October 6, 2023

Employee engagement programs in 2023: Strategies, costs, and ROI

Imogen Barber

As any people team leader will know well, engaged employees tend to get better results. High engagement creates better productivity and higher employee retention. But often, understanding and quantifying what makes an engaged employee can be a difficult task. 

In 2023, employee engagement is becoming an increasingly vital priority for businesses. Against a challenging economic backdrop, it’s becoming more difficult to justify hiring new talent. The focus is now moving from talent acquisition to investing in existing employees.

By nurturing your people through employee engagement programs, you can help them become invested in both their existing work and future development. Done right, this will help you retain the best talent and avoid the cost of hiring and training new employees.

In this article, we discuss the strategies, costs, and ROI of high engagement and how the right employee engagement program can help you deliver it.

⬇️ Contents

  • Employee engagement programs: What you need to know
  • Measuring the ROI of employee engagement programs
  • 5 strategies for implementing an employee engagement program
  • How Unmind boosted learning engagement by 400%
  • Next steps for employee engagement
  • Additional resources

🤝 Employee engagement programs: What you need to know

An employee engagement program is a plan that helps people feel valued and become more psychologically invested in their workplace. It maps out a series of strategic steps and goals designed to improve the company culture and boost employee satisfaction.

Let’s say you’re the Head of People Experience at a games development company that’s struggling with low employee satisfaction and high rates of turnover. To get constructive feedback on what’s going wrong, you conduct a series of employee surveys and exit interviews. The findings are troubling: employees say managers struggle to provide robust, constructive feedback - and there are too few opportunities for progression across the organization. 

To build a more positive work environment and retain more talent, there are several options available: 

  1. Set up relevant employee resource groups (ERGs) and host a series of training programs for managers. This helps develop management skills so people across the organization feel both supported and encouraged to deliver their best work. 
  2. Roll out a performance management program that encourages managers and employees to work together, identifying objectives and targets and mapping them to specific career goals. 
  3. Introduce a reward scheme that creates a stronger link between pay, learning, and performance - helping high-performing employees feel valued.
  4. Implement a learning and development (L&D) program that puts learning in employees' hands, allowing them to choose the resources that are most relevant to their roles and career goals.

This is just one example of an effective employee engagement program. But as we’ll discover, there are plenty of different ways to tackle the issue, and it’s important to choose the right approach for your business.

💯Types of employee engagement initiatives 

If you’ve identified the need for an improved employee engagement program, there are several different approaches you can take: 

  1. Employee recognition programs: The best workplaces use a combination of several tangible reward schemes. This could include profit-sharing, public recognition, and schemes like  'employee of the month'.
  2. Career development programs: With a more collaborative approach to goal setting, managers can support employees in identifying their own career goals, while linking their development to specific learning opportunities. Clear progression pathways will help give employees a sense of direction and motivate them to succeed in their current roles rather than shopping around elsewhere. 
  3. Learning engagement: If you are struggling with low engagement in L&D programs, it might be worth rethinking your approach to making learning a more fundamental part of employee engagement. With a platform like Learnerbly, employees get visibility over their budget and control over how to spend it, which leads to higher levels of learning engagement. 
  4. Team building activities: A collaborative work environment doesn't happen by accident. You can encourage employee engagement (together with more collaborative cross-functional teamwork) by creating regular opportunities for people from different departments to share ideas and get to know each other.
  5. Flexible work arrangements: Employee stress is at a record high, with 44% of employees reporting feeling “a lot of stress”. That means improving work-life balance should be a top priority for employers. By giving employees the flexibility to work when, where, and how they choose, you can help them better manage their stress and work when they're most productive.
  6. Wellness programs: For the same reason, many employers offer mental health and wellbeing perks such as subsidized therapy, or access to mindfulness apps like Insight Timer or Calm.

🧠Pro tip: When mapping out your engagement strategy, it's not just a case of throwing different initiatives at the wall and seeing what sticks. Successful employee engagement programs need to be based on tangible data about how satisfied your people are and how they think things can be improved. 

