Skip to main content

Employee Engagement and Innovation

Daniel Saunders

Chief Executive Officer

The important relationship between innovation and employee engagement

Employees are the lifeblood of any business, and their engagement level significantly impacts overall business success. But in recent years, employee engagement has declined, with many headlines proclaiming that half of the US workforce are “quiet quitters”—employees who are disengaged with their work. 

So how can you engage, inspire and retain your greatest assets? The answer lies in getting employees involved in innovation and building a culture which supports it. 

Employee engagement and innovation are symbiotic, each feeding off the other. The more engaged staff are, the more innovative they are, and the more your business supports a culture of innovation, the more engaged employees tend to be.

So let’s look at what exactly employee engagement is, why it’s essential and how innovation can be used to improve it. 

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement refers to individuals’ long-term motivation and connection to their work, team, and company. 

Employees can be categorised into three main groups depending on their level of engagement; 

  1. Engaged. Advocates who motivate others. 
  2. Not engaged. High turnover risk and low motivation to do work. They do just enough to get by. Referred to as “quiet quitters.” 
  3. Actively disengaged. Disruptive to the work environment. Unhappy and unproductive. 

Research consultancy Gallup produced a 12-question survey to measure employee engagement called Q12 based on the factors required to cultivate highly engaged employees. The following twelve questions indicate the factors which contribute to engagement. 

Q12 by Gallup 

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Benefits of high employee engagement

The benefits of highly engaged employees are far-reaching and go beyond improving innovation outcomes. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report, companies in the top quartile of employee engagement saw 23% higher profitability and 18% higher productivity.

Further studies show that high employee engagement helps reduce absenteeism, increases happiness and satisfaction, and ​​increase the adoption of company initiatives. Engaged employees also form a strong culture which is difficult to copy, giving you a competitive advantage.

Conversely, disengaged employees can chip away at company culture, damage morale, and negatively impact productivity and profitability.

How does employee engagement impact innovation?

Highly engaged employees support innovation, and in turn, innovation increases employee engagement. But what factors are contributing to this? Let’s consider a typical process for developing innovations.

Idea exploration: recognising a problem

Highly engaged employees are more likely to speak up when they observe a situation within the workplace that needs fixing. They are bought into the company mission, vision, and goals and feel that their opinions are valued. Therefore they are more likely to raise a problem that could be tackled to improve company performance. Highly engaged employees tend to be more productive too, which means they have more bandwidth (and motivation) to work on ideas outside their primary job description. 

Idea generation: developing a solution

Developing ideas means putting yourself out there, which can be daunting. Highly engaged employees work within business climates that support, recognise, and encourage novel ideas. Such environments enable employees to suggest radical ideas without fear of being mocked or ignored. Engaged employees also have good collaborative working relationships, which further helps ideation from various sources rather than trying to work in isolation. 

Idea championing: seeking support to develop a concept 

Highly engaged employees have good links and networks within the organisation. This social capital allows them to effectively garner support for their ideas to ensure they are developed further. 

Idea implementation: overcoming failures to implement a working solution

Again, employees who feel their opinions are valued and have good relationships with colleagues and supervisors support a culture where failure is not only okay but encouraged as the organisation recognises that to innovate, failure is necessary. 

How to improve employee engagement

Global studies suggest that only 21% of employees are engaged at work. So let’s look at this from the flip side. How can corporate innovation practices boost employee engagement?

Innovation labs and intrapreneurship increase employee engagement

Structured open innovation and new venture-building programs can increase employee engagement by involving team members in exciting projects the company is championing from the top. There’s an element of prestige in being selected to work on such an initiative.

Typically, employees’ daily roles differ from the agile, collaborative working environment in such innovation programs. Staff can, therefore, learn through participating in the program. Introducing such working practices into the wider organisation helps improve morale, collaboration, speed of project delivery and the ability to better see and celebrate individual contributions through practices such as standups or demo days.

Programs that pair innovative startups with employees, such as innovation labs or accelerator programs, also help improve engagement as employees are asked to mentor or share their insights and knowledge with startups on the program, thus increasing the feeling that their opinions and role are valued.

When intrapreneurship programs are introduced, they support the development of an innovation culture. The programme harnesses employees’ experience, skills and passion, equipping them with the tools needed to develop new pioneering solutions for the business. This helps boost employee engagement by introducing collaboration between different departments, increasing internal support, recognition, and data-driven decision-making.

Overall corporate innovation programmes can help improve employee engagement by;

Removing bureaucracy so decisions can be made faster (the opposite is often cited as a reason staff become disengaged.)
Being open to new innovative suggestions and ideas from anyone in the company.
Creating a culture that celebrates failing fast as part of learning and growing, rather than punishing or humiliating individuals for “failing.”

And on an individual level, it helps employees;
Develop new hard and soft skills around agile practices, data-driven decision-making, communication and collaboration.
Feel motivated to identify problems to solve.
Feel empowered to think up radical solutions.
Foster a “can do” culture where individuals are more likely to collaborate and support their teammates.

Innovative technologies and tools

The innovation process can improve employee engagement, but so can innovations. Below are a few innovative tools and technologies that can support employee engagement: 

Key takeaways 

  • Improving employee engagement should be a top priority for executives, with record numbers of ‘quiet quitters’ being reported. 
  • Highly engaged employees help the business to be more productive and profitable and are a fantastic source of innovation. 
  • Introducing innovation programs such as labs, accelerators, or intrapreneurship can help improve employee engagement by demonstrating how valued their ideas and contributions are. 
  • Technology innovations can help improve and cultivate employee engagement.