If your employees aren’t engaged at work, they’re costing you more than you might think. Turnover is pricey—on average, the cost to replace an employee is about 50% of an employee’s salary. Disengaged employees also cost companies hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity every year.

On the flip side, companies with engaged employees see an average of 21% more profits and 17% more productivity than their disengaged counterparts.

Of course, you want those profits. Of course you want your employees to be happy and productive. Unfortunately, good intentions alone aren’t enough to create a work environment that realizes these benefits.

You need a strategy for engagement, but you can’t create that plan if you don’t understand what drives employees to do their best work. For that, you need an employee engagement model—a framework to understand what your team members need and how you can meet those needs.

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What is an employee engagement model?

An employee engagement model is essentially a blueprint for understanding what makes people productive and happy in the workplace. These models usually come in the form of elements or building blocks that work together to create an engaged workplace. Each model draws on organizational psychology to help companies develop their own system for improving employee engagement.

Without a foundational understanding of how people do their best work, it’s too easy to just throw together a few perks and programs and call it a day. An employee engagement model should help you determine which questions to ask on your employee pulse surveys and will help you measure engagement metrics that actually matter.

The 3 top employee engagement models

While every company approaches surveys and strategies a little differently, these three models are the most popular frameworks for understanding employee engagement. Each model has a slightly different approach to employee engagement, but there’s something to be learned from all of them. Choose the model that best suits your organization, or combine principles from different organizations when building your employee engagement strategy.

1. The Zinger Model

Build engagement from the ground up by focusing on core employee needs.

The Zinger model of employee engagement focuses on 10 essential actions that managers must take in order to engage employees.

In many ways, it closely mirrors Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most widely accepted theory of human motivation. Maslow argued that humans have tiered needs (which he organized into a pyramid), from basic physical needs to self-actualization. These needs must be met from the bottom up. You can’t expect someone to be their best self if they don’t have a foundation of security, belonging, and meaningful accomplishment.

David Zinger’s employee engagement model follows a similar pyramid structure. It emphasizes the importance of starting with employee needs, like well-being and meaningful work, and then working your way up to results. Each “building block” of the pyramid is a step that must be taken in order to foster engagement in the workplace.

Bottom Row: The necessities

The bottom of the Zinger pyramid focuses on the essentials that every human needs in order to do good work. The key actions at this stage are to enhance well-being, leverage strengths, make meaning, and enliven energy.

  • Enhance well-being. Employees can’t do their best work if they’re sacrificing their physical and mental well-being for the job. Building a culture around psychological safety (not fearing harassment or discrimination), respectful managers, ample vacation time, and provisions for sick leave all improve employee well-being—setting the stage for success.
  • Enliven energy. This step is more subjective. The goal here is to seek to create a work environment where employees bring energy to their work and gain energy from their work. The first is largely tied to well-being. The second is up to managers. Regularly check in with employees to monitor energy levels. Then, look for patterns to identify barriers and energy drains.
  • Make meaning. To stay engaged long-term, employees must find purpose in their work. In fact, 90% of people rank meaningful work as more important than the size of their paycheck. Leadership must help their employees understand the why behind their work—how their role contributes to the larger company and its impact on the world—to keep them motivated.
  • Leverage strengths. Leadership must create an environment where employees can exercise and grow in their individual strengths. This fosters engagement and makes your organization stronger by enhancing the existing strengths of your workforce.

Second row: Uniting the company

The second row of the pyramid builds upon the essentials to connect individuals with the larger organization. The key actions here are to build relationships, foster recognition, and master moments.

  • Build relationships. We all know good teamwork is essential to achieving outcomes, but generic team-building and platitudes aren’t enough for engagement. Leaders need to create and encourage opportunities for employees to develop connections at work. People who make friends at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged as those who don’t make friends.
  • Foster recognition. This tactic doesn’t mean giving an occasional promotion or a good performance review; it means creating a culture where peers and leadership both look for opportunities to praise and reward colleagues for a job well done.
  • Master moments. To be engaged, employees must be mentally and emotionally present in their work. Managers can facilitate this by using daily interactions to enhance connection, solicit input, and understand challenges. The point is to keep employees present by creating meaningful, useful touch points throughout the workday.

Third row: Boosting performance

The third pyramid row turns building blocks of individual and communal engagement into practical ways to reach results. The focus here is on tracking progress and maximizing performance.