🪙 Measuring the ROI of employee engagement programs

We all know how it goes: The second you try to promote employee engagement, someone in the C-Suite will ask you about ROI. 

People leaders know that ROI and employee engagement aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, Harvard Business Review reports that when a company’s employee experience metrics improve, revenue and profits also rise by over 50%. But understanding how to quantify these results in your own business can be a challenge. 

So, understanding the ROI of your initiatives will help you communicate the huge value that improved employee engagement can have for the company. To quantify this ROI, there are several metrics you can use: 

  • Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS): A measure of how likely employees are to recommend their workplace to others. A score of +50 indicates very high job satisfaction levels. However, depending on your existing score, anything from +10 to 30 could be a good place to aim.
  • Attrition rates: There are plenty of reasons why people choose to leave a company - and some level of turnover is to be expected. But if you find the attrition rate is rising, there could be other factors at play. These rates will vary between companies and industries, so it’s important to first benchmark your current rates and then make realistic targets for improvement. 
  • L&D engagement: It's not enough to assign a learning budget and forget about it. It’s also important to give people visibility over what funds are available to them and give them a range of options for how to use them. 
  • Benefit usage: Similarly, you can track how frequently employees engage with perks and benefits using feedback surveys or in-app analytics. This will give you a good understanding of what benefits are worthwhile and where any potential gaps may be.
  • Performance metrics: Each department should have its own set of KPIs or performance metrics, which people teams can analyze to gauge employee satisfaction and motivation. Typically, high-performing teams are more engaged, since they have the skills and support they need to do their jobs well.

According to Lattice, most successful HR teams share a common trait: they continuously gather a variety of data to inform their efforts and identify where change is needed. Metrics such as these can tell a compelling story about the success of your employee engagement programs, further reinforcing the case for more budget in future.

💡 Find out more about using data to get stakeholder buy-in: How to center people teams in business decisions

🛠 5 strategies for implementing your employee engagement program

You might have planned which initiatives to include in your employee engagement program, set deadlines, and chosen the metrics you want to track to measure success. But how do you make a success of the program you’re investing all these resources into?

These tips will prepare you for roadblocks and help launch your program without a hitch:

1. Become an employee engagement advocate

Not only do people teams need to communicate the ROI of employee engagement programs to get stakeholder buy-in, but it’s also important to advocate the initiative at every level. That involves clearly communicating why the program is being implemented, what it hopes to achieve, and why it’s in people’s best interests to engage. 

Then, when you’ve started to see some results, you should shout about the program’s success. You can do this with a monthly roundup of engagement figures or publicly recognizing the efforts of highly engaged individuals.

2. Give people ownership over their learning

While people teams focus on reinvesting in and retaining existing talent, a new trend is emerging: talent activation. This involves investing in your people’s potential and translating it into performance, rather than constantly trying to hire to plug any skills gaps you might have. 

As Nathalie McGrath, co-founder of The People Design House, explains - there has been a real trend towards learning, growth, and personal development across industries: “Employees [need], along with meaning and sense of connection, the idea that they're moving forward and that they're going to contribute to both the company and their own career.”

To do that, managers and employees need to work together to create personal development plans. These should be based on a combination of the skills required to excel in the job and their individual career goals. Then, it’s important to identify learning as the key tool that can enable both. It also helps to train managers to deliver a more collaborative approach to setting learning goals.

In fact, nurturing your managers will actually pay off in company-wide engagement. Gallup found that, after providing coaching training to managers, their engagement rose 10-22%. Not only that, but their team’s engagement also increased by 8-18%.

Experience 95%+ employee activation, and 40-60% month on month engagement in L&D initiatives with Learnerbly. Book a demo.

3. Encourage a top-down listening culture

If your organization is considering rolling out a new product or service, you’ll probably want to find out what users actually want before you start investing all that time and money. 

Employee engagement is the same. If your people desperately want flexible working hours, there's no point in kicking off your engagement strategy with a mentorship program. So where do you start with this? Use a combination of the quantitative data gathered through anonymous eNPS surveys, together with more holistic insights from open-ended survey questions and 1:1s - to identify the right priorities for your team. 

