Whether companies are endeavouring to survive and respond to the current recessionary pressures, or whether they are searching for the holy grail of competitive advantage, the topic of employee engagement has recently gained in popularity as a means of enhancing organisational performance.
While the term was originally coined by the Gallup research organisation, there is no agreed definition. Rather, it is a general term to describe the extent to which employees are committed, loyal and motivated to provide discretionary effort.
The intensification of competition has resulted in businesses attempting to harness this discretionary effort to increase overall organisational performance. So employee engagement has quickly emerged as a key critical business driver.
The Labour Relations Commission commissioned a study in 2011 on the effects of the recession on the manner in which people are managed at work.
Its study found that in order to respond to the crisis, organisations are developing strategies and initiatives aimed at reducing costs, while simultaneously introducing specific engagement measures to improve innovation and increase employee discretionary effort.
Of course, the concept is not without its cynics. There are claims that it is just another fad or buzzword. However, its popularity is on the increase as organisations look for ways of doing more with less. So much so indeed, that it is becoming a management necessity.
The influential former head of General Electric, Jack Welch, claims that employee engagement is the first measure of a company's state of health, followed only by customer satisfaction.
Gallup research shows that high engagement levels are associated with higher levels of profitability, customer satisfaction and productivity -- and with lower levels of employee turnover.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, it is now becoming an important issue at the boardroom table, with 84pc of CEOs reporting that disengagement is one of today's biggest business threats.
Closer to home, this writer last year conducted a survey amongst 40 Irish middle and senior managers and 100pc of the private sector respondents reported that employee engagement is a strategic issue for their organisations.
Obviously, enhancing engagement and increasing commitment levels has clearly become a business imperative.
So how can organisations increase engagement levels?
The first step is to understand what actually drives commitment, motivation, and discretionary effort. There are many models out there developed by both academics and practitioners, but common threads do exist among them.
Quality leadership supported by good working relationships, effective communication, recognition and opportunities for development and growth all contribute to enhancing employee engagement and commitment.
Most of these have no financial cost to the organisations. Some people might say it's a no-brainer. But if so, why aren't all organisations doing it?
The key here has to lie in the quality of managers and supervisors. The well-known adage that people "don't leave organisations, they leave managers" highlights the importance of the manager to the employment relationship.
It also highlights their impact on the positive or negative experiences of employees and, in turn, on the engagement levels of their teams.
The pressure for change in the workplace environment due to the economic downturn, increasing competition and the imperative to reduce costs, is wholly reliant upon the co-operation between management and staff. This can only be achieved in a climate of authenticity and trust.
Trust is the one key factor in building engagement through the creation of an open climate, good communications, involvement in decision-making and empowerment.
Managers and supervisors are very powerful catalysts and there is potential for creating real competitive advantage for those organisations that succeed in tapping into their employees' discretionary effort.
Successful employee engagement is reliant upon the quality and effectiveness of managers, but isn't everything?
Brenda Dooley is an executive coach and HR consultant. www.brendadooley.ie