  • Maximize performance. Employees get frustrated when they feel like management blocks their ability to do their best work. Sometimes, this is in the form of processes and tools that create barriers for employees. Often, the problem is that management poorly communicates performance targets (if they communicate at all). To keep employees engaged, provide them with a goal and clear reasoning behind that objective.
  • Mark progress. We all like recognition and success, but sometimes success is a long haul. To keep employees engaged, even between promotions and achieved goals, you must create a system for tracking and communicating progress. A focus on progression helps employees develop their skills and creates a sense of movement and purpose.

Top of the pyramid: Achieving results

The end goal of your engagement initiatives is, of course, engaged employees—ones who contribute to that enhanced profitability and productivity we talked about earlier. To make sure you achieve these results, make sure you clearly define your strategic engagement objectives when you start this journey. Target hard metrics like eNPS, retention, and team KPI improvement in order to track your success—and tailor your actions toward a tangible outcome. Intelligent internal communications tools like ContactMonkey will help you track these metrics and leverage them for growth.

By tracking your email metrics, you can pinpoint your best-performing content and most-engaged recipients. Book a free demo with one of our experts to see how ContactMonkey can improve your internal communications:

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2. The Deloitte Model

Engage employees by creating a culture where people are involved, respected, and challenged.

The premise of the Deloitte employee engagement model is to create a workplace that’s “irresistible” to workers—somewhere they want to work every day.

The key to following this model, according to Deloitte, is culture. There are five core elements to this culture, each with its own accompanying actions.



Meaningful work

As in Zinger’s model, the foundational element of engagement is work that employees find meaningful. Deloitte identifies four key elements that are necessary to help employees find meaning in their work:

  • Autonomy: People thrive when given greater independence and control over their work. Give employees ownership in order to make their work more meaningful.
  • Cultural hires: Academic accolades and impressive job histories won’t tell you whether or not someone will connect to your organization’s goals and purpose. Prioritize hires who fit your culture and are interested in the work itself.
  • Small, empowered teams: Small teams encourage camaraderie, autonomy, and fast decision-making in a way that large teams simply can’t. Follow Jeff Bezos’s “two-pizza rule” to keep your team at the most productive size.
  • Time for slacking: Employees who are run ragged are likely to face burnout. Create room for rest, whether it’s something like Google’s 20% rule (providing company-sponsored time for passion projects) or simply enforcing time off and providing personal days.

Hands-on management

Managers make or break an employee’s experience at your company. Align and empower management to engage your employees with these actions:

  • Setting clear, transparent goals: The goals that managers set for teams and employees must be simple and regularly revisited. Otherwise, employees and managers can quickly become misaligned and frustrated. Consider a goal-setting process like objectives and key results (OKRs), championed by companies like Google and Intel.
  • Coaching: Managers who work alongside their employees and provide regular feedback will likely see improvements in performance and engagement. Equip managers with the tools and training they need to coach their teams.
  • Investing in management development: Given the importance of managers to employee engagement, organizations should prioritize creating the best leaders possible. This starts by hiring the right managers. But don’t stop there; provide mentorship for first-time managers, and prioritize ongoing learning and development for management.
  • Managing performance: Traditional performance reviews are too infrequent and formal to really help managers and employees develop. Rethink performance management to emphasize growth opportunity over “grades.”

Positive work environment

If you want employees to look forward to coming to the (virtual or physical) office every day, you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable, respected, and appreciated. To create this kind of workplace, you’ll need the following:

  • A flexible, humanistic work environment: Your employees aren’t robots, and their personal lives don’t disappear at the office door. Respect the fact that your employees are human—that they sometimes have bad days, too much on their plate, or work/life conflicts. Offer policies (such as working from home or flexible schedules) that allow people to work in the way that’s most productive for them.
  • A culture of recognition: Develop a peer-to-peer recognition program to foster a culture that continually celebrates progress and accomplishments.
  • An inclusive, diverse work environment: Create a culture where everyone feels more empowered to share their ideas, knowledge, and skills. Take steps to build a more inclusive workplace, and everyone will reap the rewards.

Growth opportunities

Employees who stagnate at work lose the drive to do their job. Avoid this scenario by providing the following:

  • Training and support on the job: Comprehensive onboarding processes, continual peer and managerial support, and adequate training are all essential to growth for both employees and the company.
  • Facilitated talent mobility: Employees need to know their career is going somewhere with your company—otherwise, they’ll likely look for opportunities with other employers to move forward. Emphasize internal hiring, and be transparent with employees about growth opportunities.
  • High-impact learning culture: Give employees resources (an education stipend, for example) and cultural support to independently build their knowledge. Provide opportunities to learn from other teams, try new tasks, and build new skill sets.

