Across much of the world politics, the economy and how people live and work seem to be undergoing radical change. New technologies such as artificial intelligence and trends such as globalisation and mass migration are driving uncertainty everywhere. And, in turn this is fuelling the rise of political populism, from the election of Donald Trump to the Brexit vote. The world seems to be a more confusing and difficult to understand place – a trend that is likely to continue in the run up to Brexit itself, potential interest rate rises and, more immediately, elections in the UK, France and Germany.

Unsurprisingly this uncertainty is impacting employee engagement. Aon Hewitt’s 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement study found that engagement levels dropped by 2% in 2016, while Gallup research has found that the percentage of workers who say they are engaged by their jobs has not improved over the last decade. As well as global uncertainty, this reflects the enormous changes to the world of work, with zero hours contracts, freelancing, digital competition and increasing automation affecting every industry.

At the same time organisations understand that the skills, ideas and experiences of employees are vital to their success. How can they increase engagement at this time of change in order to retain and motivate their people? There are five areas to focus on:

1. Listen in new ways
For many businesses the annual employee survey is their main way of listening to employees and measuring engagement. However, this is simply not frequent enough to capture feedback and use it to improve how an organisation operates. Therefore, it should be supplemented by new methods, such as more regular pulse surveys, event-driven and always-on feedback that allow staff to provide their views when and how they want. That also means moving away from paper-based surveys to online and mobile platforms that make it simple and straightforward for employees to give feedback.

2. Shorten the feedback loop
One criticism levelled at engagement exercises is that there is no clear link between feedback and action, with analysis of survey results taking too long to filter down to managers in order to drive change. You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it more often, so companies need to show that not only are they listening to their people, but they are acting on their feedback in a fast, seamless way if they want to retain their trust and loyalty. This means ensuring that the feedback loop is shortened, with insight delivered in real-time and supported by the sharing of best practice to address any issues. Using dashboards to monitor engagement metrics enable problems to be spotted early and dealt with before they adversely impact the business.

3. Build an open, supportive culture
At a time of uncertainty employees require greater support if they are to remain motivated and aligned with company strategy. They also want to feel that their voice is heard and reflected in how their employer operates. That means ensuring your culture is open to their feedback, promotes the sharing of ideas and recognises their need to feel valued and supported. Cultural change can be hard, but the first step is to understand your current culture by listening to staff, and then use this insight to alter how you operate. In uncertain times good employers with strong reputations are likely to attract and retain the best people, and this all starts with an engaging, open culture.

4. Focus on what matters
When measuring engagement and employee satisfaction, it is vital not to lose sight of the bigger picture – how it impacts your bottom line. Therefore rather than simply measuring how engaged your staff are, look at how it links to business metrics such as retention rates and productivity. This will give you better insight into how well your workforce is responding to your strategy – and help you ensure that you are building strong relationships with your employees that mean they’ll feel confident in remaining with you.

5. Foster innovation
To succeed in uncertain times companies have to be agile, responsive and innovative. Listening to employees, such as through online communities, enables you to unlock innovation and share best practice across your organisation. Not only will this help you compete, but it will also demonstrate to staff that you value and act on their ideas, increasing loyalty and engagement.

There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to the current era of uncertainty – indeed, the picture may well get more confused and unclear. To succeed in engaging and retaining employees, companies therefore need to focus on listening and acting on their feedback, if they want to adapt and thrive in today’s changing world. Or, you could just take comfort in the knowledge that employees might be less likely to change jobs. But then you need to worry about their true motivation for staying and engagement levels.

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