Keeping Staff Engaged at Research Institutes


Research institutes have an important role in our society. Breakthroughs in science, for example, have led to and will continue to lead to life-changing advances in technology and medicine. Our research shows that employees within research institutes are highly engaged and generally more satisfied with a wide range of HR and management practices compared with most University employees. However, to ensure the continued success of research institutes, an important HR and talent management strategy will involve keeping these employees engaged in their roles and achieving a long length of service.

Our research of hundreds of employees from Australian research institutes highlights some of the key strengths and challenges regarding engaging employees in this industry. In total, we collected data from 82 research institutes and research organisations, many of which operate within Australian Universities. When looking at which HR and management practices had the strongest association with employee engagement across research institutes, the following strengths and challenges emerged:

Strengths (keep doing)

Motivation & Initiative
Staff within research institutes report their co-workers really go the extra mile at work, are quick to take advantage of opportunities, and take the initiative to solve problems. This is great news for research institutes because across research institutes, employees’ perception of the motivation & initiative of their co-workers is an important driver of employee engagement.

Research Support
Research institutes appear to be supporting staff well to meet their research goals and achieve high quality research outputs. Notably, staff are much more favourable regarding the research support and research quality in research institutes compared with staff in Universities overall. Research appears to be a strong motivator for employees within research institutes and is the reason for their organisation’s existence, so this result is highly positive for the industry.

Research institute employees find the flexibility of their work such as changing working hours or having a say in their working conditions particularly important for their engagement. Consistent with these needs, research institutes seem to be able to provide an acceptable level of flexible work arrangements.

Challenges (opportunities for improvement)

Career Opportunities
Only half of employees within research institutes are satisfied with the career development and career opportunities available in their organisation. Unfortunately, this seems to be a primary driver behind the engagement of these employees, and is a key opportunity for research institutes to increase employee engagement going forward. Given the challenges of creating career opportunities through hierarchy in smaller organisations, this area could potentially be improved through providing more professional development opportunities for staff.

Equally mixed as career opportunities, employees within research institutes do not always have favourable opinions regarding the processes in their work – particularly their design and efficiency. Processes can be time-consuming, error-prone and cause frustration. Indeed, the data show that staff in research institutes with poor processes tend to be less engaged. Improving processes (e.g., streamlining administration processes and reducing ‘red tape’/bureaucracy) is therefore another opportunity for improvement in research institutes.

Change Management
Consistent with findings across many industries and sectors, good change management within research institutes seems to drive their employees’ engagement. Despite this, employees’ attitudes toward their research institute handling change well and improving from the past are among the lowest rated areas amongst a wide range of HR and management practices.

To read more about our employee engagement survey click here or for more information about how to improve these and other areas of your organisation, please see our voice bite resources on improving organisational practices.