Need to know:
- Employees are increasingly swamped by communications so employers need to think carefully about engagement strategies.
- Successful engagement strategies are built on solid foundations. Employers should start by engaging with staff to work out where they are, then work on their weak areas.
- A clear sense of purpose and inspiring leaders are instrumental in engagement success.
Hello, hello? Can I have your attention, please? That means downing your phone, silencing Twitter, and turning off the television and radio.
People are swamped by communications in a way they never were in the past. Rhys Williams, strategy director at Quietroom, says: “Whether they’re watching the X Factor and live tweeting it at the same time or simultaneously listening to music and reading a blog, it’s getting harder and harder to get through to people. We are getting even better at filtering out information that doesn’t seem relevant to us.”
Times are changing and employers that are seeking to engage their staff are facing an uphill battle. Some are questioning whether costly and time-consuming engagement strategies are really achieving their goals.
The answer is yes, but that engagement strategies must be carefully considered to work. It is very easy to wax lyrical about the importance of engagement. Andrew Drake, head of rewards and benefits consulting at JLT Employee Benefits, says: “The problem is when people say they are engaging but don’t back up their words with actions.”
Effective and considered engagement has to begin with the ‘why’ instead of the ‘what’, he adds.
Before diving in, employers must ask why they are trying to engage their staff. What are they trying to achieve? “Personally, why would I want to engage? Because actually, the advocates for an [organisation] are its own people,” says Drake.
If an employer does not have engaged people in its workforce, it is fighting a constant battle, explains Drake. “A disengaged person won’t do the basic [work] on time and to a sufficient standard,” he says.
Which strategies are successful?
Successful engagement strategies rest on strong building blocks. The first block is measuring employees’ current engagement levels.
This could include running short, tailored annual surveys, and reporting back on the findings to staff, as well as creating metrics that show year-on-year success, says Aliya Vigor-Robertson, founding partner at Journey HR.
But what happens if the results show widespread disengagement? “I would dig deeper into why people aren’t engaged,” says Vigor-Robertson. “Is it that they don’t understand their purpose and role, is it leadership, is it people management, is it not having the right environment to do their work?”
In some circumstances, it is worth checking in with staff even more regularly. Adam McKinnon, director of client services at Mercer Sirota, says: “We are trying to create a dialogue. We are seeing much more innovative technology in the market. That’s the traditional problem that has held survey-based technology back. With the advent of new tech programmes, [employers] can get results almost instantly and continue the conversation via e-mail or electronically.”
The second building block to successful engagement is acting on the findings and making sure the basics are in place. Good managers with a clear and inspiring vision of the organisation’s direction are critical to engagement.
Nicola Britovsek, director of human resources at Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, says: “Probably the most important thing to know is people are not engaged by schemes, they are engaged by people. They are engaged by the [organisation] because they have trust and faith in the people they work for.”
For example, if the business is not performing well, employers should be honest with staff but tell them how it will go about achieving results. “It’s about collaborating towards a shared goal that will be in everybody’s interests,” says Vigor-Robertson.
A sense of purpose is key, adds Williams. “A sense of working somewhere that does something decent is really important, particularly for millennials.”
Short-term versus long-term approach
It is possible to change behaviour via quick wins. However, it is important that these sit within a longer-term strategy, says Drake. “[An organisation] could have an employee of the month, [it] could have a new product [it is] launching where [it] gets the buy-in from [employees], but I don’t believe [it] will ever get long-term change if [it] always looks [to the] short term,” he adds.
If employers are using the right tools to scratch a bit deeper, there are many different interventions they can put into place that can help from a short-term perspective, says Vigor-Robertson. “The short-term [approach] could be getting someone in to do a bit of training, the long-term [approach] is investing in a modular training programme where people have access to long-term modular training,” she explains. “It’s all about that continuity.”
Case study: TSB channels inspiring leadership to engage employees
TSB has built its employee engagement strategy on the values of directness, honesty and authenticity. Hari Miller, head of internal communications and community engagement, works closely with Paul Pester, TSB’s chief executive, to keep employees informed and engaged with the organisation.
TSB has seen some tumultuous times. It separated from Lloyds in 2013 and was effectively launched as a new high-street bank. The subsequent years have seen TSB subject to a failed merger with the Co-operative Bank, an initial public offering (IPO), and finally its acquisition by Banco de Sabadell in 2015.
With so much change happening, staff needed to be kept informed. Pester grasped the importance of engagement from the start. Miller says: “If [we] can keep an engaged and energised workforce, they will look after [our] customers and [we] will be profitable.”
Direct, regular communications were the starting point. “[Pester] was going to be a very visible face, he wasn’t going to hide behind layers of executive-dom,” says Miller.
He faithfully holds an open bi-weekly conference call to answer questions from staff. In between calls, Pester writes a blog or films a video blog, which is made available to employees. This is where authenticity comes in. “[Employers] have to be truly authentic in [their] message,” says Miller. “There is such a core of truth in everything [Pester] says that he was happy to stand up to it.”
TSB truly lives its values, too. “In many other banks, the bonus structure is skewed in favour of the leadership,” says Miller. “It is unfair, so we flattened them out completely.”
Finally, the organisation surveys employees regularly, with impressive response rates and high engagement scores. Miller is excited that TSB will be rolling out Office 365 across all its branches. “Things such as [Microsoft] Pulse surveys, which were difficult for us to run previously, will be much easier.”
The plan is to run more regular and focused surveys using Microsoft Pulse, so that TSB will be more in touch with its employees’ views than ever.
Viewpoint: Traditional engagement strategies will soon lead nowhere
Organisations across the globe who pay lip service to employment strategies speak of keeping employees engaged. Although maintaining staff motivation is essential in keeping any business competitive, a report by Steelcase, Engagement and the global workplace, published in May 2016, reveals that only one in three employees feel engaged with their work. Does this mean that employee engagement strategies are failing?
It is understandable why organisations facing flagging productivity and performance conduct employee engagement surveys. However, constantly monitoring the activities of employees like lab specimens and bluntly asking them if they enjoy their work encourages them to appease senior management. This outdated assessment technique does not give them the opportunity to discuss their concerns openly, and prevents a true assessment of employee morale across an entire organisation. With a new generation of millennials who thrive on praise, engagement surveys could now drive employees out the door.
Employee engagement strategies need to be discarded in favour of culture assessments. These help employers to understand what truly motivates their employees; what frustrates or engages them; and to develop a sense of an organisation’s central values. Yet there also needs to be a shift in workplace culture so employees can realise their true potential.
Employers need to embrace workplace cultures that nurture creativity and give employees the opportunity to express themselves freely. Offering rich feedback on their performance in an environment that inspires them to perform can increase the competitiveness of any business.
Thinking in terms of workplace cultures also gives employers a more holistic view of the state of their organisation. It allows a greater understanding of where talent lies and where potential issues could occur. For example, identifying if employees are able to cooperate effectively, especially across departments, is a great and innovative indication of employee morale and the health of a business.
Traditional engagement strategies are outdated and will soon lead nowhere. We need a deeper understanding of workplace cultures to understand what drives employees, and we need to embrace them now.
Rita Trehan is former director of HR at Honeywell International and AES Corporation, and a global expert on workplace culture