually make employees feel worse – even more angry and cynical – than if a business had done nothing at all! 

2. Assuming why employees aren't happy

If you Google "employee engagement idea," you'll surely fall on several list articles offering ideas on how to engage employees. You might find solutions like "snacks in the breakroom" or "organizing a fun social event." While these ideas might help temporarily boost employee morale and create a fun working atmosphere, they are certainly not employee engagement strategies.

Strategic employee engagement involves identifying and addressing your employees' deeper pain points and challenges. This approach is not about guesswork or assumptions but about developing targeted solutions. A key step in this process is to directly survey or converse with your employees about their experiences within your organization.

Gathering objective employee insights and feedback can help you understand where your employee experience falls short. For example, are your employees satisfied with their compensation, leadership, day-to-day duties, and the company's overall culture? You only know once you ask. If you operate on assumptions, you risk developing initiatives and solutions that do not address the real problems your employees are facing.

3. Copy-pasting what other businesses are doing

Similarly, you should ask yourself: Are you developing employee engagement initiatives based on your employees' actual pain points, or are you just copying/pasting trendy HR initiatives other businesses use? 

It might be tempting to copy a popular HR initiative that works well for other businesses. The problem is that their workforce may differ completely from yours—the company's demographic profile may be unique in many ways. As a result, they may be facing a different set of challenges. 

Being more strategic starts with uncovering exactly what your employees are struggling with. It's about developing solutions that directly address those issues and needs. This may take more steps and time than just coming up with an idea and rolling it out. However, the benefit is that the initiative will be more likely to be successful long-term because it addresses a real and current problem in your company, not just assuming what your employees will want.

4. Only looking at the short-term gains

Employee engagement is a long game. In short, it's a marathon, not a sprint. Similar to achieving any long-term goals in our lives, like being happy in our careers or bettering our physical health, these goals cannot happen overnight. They are the fruit of consistent, small steps that compound over months, if not years. 

However, businesses often lean towards short-term initiatives that promise quick rewards. This preference for 'low-hanging fruit' can divert attention from developing robust employee engagement plans, which are more likely to deliver sustainable business results. 

When businesses are biased towards short-term gain, they often resort to a reactive approach to employee engagement. In other words, engagement initiatives are only considered and developed once a glaring problem, like high turnover or low morale, crops up. 

When these engagement issues reach a boiling point, they are likely complex and caused by an interplay of factors that not one employee engagement initiative, like "snacks in the breakroom," will resolve. That's why developing a robust employee engagement action plan is a critical step for companies that want to take a proactive approach to employee engagement and address some common issues before they spiral into more complicated problems for your business. 

5. Failing to track the impact of initiatives 

Employee engagement is like personal happiness, a nebulous concept that can ebb and flow. While it can be objectively measured with surveys, what can be more difficult to achieve is proving how employee engagement impacts businesses financially through metrics like productivity. 

In other words, many businesses roll out engagement initiatives only to fail to track their objective impact on their company via metrics like employee happiness, engagement, turnover, etc.

As a result, ROI-focused executives may be reluctant to invest in employee engagement initiatives further if HR teams can’t articulate a clear or expected ROI for the business. In turn, it can be difficult for HR teams to get even a small slice of the budget. 

Learning to track and measure the impact of HR initiatives is critical to approach these conversations with decision-makers more logically. A concrete action plan can help you show executives clearly.

  • What workplace metrics you’re looking to impact (i.e., employee turnover, eNPS, etc.)
  • Which initiatives will help achieve this goal
  • Milestones you’re aiming to reach

When presented with a clear plan that outlines concrete, measurable goals, ROI-focused executives can feel reassured and confident in the capacity of these initiatives to produce tangible results. Once the impact of these initiatives is proven, it can unlock the necessary resources and support for more impactful engagement initiatives in the future. 

Related: Uncover the potential ROI of your recognition program with our free Business Case Template

5 Steps to Create an Effective Employee Engagement Plan

Step 1: Identify the problem areas in your business

The first step is to zoom out. Think about the big picture of your workforce and company.

