Workplace 2030: employee engagement

7 October 2016

If your staff are truly your greatest asset, engaging employees well will be vital to raising productivity

The workplace has become a melting pot of ‘millennials’ demanding work-life balance through to ‘baby boomers’ who may be hanging on to working styles and expectations that have long since been given their P45.

While a job for life is a long forgotten ideal for employer and employee alike, reducing churn means reducing costs for businesses, from recruitment to training. And Accenture, host of the second in CBI’s Workplace 2030 event series, believes a happy employee is also a productive employee – so much so that it has reorganised its employee incentive system and is using its own Change Tracker tool to monitor whether this is improving engagement.

“Millennial” is a mindset as much as a demographic, says Accenture HR business partner, managing director Payal Vasudeva. Increasingly articulate employees, along with changing staff structures and less focus on hierarchy are redefining the factors driving staff motivation and engagement, agreed panellists Nita Clarke, director at IPA, and senior HR partner at DHL, Jennifer Barker.

Does it matter? “Engaged employees can add 18 per cent to the productivity of your business,” says CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie, chair of the event. Technology and social media mean that there is transparency within business as never before, putting organisations’ reputation at risk every time a disgruntled employee grumbles. But when considering how to tackle employee engagement, asking staff what they think could be a red herring, according to DHL’s Barker: “There’s a danger of unleashing expectations when you ask people for their views.”

Box ticking?

“Employee feedback is a huge opportunity, but if you don’t use that opportunity, it becomes a risk. If you don’t think about this stuff as an employer, you can be sure that other businesses are,” says IPA’s Clarke. So how can employers ensure that their efforts to understand and improve employee engagement are not mere box ticking exercises, and avoid losing staff to competition?

“People want a sense of meaning and purpose at work. If you’ve got a story that articulates that, you’ve got engagement,” Clarke says. Approaching staff as your current and future customers can help businesses get the balance right. “You can’t make the distinction between employee and customer anymore,” says Accenture’s Vasudeva. The storytelling that brands use to communicate with customers can also help to engage staff in the business’ mission and goals.

But when a company’s direction changes, staff can easily be left by the wayside. “It can be difficult to take people who have grown with the business along with you. These people may come across as disengaged, but really they’re just afraid of change,” says DHL’s Barker.

Good management and coaching skills can be critical to bringing about changes in the way staff do their jobs, as well as their productivity. “Not everyone is going to wake up being a great coach just because you’ve promoted them,” says Accenture’s Vasudeva. She argues that rewarding past, measurable performance rather than individual effort can be counter-productive when nurturing good managers. “People join organisations but leave managers,” says API’s Clarke. Managers need training in having difficult leadership conversations.

Technology: boon or bane?

Technology can be a game-changing communications tool, allowing large organisations to communicate strategy to staff quickly, to enable them to improve customer service. It can also help managers to stay in touch with staff who are not office based.

 “How do you engage someone you only see once every 17 weeks?” asks Barker. Technology can help to track and stay in touch with the day-to-day experiences of isolated workers such as delivery drivers, who may not be able to access social media while working. But monitoring time taken to complete jobs or on breaks to get a better understanding of productivity, however well intentioned, can be profoundly demotivating to staff.

Vasudeva cites Sensor Technology Research studies, which gathered physical data from employees to discover that staff who go on breaks together are more efficient and happier. “But employees wonder whether their employers are using the data they collect to make staff happier or as another means to penalise them,” she says. Using data gathered to find solutions that work for both parties is key – an employee who goes to the gym at lunchtime may be tired in the afternoon, but may be more productive in the long term and feel they have a better work-life balance. “It’s about moving from a transactional view of engagement to the transformational,” says IPA’s Clarke.

There’s no doubt engagement is a difficult measure to track and improve. “But it’s not about moving the engagement score – the score is the bi-product - improving engagement is about getting the sweet spot between the goals of the individuals within the organisation and the purpose of the overall organisation. It’s not about moving the number,” Clarke warns.