How to make employee engagement work for you

Research shows that while it’s a priority for UK businesses, there’s an engagement shortfall – so what’s the best way to tackle this?

How to make employee engagement work for you
Image: Getty

An effective employee engagement strategy is the Philosopher’s Stone of the business world. It can close the productivity gap, improve the bottom line, and cure all the ills of the modern workplace.

Unfortunately – and much like the Philosopher’s Stone itself – while we know it will cure all our ills, we struggle to put one together. As a result, valuable time and energy is expended in the search for engagement, and yet according to a 2015 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, these efforts only succeed with 39% of staff.

The UK has an alarming engagement shortfall. The AON Hewitt 2015 report on Trends in Global Employee Engagement found that in the UK engagement levels are around 52%, which is far lower than the global average of 62%. Meanwhile, nearly one in five employees remains actively disengaged.

Could engagement solve our productivity woes?

The knock-on impact on productivity is worrying. UK productivity has stagnated since 2008, and in 2015 it was 18 percentage points below the rest of the G7 average – dramatically outstripped by the likes of the US and Germany.

Finding the Philosopher’s Stone and generating engagement could turn this around. The aforementioned AON Hewitt research found that a 5% increase in engagement is linked to a 3% increase in revenue growth in the subsequent year.

A priority for UK corporates

Unsurprisingly, therefore, engagement has become a top priority for businesses. This year’s CBI Employment Trends Survey found that 'achieving and maintaining high levels of employee engagement' was the top corporate priority for 2017 – at 48%. When asked why, 73% said that engagement would lead to better productivity and performance.

The problem is that many organisations will devise an engagement strategy, which begins with a business-wide survey asking people how engaged they feel, and ends with delegating solutions to HR and the benefits function. This is flawed on a number of levels, because a comprehensive approach to engagement has five stages.

1. Surveys aren’t always the right place to start

The enormous annual engagement survey has a decent pedigree, but it also has its critics. There are those who argue that it is not regular enough to be effective, while others suggest it’s a blunt instrument, taking no account of personality or circumstances. If you commit to doing a survey, there’s the risk that employees don’t feel effective action has been taken as a result – causing even more disengagement; and the danger that employees are alienated by employers asking what they feel are the wrong questions.

It’s why some employers are replacing this approach with social platforms. These connect employees with one another, and enable them to ask the right questions about the business, talk to one another about what is important to them, and build their own solutions. It provides a useful insight into how employees are really engaging with the business, while at the same time building networks and increasing engagement.

2. Leadership is vital

Once employers understand where they stand in terms of engagement, a strategy can go awry with the assumption that any problems need to be solved by the HR function. In fact, solutions need to be implemented at every level across the business.

This becomes clear when you consider the Institute of Employment Studies’ definition of an engaged employee. They say an individual has belief in the organisation, an understanding of the business context, a desire to make things better, respect for colleagues, willingness to go the extra mile and the enthusiasm to keep up to date with developments in the field.

It stands to reason, therefore, that HR and benefits alone cannot give employees ‘belief in the organisation’. Strong leadership and a powerful brand that employees can identify with are fundamental and this should be embodied and demonstrated from business leaders through strong and principled leadership. It also needs to filter down through layers of management, so that every employee has faith in the business from the very top to their own line manager.

3. The work itself needs to deliver

Engagement cannot simply be delivered from the top down, however. The work itself also needs to be engineered to deliver the kind of experience that inspires engagement. It needs to be fundamentally rewarding, offer employees the opportunity for collaboration, and yet allow them sufficient autonomy to get the work done. Career opportunities and talent management are also important. Employees want the opportunity to learn and develop, then be recognised with career advancement, and reward.

4. The whole individual matters

More recently, employers have started to identify the ‘employee experience’ as key. This doesn’t just look at day-to-day work-related experience, but at the whole individual for the whole of their working life with the business. As a result, wellbeing issues have become much more closely aligned to engagement.

5. All of this can be supported by benefits

Rather than benefits shouldering the sole responsibility for an engagement strategy, they provide essential support for every aspect of it. Strong leadership and corporate culture should be reflected in the benefits package. So, for example, if a key part of the culture is respect for diversity, then reflecting the needs of a diverse workforce through benefits is essential. Likewise if corporate social responsibility is important, then offering matched charity contributions or days off for volunteering help the organisation to put its money where its mouth is.

The benefits function also plays a key role in reward and recognition. Total reward is essential in ensuring employees feel fairly treated, while a comprehensive recognition programme ensures those who regularly go the extra mile are rewarded for their efforts.

Finally, benefits are essential to supporting employees holistically, especially through wellbeing benefits – from private medical insurance to an employee assistance programme. This can also extend to dealing with the pressures employees face on a day-to-day basis, with everything from support for those facing financial stress, to benefits for those juggling a complex work/life balance.

Benefits can successfully support a comprehensive approach to engagement that is embedded into the very DNA of the business. To be successful, organisations need to build leadership, management, culture, working practices, job roles, HR policies and a benefits package that inspires employees to engage and perform day after day. It’s far more complex and challenging than gluing an artificial ‘engagement strategy’ onto the side of the business with the help of an employee survey and a recognition scheme. But let’s not forget, we’re seeking the Philosopher’s Stone of the business world: it was never going to be easy.


Saturday 19 August 2017
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