The last few years have been really tough for many employees. Not only did many face significant and difficult workplace change in the face of the recession, but most have also had to deal with a prolonged squeeze on wages which is only now starting to ease.

Yet remarkably, as new research released by the IPA today shows, employee engagement seems to have actually increased in the last few years despite the challenges faced by employees. The research, conducted by the IPA for Acas, is based on analysis of the most recent Workplace Employee Relations Study, the largest survey of its kind in Great Britain and a fantastic resource for understanding the world of work.

The research examined the ‘enablers of engagement’ that David MacLeod and I identified five years ago in ‘Engaging for Success’. We found that employee perceptions relating to all four of the enablers of engagement – strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice and integrity – had improved since 2004 when the survey was last carried out. There was a particularly strong increase in the ‘strategic narrative’ enabler with two out of three employees (65%) saying they shared their organisation’s values, up 10% since 2004.

However, although there has been a slight improvement in employee voice, the scores here remain worrying low. Just one in two employees (52%) say that their manager seeks their views. Fewer still – just one in three (34%) – say that their manager allows them to influence decision-making. The gap here suggests that even among those who say their managers seek their views, many see this as just a cosmetic exercise, rather than an effort genuinely to involve them and give them a voice. What’s more, there also seems to be an appetite for greater voice at work. Those who feel they are not involved in decision-making are far less satisfied with the extent to which they have a voice.

We found significant variations in engagement by organisation. Employees in the public sector tended to score lower on the enablers of employee engagement than those in the private and voluntary sectors, perhaps reflecting the greater impact of the recession on these workers. There were also lower levels of engagement in organisations with more employees, reflecting a greater challenge large organisations have in engaging their people.

There also seem to be gaps in engagement between some groups of employees. Our research found that men were less engaged than women and that middle-aged employees were less engaged than both older and younger workers. There is a particularly stark and concerning gap in terms of disability with disabled employees being far less engaged than the average worker. Employers should ensure they have robust procedures in place for measuring engagement, and that they can identify, understand and address any gaps there might be. These areas warrant further investigation and over the next few months, the IPA will be looking at how best to manage engagement in a modern and diverse workforce. Do get in touch if you want to find out more about our ‘Diverse Voices’ project.

As our research showed, there are things that employers can do to increase engagement. Contact between senior managers and frontline employees seems to be crucial for giving employees a sense of voice. Employees were far more engaged in organisations where there are meetings between employees and senior managers, particularly when employees are given the opportunity to raise questions or offer views. It seems like a simple thing to do, yet under one in two employers (46%) currently hold regular meetings between senior managers and employees where at least a quarter of the time is given over to employees to raise issues and ask questions. Employers need to ensure that they engage employees in a genuine way which promotes dialogue and involvement rather than simply one way communication.

But why does this all matter? Our research has also added to the growing weight of evidence that shows employee engagement is a key factor in organisational success. We found that managers were far more positive about both labour market productivity and financial performance in organisations with higher levels of employee engagement.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that effectively engaging with employees matters, and that it makes a difference to the bottom line. More and more employers are waking up to this fact. All organisations need to engage with their staff effectively and give them a voice in order both to provide fulfilling employment, to promote employee wellbeing, and to ensure they get the best out of their most important asset.

Nita Clarke OBE is Director of the IPA and Co-Chair of the Engage for Success Taskforce. You can download the research from our website at