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Why Microsoft Measures Employee Thriving, Not Engagement


Jun. 23, 2022 Harvard Business Review

At Microsoft, where we work on the People Analytics team, that means learning what the data can tell us about how our employees aspire to live their lives meaningfully. In particular, we landed on a new way of measuring thriving, at both work and outside of it, that goes beyond engagement only.

In this article, we share how and why we came to this measurement — and how your own company can learn from our experiences.

Why Thriving Is the New North Star

Prior to this year, we conducted one lengthy, annual survey that tracked employee engagement. It often took months to digest and plan actions around. Yet, we consistently encountered challenges in building a shared definition of engagement across the company. And often, despite employee engagement scores that would seem to indicate that things were going well, it became clear that employees were struggling when we dived deeper into the responses. To us, this was a reflection that we hadn’t yet set a high enough bar for the employee experience, and it motivated us to do better in measuring what matters.

So, we started asking employees for feedback through a shorter yet more focused survey every six months, for which we partnered with employee success platform Glint. This new approach is helping us stay closer to employees’ feedback and take clearer and more immediate action in response.

We also sought to define a new, higher bar that went beyond engagement only, drawing inspiration from many sources. One was what Our Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan, calls “The 5 P’s.” Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy, it breaks down employee fulfillment into five key, successive components: pay, perks, people, pride, and purpose. In a time that has prompted many to reflect on the role of work and career in their lives, it felt critical to recalibrate our listening systems to measure our progress towards that end goal — a sense of purpose. We were also inspired by Ross School of Business’s Gretchen Spreitzer and colleagues’ research on thriving as the antidote to languishing. As we moved beyond employee engagement, we decided to focus on our own version of employee thriving.

At Microsoft, we define thriving as “to be energized and empowered to do meaningful work.” This is the new core aspiration we have for our employees, one that challenges us to push ourselves every day so every employee can feel they’re pursuing that sense of purpose. Our focus on thriving isn’t just about recovering from the impact of the pandemic or matching pre-Covid employee sentiment scores. It’s about coming out the other side and doing even better.

What It Looks Like to Thrive

When our first employee survey data came back earlier this year, we began benchmarking our thriving for the first time. We looked at not just how many people reported they were thriving, but calculated company-wide averages based on responses from a five-point scale — if an employee selected “strongly disagree,” that translated to an individual score of zero, and “strongly agree” would be the equivalent of a 100. This ensured our insights took into account all positive, negative, and neutral sentiment.

After analyzing the results, we found that thriving averaged a 77 across the company — a number we see as strong, but one we can still work on. When we broke down thriving into its three components, we saw that meaningful work (79) and empowerment (79) both scored higher among employees than energized (73).

To understand the employee experiences behind the numbers, we dove into the open-ended survey responses. Three key themes stood out.

Culture matters.

What we saw was that employees who were thriving and not thriving were both talking about culture, but in vastly different ways.

Thriving employees talked about a collaborative environment and teamwork with colleagues, an inclusive culture with autonomy and flexibility, and well-being support. These comments reference examples such as being able to have honest, non-judgmental conversations on difficult topics, with a focus on finding solutions.

Employees who weren’t thriving talked about experiencing siloes, bureaucracy, and a lack of collaboration. In these comments we hear a lack of agency and a sense for being a cog in a machine. In other words, the opposite of being empowered and energized to do meaningful work.

Thriving takes a village.

Diving deeper into the numbers, it’s clear that everyone has a role to play. At Microsoft, we’ve long studied importance of managers, and we know their role has been more crucial than ever as they helped their teams navigate through uncertainty. It’s heartening to see our managers shine during such a difficult time. “My manager treats me with dignity and respect” scored a 93, meaning almost every employee selected “strongly agree” — but this also means we still need to ensure that’s the experience for every single employee. We also saw high scores in confidence in manager’s effectiveness (87) and managers’ support for careers (85), showing strong sentiment that managers are helping their teams succeed at the company.

While we see these scores as strengths, they’re strengths we want to keep building to ensure a positive lived experience for all employees.

Thriving and work-life balance are not the same thing.

As we think about how to support thriving, it’s important to distinguish it from work-life balance. While thriving is focused on being energized and empowered to do meaningful work in your role, work-life balance reflects employees’ personal lives, too. Employees rated their satisfaction with work-life balance as a 71, and while it’s encouraging to see work-life balance improving, it hasn’t fully recovered yet to pre-Covid levels. And there are times when thriving and work-life balance can move in different directions.

For example, an early-in-career employee who feels underutilized in their role may have great work-life balance from a perspective of hours and workload, but not feel energized while they’re at work or inspired by the meaning and impact of what they’re working on. On the other hand, there are times when people can thrive and feel so fulfilled by the hard work it takes to make progress on a big project that they can make a short-term tradeoff on work-life balance.

We know that work-life balance may ebb and flow, but wanted to learn from employees who both rated their work-life balance highly and said they were thriving in that work-focused portion of their life. So, we compared the 56% of our employees who said they were thriving and reported higher work-life balance to the 16% who were thriving but had lower work-life balance scores.

By combining sentiment data with de-identified calendar and email metadata, we found that those with the best of both worlds had five fewer hours in their workweek span, five fewer collaboration hours, three more focus hours, and 17 fewer employees in their internal network size. This reinforces what we know from earlier work-life balance research and network size analysis, which showed us that increased collaboration does have a negative impact on employees’ perception of work-life balance. It also confirms that collaboration is not inherently bad — for many employees, those times of close teamwork and striving toward a common goal can fuel thriving. However, it isimportant to be mindful of how intense collaboration can impact work-life balance, and leaders and employees alike should guard against that intensity becoming 24/7.

Challenges for Thriving on the Road Ahead

As more and more companies look closely at how they listen to and help their employees, it’s important to spend time understanding what your north star is — and to make sure it’s connected to the outcomes you are trying to drive as an organization. This new era of hybrid work won’t work for employees if you’re not listening — or if what you’re listening for doesn’t evolve along with them and how they do their jobs. There isn’t a singular one-size-fits-all solution out there, but paying close attention to how your employees thrive is one path forward.

We know this is just the beginning of our journey to understand this in our own organization. Looking holistically at the written responses from those who weren’t thriving offers more clues about where else we can improve for our employees. For example, while employees scored “I feel included in my team” highly at 86, by far the most common thread among those who were not thriving was a feeling of exclusion — from a lack of collaboration to feeling left out of decisions to struggling with politics and bureaucracy. We’ll continue to focus on ensuring inclusion is felt as part of our culture across all teams and orgs.

Ultimately, every score, whether high or low, gives us a baseline to keep listening, learning, improving, and adapting to new changes that still undoubtedly lie ahead. As we enter the hybrid work era, we’re excited to keep studying the numbers even more deeply to understand how thriving can be unlocked across different work locations, professions, and ways of working.

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