Perry Timms writes on social HR and asks the questions we should all we asking about the workplace. He has over 20 years experience in business change including project management, organisational development, talent strategy and L&D. He is well-known on the blogger and event circuit and is regularly asked to chair conferences, roundtables and webinars, both in the UK and around Europe. Perry is a CIPD adviser on social media and engagement.

It’s easy – and even trite – to say we’ve got a largely engaged workforce. I was reporting as a total advocate engaged to the eyeballs in my last paid job. Right up to the point I tore my own playhouse down. 

Engagement ISN’T what we should be chasing.

I though am going to challenge, urge, plead with you to create a SOCIAL BUSINESS. 

That – in my mind – is what we should all want. No need to talk about an engagement index there. A company oozing care, compassion and creativity. An organisation that is loose yet tight. A business built on social fabric.  You might say “that was what it was like when Cadbury and the like did it back in the day”. And maybe it was – but this time it’s less like a benevolent parent and more like a creator of purpose fulfillment and humane treatment.

Because for too long we’ve been toiling under less than perfect conditions. The efficiencies and economies gained through Taylorism, Fordism and other isms has led to us being part-soulful human part-mechanised link in a chain. And now we realise that this isn’t good for us. Work is – in many cases literally – killing us prematurely and not through mishaps and industrial accidents. Through the drip drip effect of stress inducing, soul destroying white collar satanic mills.

And then Engagement came. On its white horse, with plumes of gold, we had a new hope on the hill. A shield of statistics, an index for a lance – we had a weapon we could finally leverage and joust our way into the boardroom. And it – kind of – worked for a while. CEOs – impressed with this new metric and insight into how the workforce was likely to either slacken off, leave or destroy their empire was useful and some people even loved it, liked it and tolerated it. We had tools, boards, charts, surveys, presentation decks (largely 100 pages thick – never mind the quality, feel the weight) and all seemed well in workland.

Until the next year. When we dusted down last year’s shield and got the lance ready for a sharpen only to find it went down a little and our lance suffered a little premature declination. People had their hopes raised that they would be listened to and that things really did make a difference. Except it didn’t.

So they had Fairtrade tea instead of the value brew but that really didn’t account for the longer hours, the more bullying they got from the aggressive colleague, and the more unsympathetic their line manager was. And still there was no resolution to the car park rota. And so the index lance became a meaningless statistic for the CEO to sweat and people went back to hopelessness that they could ever change things for the better. In fact the little hope there was just vaporised in the light of the false dawn created by this survey. So that little 2% extra we gained from doing the survey is now -4% because of the hope lost.

I call this the SULK factor: – Survey Unfulfillment Lost Kilojoules. We see even less “discretionary effort” than before as there’s more emotional detachment from people about what they do. 

We probably never really counted on discretionary effort and it all just added to the KPI killing we reported on. Now, all of a sudden, a few have slipped and don’t report so well. We have similar people on the job, no more or less work, so what’s happened?

See the concept of Social Loafing by Max Engelmann and then we know why we have the SULK factor – people are just letting go of things they previously would have taken some responsibility for. They’re waiting to be managed because all the extra stuff they put in isn’t reciprocated by a company who fails to listen to the engagement survey responses.

Maybe I overdramatise a little but it’s not an uncommon experience. Productivity lows are a little more enigmatic than they used to be. More pay, status etc not necessarily making the shift in gear. More to it than simply the old (as Dan Pink says) “if > then” motivation and rewards approach.

So what instead? Well let’s use pulse surveys so we can see more regularly how people feel. Instead of a big bar brawl once a year let’s just have a regular punch in the face.

So what do we do?

Forget engagement and just go social.

WHAT? The CEO will never have that. They will – work with me on this.

So, we want people to share how they feel about working here?

Use a social network with total openness. 

Better to get the odd body blow than be stabbed in the back on Glassdoor. 

You will need to work at this. Allow people to share how they feel and use a hashtag or similar tagging and you can mine this for real-time, narrative-based stuff NOT some boxed up organisational psychometric analysis tool. Get some people – who you know are balanced but brave to start conversations. Get HR out of the realms of distrust and get them to ask questions and seek real open answers with no retribution.

“But people will be nasty” you say – well, nasty about people and each other isn’t what we’re after and you’d be right to cut that out. But nasty about the terrible conditions in the cutting room of a TV studio that causes people to feel ill – you need to know about that.

