A Coffee Bar and Other Perks Do Positive Work Environments Make Employees More Engaged on the Job?

The workplace is changing, and signs of this change are everywhere. From companies with in-house bistros to Google’s dog-friendly spaces and Microsoft’s family benefits, the workplace is slowly evolving. Companies state that the underlying goal of these programs is to support employees, attract the best job candidates and foster work environments that encourage productivity and a greater sense of well-being. Programs that support employees must be good we reason, but is there empirical evidence to back up this theory? Does corporate generosity towards employees, fairness and other forms of support translate to a more engaged, invested workforce?

People who study workplace dynamics professionally are intrigued by this question. According to Alan M. Saks, faculty at the University of Toronto, one of the first studies on this issue, “Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work” was carried out by W.A. Kahn of Boston University in 1990. No one took the research further until some 15 years later when big companies started to think more about what makes employees tick. What if engaged, happy employees could improve the company’s bottom line? Research on this topic bounced back.

What Is an Engaged Employee?

What Is an Engaged Employee?

Let’s begin by defining some core concepts. What is an engaged employee? Several different ideas have emerged, but there are some big, unifying themes to consider. The primary one is that an engaged employee is not just carrying out minimum job duties but is fully absorbed in the work, using all mental and emotional resources. W.A. Kahn of Boston University also added that engaged employees were employees that felt psychologically safe and free to make mistakes without penalty. Some compare an engaged employee to an employee that is “burned-out”. Engaged employees approach the job with energy and efficiency; employees on the verge of quitting are cynical, exhausted and inefficient.

Listening and Sharing: Why Positive Interactions between Employee and Employer Matter

Social Exchange Theory

The theory that explains the relationship between employer and employee is called social exchange theory (SET). SET suggests that if both employer and employee work within a certain framework of rules, a mutually beneficial working relationship will evolve over time. If an employee receives something of value like economic or other forms of support or benefits, that employee is willing to repay the organization by investing more time and energy into the job. The upshot, however, is that when the organization is stingy with these kinds of resources, the employee feels no obligation to repay. The “short-changed” employee will not feel any responsibility to give more than the minimum.

In Mr. Saks’ paper, “Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement,” published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology in 2006, Mr. Saks tackles a series of questions that flesh out these relationships. He asks the following questions:

  • Are job characteristics positively related to job and organization engagement?
  • Are rewards and other forms of recognition positively related to job and organization engagement?
  • Will the employee’s perception of support by his or her immediate supervisor and organization be positively related to job and organization engagement?
  • Will the employee’s perception of how fair the organization is in distributing rewards and responding to employee issues be positively related to job and organization engagement?

Don’t Leave Your Workforce “High and Dry”: Employee Support is Essential

Sak’s research found that the underlying principles behind SET continue to drive the employee/employer relationship and that certain factors definitely lead to job and organization engagement. Job characteristics that made the employee feel empowered and fulfilled intellectually through opportunities for growth were significantly related to job engagement. One of the strongest predictors of employee engagement was the existence of perceived organizational support (POS). If the employee felt the organization provided a variety of support, economic and otherwise, this led to an employee who was willing to repay the organization through greater levels of engagement at the job and within the organization. Perceived supervisor support (PSS) was also important to employees. In addition, the employee’s perception of whether the organization was fair or not in dealing with employee issues also significantly influenced the employee’s willingness to step up his level of engagement and give more to the job and organization.

Second to home, work is where nearly all of us spend most of our time. It is common-sense that this second “home” needs to incorporate elements that help us thrive intellectually and emotionally. As an employer, I have taken these ideas to heart and tried to create a workspace that brings out the best in the team that is CivilGEO. We don’t have a tree house like Epic Software, but we do offer excellent food in-house, access to plenty of natural light, programs that support our employees’ families and other perks. I have discovered that working to arrive at the optimal blend of workplace benefits and meet the needs of my employees is a continuous exercise. As Saks suggests, communication and “give and take” between employee and employer is key to an engaged and loyal workforce. The results of this study finally give us the empirical evidence to back up what we always knew to be true.

About the Author Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder

Chris is an experienced civil engineering and software technology leader, with over 30 years industry experience. With proven expertise in global software development, he has built engineering teams that adapt quickly, focus on what’s important and, most importantly, deliver. He is a licensed professional civil engineer with extensive experience in water resource engineering. He has performed and supervised engineering projects in urban stormwater drainage, transportation and roadway drainage, storm sewer design, detention pond design, stormwater quality, green infrastructure, watershed management planning, wastewater sewers, water distribution networks, pump stations, FEMA flood studies, bridge and culvert design, bridge scour and armoring, dam failure analysis, seepage and groundwater modeling, and environmental permits.