Employees feel valued when leaders listen to feedback openly and use it to improve their experience at work. For smart people teams, speaking to employees is the first step to boosting employee engagement. There's a huge opportunity to turn them into productive, engaged employees, just by listening to what they have to say and using it as the basis for your people initiatives.

4. Improve pay transparency

56% of US employees would consider another job based on salary alone - even if their current role actually exceeds all other expectations. But the current economic challenges are causing a catch-22. People need higher-paid jobs to deal with the cost of living, but companies often struggle to justify the higher salaries. 

That’s not to say there’s nothing people teams can do when it comes to improving employee sentiments around pay. Research from Lattice shows that top-performing HR teams are more likely to provide pay transparency and link compensation to performance. So, if you don’t have the budget for significant pay raises now, start with transparency about what progression and compensation options are available in the medium-long term. While you might not be able to offer a raise immediately, you can help chart a route to the next promotion or pay band instead. 

Part of that work involves building a structured performance review process that prioritizes constructive feedback and goal setting. This, alongside clearly linking compensation to performance, will improve transparency and reduce pay-related frustration.

5. Budget effectively to maximize ROI

At this stage, you’ve already considered the KPIs you need in order to measure the success of your project. This information, combined with a carefully considered budget plan, is the key to getting buy-in from the C-Suite.

When creating your budget, these steps will help you keep on track and ready to maximize ROI:

  1. Set SMART goals to help you stay within budget and prioritize more effectively.
  2. Use your employee data to help determine which goals will have the biggest impact on engagement (and prioritize those ideas).
  3. Consider long-term costs to avoid incurring unplanned expenses.
  4. Get feedback on your budget plan from senior stakeholders, as they may help you think outside the box and find ways to cut costs.

💡 Watch the webinar for more tips on making your L&D budget more cost-efficient: Increase the ROI of learning budgets

📈 How Unmind boosted learning engagement by 400%

In 2020, fewer than 20% of people working at Unmind were using their personal learning budget. It wasn’t that they had no interest in learning, they just didn’t know where to start or how to determine the quality of resources before paying for them. The team needed another approach that could:

  • Inspire their employee community
  • Cater to different styles of learning
  • Provide access to a wide range of high-quality, vetted resources

Six months after onboarding with Learnerbly, 99% of Unmind’s people had signed up for the platform. On top of that, they saw over 400% increase in learning engagement.

“People who have never used their learning budget before are doing so with Learnerbly. It’s really a reflection of how the platform has made learning fun again.” - Megan Kille, Head of People at Unmind

➡️ Next steps for employee engagement

As organizations recover from the financial instability and high resignation rates of recent years, we’re now seeing a renewed focus on employee engagement. The most successful programs will be built on a foundation of continuous feedback and talent activation.

As you focus on activating and nurturing existing talent, Learnerbly can help you upskill managers and give people at all levels more ownership over their learning journey. With our L&D marketplace, it’s easier to set learning goals more collaboratively, since learners have access to vetted learning providers and visibility over their budget. And that’s why our client’s learning engagement rates are so high.

The most resilient people teams do one thing well: they listen. Before you even begin planning your employee engagement programs, you need to speak to the people they’ll impact most. Start by gathering your data, understanding the ROI of your program, and communicating your expectations across all levels of the organization.

Improved engagement with L&D your people actually care about

Give employees a dedicated learning budget and let them set their own development goals with Learnerbly. Find out more

Additional resources

  • Talent activation blueprint: Watch the webinar for advice on how to boost engagement, motivation, and continuous growth - with Rajeeb Dey, Founder and CEO at Learnerbly, and Stacey La Torre, Head of Talent Management and Development at Nextdoor.
  • The future of people experience: Download the ebook for 17 expert insights on future trends.
  • Navigating people experience as your business scales: Watch the webinar to understand the impact of scale on people's experience - with Rajeeb Dey, Founder and CEO at Learnerbly, and Kel Hartman, founder of Keep It Real with Kel.

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