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…