What areas do you believe need work? If you are an HR professional or leader in your business, I’m sure you already have some theories or an intuitive idea of where employees are unsatisfied. Although formal surveys are useful, you may already know where your business needs work based on casual conversations with peers and second-hand information.

For example, here are some common high-level drivers of engagement to consider:

  • Benefits and compensation
  • Leadership and management
  • Rewards and recognition
  • Well-being and mental health 
  • Safety and security
  • Career growth and development

All of these areas are critical to employee happiness. To approach your employee engagement plan more holistically, you must start by identifying which areas need the most urgent attention in your business.

Step 2: Survey employees (back it up with data)

The next step is to back up your intuition or theories with concrete data. The best way to achieve this goal is to speak with or survey employees to assess objectively how your business is performing in each area. Depending on your budget, there are various approaches to collecting employee data. It's important to remember that a large budget is unnecessary, particularly for small businesses. In fact, this goal can be easily achieved with free online survey tools, making it a feasible and accessible process for businesses of all sizes. 

Related article: Face the Truth, 6 Questions to Evaluate Your Staff Motivation

Step 3: Analyze and figure out the area your business needs to focus on 

Once you've conducted your employee surveys, you should better understand where your business is falling short in employee experience and, in turn, where your HR priorities should be. At this point, the goal is to develop specific initiatives relating to each area of employee engagement. 

For instance, prioritizing rewards and recognition is a powerful tactic to enhance employee engagement. The beauty of this tactic is that it can be expressed in many ways. It's up to you to bring it to life with specific initiatives, such as implementing a peer-to-peer recognition program, a work anniversary program, or offering a budget for lunch and celebration for employee birthdays.

Initiatives are not just specific; they are strategic. They should mirror and strengthen your organization's core values and culture. Most importantly, they directly address the engagement issue within your business. To build a robust, long-term engagement plan, start by selecting one or two drivers of employee engagement (for example, Career Growth and Leadership) and asking yourself: How are we doing in this area? Or, what could we do better? This strategic approach will instill confidence in the effectiveness of your plan.

By the end of this process, you should have a list of actionable initiatives to help kick-start your engagement plan.

Step 4: Establish key metrics to track

Your employee engagement plan must include benchmarks (or success metrics) to help you track the progress of your initiatives. 

This is a critical step for both your team and for receiving buy-in from executives. If you can show that your initiatives are impacting the business, your decision-makers will be more likely to free up time and resources for your team to continue making efforts in these areas.

Examples of benchmarks can include: 

  • Increasing eNPS scores by X% in the next six months
  • Increasing retention by X% in the next year
  • Decreasing absenteeism by X% in the next year

Step 5: Adjust the plan accordingly

An employee engagement plan should never be set in stone. A business is always in flux; employees come and go, and external influences such as the job market and the economy's health will affect the business and its employees. 

As such, whenever you create an employee engagement action plan, remember that this plan can constantly shift and change as your business's priorities shift. For example, you may consider career growth and development a top consideration. After a few months, the priorities might shift, and other areas, such as rewards and recognition or wellness and mental health, may take priority. 

We strongly advise revisiting your plan every 3-6 months to ensure its relevance. This proactive approach reassures you of the plan's effectiveness and instills confidence in your employees that their needs and wants are being considered and addressed. 

Final Thoughts

Employee engagement is more than planning one-off social events or providing better snacks in the breakroom. Of course, these small perks and events do help to temporarily bolster company culture and morale; however, they are not strategies and fail to address employee engagement issues holistically.

To strategically address employee engagement, you must peel the layers back and look deeper. The goal of a robust employee engagement plan is to validate with objective data where and how your employee experience is falling short in some key areas, like benefits, compensation, recognition, and leadership, and make changes accordingly.

This involves continuous feedback loops, transparent communication, and a genuine commitment to improving based on employee input. Only by embedding these principles into the fabric of your organizational culture can you foster a truly engaged and motivated workforce, driving long-term success and fulfillment for both employees and the company as a whole.

The Team at Qarrot