The Future of Employee Engagement

As an HR blogger I know the perils of dropping the ‘E’ bomb. Few words occupy more gigabytes of space, are more debated and argued over, than ‘engagement’ – particularly when prefixed by the word ’employee’.

I’ve taken part in many discussions, read many blogs and watched many presentations, all concerned with trying to nail down what employee engagement actually is, what does it mean and how to do it right. And does it even matter. For many years it was considered that a pay cheque, with the correct amount arriving in your bank account on time, was all that was really needed for engagement.

The thinking has moved on though. As an HR recruiter I used to interview many aspiring managers. When I got them talking about achievements many would give priority to the engagement initiatives that they had worked on, offering both anecdotal and data evidence of their success. For some it could be simply organising awaydays or parties, fresh fruit for every department, a proper coffee machine or a new style of internal communication. For others it was down to benefits and perks, finding ways of recognising people who went the extra mile for colleagues. And for many there was also the nitty gritty, some would say real core part of engagement, of understanding and communicating vision and values, defining guiding principles.

For my part there are certain recurring messages that crop up at most events:

  • People don’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘am I engaged?
  • Engaged workers are more productive
  • Engagement is an outcome of doing the right things, not about the process itself
  • It starts with a CEO committed to the people agenda
  • People need to be treated with respect and dignity, shown that they are valued
  • It needs to be assessed in the ‘now’ and not with historical surveys
  • Social media is the new water cooler and you can pick up how your employees feel about you by being in the conversation

There are many more – and you’re welcome to add some in the comments – but the main drift is always that it starts with a mindset, of having a vision and culture that values employes and the contributions they make.

As Meg Peppin says in her latest blog on the subject:

“The solution is simple, create time and space for people to talk with each other to make meaning. Time, patience, space, respect. Simple and yet so difficult.”

Most people tend to see this as easier to achieve in a smaller business where employees are closer to, and likely to be more aligned with, the core vision and values, whilst leadership also tends to be more visible and approachable.

However it’s clearly on the agenda of most major businesses also. This report on the future of employee engagement suggests that over 80% see it as a priority, with pretty much everyone (97.4%…to me that’s everyone) saying that they will be investing in improving engagement levels over the next 12-18 months. All companies involved said their CEO was involved – although only 20% classified the CEO as instrumental – whilst recent Chartered Management Institute research suggested that the number one priority for business leaders this year is a reshaping of workplace culture, with employee engagement and better leadership at the core.

The report was produced by Osney HR ahead of next month’s HR Vision Conference in Amsterdam. They pulled together a panel of 9 specialists in employee engagement and comms from a range of business sectors – IBM, Starbucks, Electrolux, Zurich Insurance, Starwood Hotels to name some – and put 7 questions to each. They ranged from ‘who will be the drivers of employee engagement?‘ (line managers not surprisingly featured heavily) and ‘will engagement be replaced with empowerment or enablement?‘ (seen as drivers not replacements) to the thorny subjects of measurement and ROI (crowdsourcing and assessing impacts feature).

One contributor said

“Times will be challenging. Building engagement does not happen via tricks or treats, it’s about shared vision, challenging goals and being given the appropriate tools to achieve.”

You can download the e-book here – it’s an interesting read.

I’ll be heading over to the HR Vision conference and will catch another of the panel – Ralf Larsson (Director of Employee Engagement, Electrolux) – presenting a session on engagement at the event. He’s called it ‘Schmooze or Lose‘, which I guess could become a new catchphrase for the whole employee engagement debate. I noticed some of his suggestions:

  • Breaking down the silos through social technology
  • Development of internal social communities
  • Getting buy in from leaders to connect with employees via social networks
  • Power of a collaborative workforce through crowd sourcing and idea generation

Much about our workforce is evolving and changing – from technology to working arrangements, email to enterprise social software – and hence engagement needs to evolve too. Ensuring people have the right technology to get the job done may seem obvious but nothing disengages more than not feeling that you have the right tools to perform.

And with labour market shifts embracing new arrangements such as zero hour, managed workforce, and freelancing, businesses will need to find ways to engage people who are working for them and representing them, but may not actually be employed by them.

The future for employee engagement may involve a lot more schmoozing…

7 thoughts on “The Future of Employee Engagement

  1. Engagement is not an outcome – it’s a behavior. We can’t measure engagement because it is different for each individual. Until we realize that engagement is how we treat people – not a program, a benefit or a survey we will constantly have this discussion. The fact that I cannot know what a good engagement “score” is – is proof that it isn’t a good measure. Is 90% engaged good? Is 50% engaged good? Who knows. Too much time and treasure is being spent trying to measure and impact the unmeasurable hoping that somewhere, sometime, some company will turn a profit.

    If you do “engagement” because it makes you more money then you’re doing it wrong. Treating human beings like human beings is just the right thing to do … regardless of the ROI.

    1. @ Paul. spot on. I love the companies that have terrible people practices (0 hours, min wage etc) and then do a strap on engagement programme. Makes me ashamed of my profession sometimes.

  2. I’m not sure Mervyn. I think the homogeneous “we are all in it together” is becoming fast outdated by the loosening of employment ties with the business, different ways of working and the effects technology and fragmentation will bring. Still think we are focussed on a rearview mirror of engaging with the corporation on these rules.

  3. Agree entirely. Who and how we are engaging is the key question. Not to mention why? If people are generally just passing through, do they need to be engaged? People are very expendable these days so why are we trying to engage them?

  4. The e-book is interesting Mervyn because it reveals that the either don’t know how to create engagement or weren’t willing to expose their knowledge.

    Stephen Covey senior wrote in 1992 in his book “Principle-Centered Leadership” that the possible performance gain is 500%, not 5% or 50% but 500%. That is about the gain I experienced in creating several fully engaged workforces, the last being a 1300 person unionized group. The gain is almost too amazing for words. Fully engaged people are highly motivated, highly committed, and loving to come to work. They are emotionally driven to throw everything they have at their work, meaning all their creativity, innovation, productivity, energy, experience, knowledge, and intelligence.

    Achieving this is really quite simple – switch from using the command and control approach that naturally disengages employees to its opposite. The opposite consists of listening to what they have to say and responding to the satisfaction or better of the employee even if it means telling them why they cannot have what they want. Works like a charm and it is not about surveys since they tend to disengage employees.

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