Trust in leadership

The final, critical element is leadership that is committed to their employees. This commitment breaks down into four factors:

  • Mission and purpose: Leaders must clearly understand—and clearly communicate—the company’s purpose. Deloitte’s research shows that “mission-driven companies have 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of retention, and they tend to be first or second in their market segment.”
  • Continuous investment in people: Leaders must invest time and resources in their people. We already mentioned the importance of learning and development, but time is just as important. Executives in high-engagement companies take the time to get to know individuals, offer feedback, and involve themselves in the life of the company.
  • Transparency: Modern employees aren’t content to be a cog in the wheel. A culture of transparency helps employees feel involved in the company and fosters trust.
  • Inspiration: Leaders set the tone for the organization. Their words, actions, and vision for the company drive employee morale.

Using the Deloitte employee engagement model, focus on creating a culture where people are excited to work—a place where top leadership, middle management, and company policies all align to support employees.

3. The AON Hewitt Model

Track the relationship between engagement drivers and business outcomes in order to create a more holistic engagement strategy.

Unlike Zinger and Deloitte, the Aon Hewitt employee engagement model brings business outcomes into the equation. It recognizes that employee engagement directly affects metrics across the organization—from customer satisfaction to profits and beyond. The research makes this connection very clear, but it’s still too easy to get lost in the weeds of engagement initiatives and forget the big picture.

The Aon Hewitt model connects the dots between business targets and engagement drivers by adding a middleman: engagement outcomes. These are essentially goalposts to help leaders gauge the level of engagement.

There are three engagement outcomes, summed up in the catchy shorthand of “say, stay, and strive.” Each details a characteristic of the engaged employee:

  • An engaged employee says positive things about the organization—be it to their coworkers, network, or customers.
  • The employee also wants to stay with the company. They’re not just there for the paycheck—they feel loyal to the organization, connected to the people, and satisfied with the work.
  • Last but not least, engaged employees strive to do their best work. They are motivated and inspired and tend to contribute above and beyond what’s required of them.

These are the outcomes to track and evaluate on employee surveys. Monitor these results and compare them to patterns in business KPIs. For example—track your Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) with a tool like ContactMonkey. Then look for connections between an increase in eNPS and an increase in customers’ Net Promoter Scores (NPS). This analysis will help you gauge your success and prove the ROI of engagement initiatives.

To achieve both business and engagement outcomes, you’ll need to adjust your engagement drivers—six operational “levers” that define your culture. Aon Hewitt divides these drivers into two categories: foundations and differentiators.

The foundational engagement drivers focus on core company infrastructure. These are core, make-or-break elements you need for engagement:

  • Employees won’t engage with your company if you don’t provide for their basic needs. Job security, competitive compensation, safety, and a good work/life balance are essential to happy employees.
  • Company practices, like communication, staffing, tools, and inclusion efforts, provide a great opportunity to support your employees. Evaluate and update these with a mind toward what is best for your people.
  • Last but not least, the work itself must be tailored to drive engagement. Encourage collaboration and autonomy, and provide employees with mentally stimulating tasks.

The differentiating engagement drivers are elements that set you apart from your competitors and make your organization a place that people are proud to work for. These are the factors that will make your employees want to stay, strive to do their best work, and say great things about the company:

  • Your brand affects more than just customers. A company’s attention to corporate social responsibility drive employee loyalty. Build a strong reputation to encourage the “say” engagement outcome.
  • We know leadership plays a massive role in trust. To leverage this opportunity, leaders must be involved in the lives of workers, attentive to their feedback, and committed to the employee experience.
  • Employees who know their performance matters are more engaged. Companies that excel in creating career opportunities, cultures of recognition, and learning and development programs will drive much higher engagement.

Aon Hewitt’s research found that measuring these drivers and outcomes via employee surveys helped companies gauge overall engagement and identify areas for improvement.

With the Aon Hewitt employee engagement model, you can more easily map the path between engagement efforts and business outcomes. Track patterns in engagement outcomes to measure the success of your engagement drivers—then compare those engagement outcomes with trends in your business outcomes. This will help you justify the costs and continue to shape your culture in a way that benefits both employees and business objectives.

Open the conversation to your employees with ContactMonkey

One common theme in every employee engagement model is the need for people to feel empowered in their work and to feel ownership of the company mission. So don’t wait to have all your ducks in a row before involving your employees in the conversation. Bring them into the process of making your workplace more engaging.

ContactMonkey’s makes it easy to collect employee feedback early and often. Embedded pulse surveys turn company newsletters into a two-way engagement channel. Features like emoji ratings and anonymous comments simplify the process of giving feedback. And if you’re stuck on how to get started, these employee satisfaction survey templates will help.

Book a free, personalized ContactMonkey demo to learn more!

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