ISS report: The crucial role of the supervisor

It is widely recognised that employee engagement can play an especially important role in improving business outcomes. A considerable body of research has found evidence that engaged employees are more productive, more profitable, more customer-focused and more loyal.

Additionally, research evidence suggests that employees’ experiences and conditions at work are closely linked to the levels of engagement they feel. Studies recommend that organisations should seek to understand the facilitating drivers specific to their context by studying the management practices at their own highly-engaged units.

The following ISS research was carried out in a UK healthcare unit chosen because it ranked very highly for engagement in an annual employee survey. Employee engagement had risen at the unit since 2010, when a series of measures designed to improve engagement were put in place. The aim of the research was to identify which of the measures had been most effective in improving engagement – as this had also led to improved productivity and client satisfaction.

Results: Quality of management and supervision was most important factor in promoting engagement with work


The interviews revealed that – by a clear margin – employees felt that the quality of management and supervision was the most important factor in promoting engagement with their work. All but three of the interviewees (90%) made positive references to the management and supervision they experienced.

This finding supports the conclusion of many studies into employee engagement: higher levels of engagement are typically found in employees whose direct managers exhibit more relationship-oriented behaviour. This also validates the approach prioritised at ISS leadership for supervisors and managers to be highly visible, to be very accessible and to have increased face-time with employees. The high visibility and accessibility of the management/supervisory team were mentioned in many of the interviews.

Research excerpts and analysis

Several referred to a specific supervisor:

“She does not go past without getting on to you and asking how you are. She put her arms around me when I came back to work after my husband died. It’s the little things that mean something”.

“She is down to earth nothing gets brushed under the carpet. She will say it like it is. She always comes back with whatever we’ve given her.”

“She said thank you for all the hard work I had done, it made me feel good in myself that she had noticed what I had been doing.”

“You see her doing walks.”

“You always get her coming round saying you are doing a great job.”

Others mentioned the role of immediate management more generally:

“The managers are always there, the door is always there if you want a word with them, you can talk to them openly.”

“Your supervisors, again they are more like your friends than your supervisors. You can go to them with anything, you can go in confidence, speak to them confidentially and it will stay that way.”

“There isn’t a management thing and the workers, there is nothing like that. There is no ‘I’m the manager’; it is not like that here.”

“They are brilliant. They go that extra mile. In my old jobs, I had never met my bosses. I never saw them. To see these all the time I think it’s good because you see their faces so you aren’t scared to talk to them.”

The analysis of the interviews found that the second most important factor in experiencing high engagement was the employees’ relationships with their co-workers. Some 77% made positive references to their co-workers, with many referring in positive terms to the efforts supervisors made to bring co-workers together both formally (work meetings) and informally (socially).

“They do nights out and get all the staff together and they do little once a month karaoke, a bit of a buffet...all the workers from ISS getting together”.

“There are loads of activities. It’s good because everyone gets connected.”

The third most important factor for high engagement were recognition and rewards (70%).

Some of the interviewees mentioned specific incentive schemes:

“ISS introduced the 100% attendance award and Employee of the Month [on our contract] gives you a boost. You want to aim for those targets if you get a bit of recognition.”

“I have had the 100% attendance. To me, attendance is one of your targets, I am never late but you get certificates and you get recognised. In any other job I have never been recognised for it.”

Just as important to many of the employees were informal kinds of recognition:

“What I like about it is every time I finish work and I am going home, supervisors will say “thank you”...I am getting paid to do the job but it’s nice that they always say thank you.”

Other important factors the interviewees raised related to feeling engaged were: the kind of leadership they experienced; the quality of two-way communication (both formal and informal); and opportunities they had for learning and development.

Another important theme that emerged was that the frontline service workers interviewed saw their work in a broader context – their effort contributed to helping patients in the hospital get better.

“If I go off on holiday or off on sick, my mind is still on the job...because I like that clinic to be left the way I have left it – clean.”

“Patients – that’s what we are here for to get them better...even though I only do a small part” “...we are helping people who are sick.”

“ to patients, make sure they are okay make them comfortable this is part of the job.”


The principal conclusion of the new research was that the measures designed to develop the interpersonal relationships between frontline service employees and their immediate managers and supervisors, were the most important drivers for employees feeling more engaged at work.

The majority of interviewees pointed to specific behaviour from supervisors and managers that made them feel valued, including efforts to foster good relations between them and their co-workers, which positively influenced work engagement. Good relations with supervisors and co-workers meant they wanted to ‘go the extra mile’ and saw coming to work as meaningful and purposeful – which are significant factors driving engagement.

Do you have recommendations for improving employee engagement within your organisation? Share in the comments below!

This blog post is based on ISS’ Employee engagement – the crucial role of the supervisor whitebook.