Encourage active, daily micro-sized ideas to be discussed openly on the Ideas Wiki. Get people to share what they heard about on that TED talk that might just work here to become more innovative. Other people will jump on it, like it, challenge it but you might just find that this is the one thing that saves you a million a year.

Once you’ve opened up dialogue and people can see the benefit they’ll use it more. They’ll open up and you can allow it to self-regulate. HR will need to be on it. The HRD will become the Chief Collaboration Officer or Chief Conversation Officer. 

There’s a staged process to this. Just implementing Yammer/Jive/Chatter etc will NOT do it. You need to skill people in this new, open communication tool. Help them get their feet and help them see it’s not another channel to have to mess around with or be aware of. It’s the place where good things can happen. We’ll need to help them form those new habits. Encourage and incentivise them. Stamp out any snarking or insulting posts.  Prove it’s the place where ideas grow and people can be free to challenge thinking.

You may then find the CEO and other Executives might want to use it themselves when they ask a question like “we’re looking at an acquisition to grow our logistics fleet/capability – what companies do people regard in this space and what should we look for as a perfect partner for us in this area?”. You’ll get some feedback. So the inhuman, exhaust fume belching company you were looking at ‘cos they’re cheap’ may get knocked back in favour of the small startup nearby who are using hybrid trucks and have huge links to conservation charities.

All of sudden your people may help you enhance your own reputation and no longer will the lawyer or the Finance Director make the call based on simple economics.

It’s all a bit idealistic this isn’t it? 

It’ll take time. Some people don’t trust or use this technology naturally. There’s a lot to be said for an annual survey to look forward to for those who like to bottle up their angst and let it out once a year. Those who REALLY care about where you’re going as a company, they’ll participate. IF you let them. And be prepared to be challenged. And act on what they say or explain why things have to be taken slowly, or gently or immediately ramped up as they’ve suggested.

Dialogue – conversations – these are all features of a mature, healthy organisation where people matter and it’s not the organisation talking to its people. It’s people within it who are listening and guiding, supporting and enabling, encouraging and inspiring.

Those companies who don’t allow people to talk, listen and shape up are the ones who’ll fall by the wayside.

Can you imagine if Nokia went to acquire GPS technology and someone who worked for Nokia knew about Waze? You don’t know that story? Then here we go. Nokia invested in a large company ($9bn) who were laying down GPS trackers in roads to get real time traffic information. For a fraction of the cost Waze (an Israeli tech startup) used GPS on people’s phones and satellites to tap into the SAME if not better information and they became the go-to people for this. Nokia’s acquisition was rendered worthless. And you know where Nokia are now.

Also look at the democracy at work and freedom-centred organisations on the WorldBlu list. They aren’t just ‘token gesture’ organisations, these are employee-owned, employee driven, empathically-led companies doing very well indeed thanks. Even if they’re no longer on the list, they’re still freedom-centred and adopt a people-powered, people-matter approach.

Economically these companies outperform their comparable conventional organisations. Now that’s the kind of stat the board likes, not some fancy dan index score that frankly means naff all financially. I know there’s been proven links that highly engaged companies perform well. But that’s like saying happier children smile a lot especially when given a kitten.

So what else can we do with social then? Let’s say we got some good dialogue, unearthed some issues we could solve, got some ideas…people seemed happier and there was more posts of positive things. We launched our charity volunteering as suggested by staff, we made the decision to go with the green courier company and now we’ve just seen our HR Director featured in a magazine.

A humane organisation is a search for a place that people feel at home with, that the best talent wants to stay with and grow. These organisations will outperform less humane competitors. Take Amazon’s recent staff scandal. How many of us are now rethinking where we buy from based on that? Maybe not immediately but people will capitalise on this and move their business elsewhere if Jeff Bezos isn’t careful.

A humane organisation is one that will win the so called war for talent because its reputation and its ability to be lead by its people will be known about in this hyper-connected age. All sorts of genies are out of the bottle.  Read Dustin Moskovitz (ex Facebook now Asana)’s blogs on working less means more productive. Who wouldn’t want to work for Dustin based on this?

So let’s not go for engagement indices or engaged organisations. Let’s start to have humane, open, conversational organisations built on social fabric not organisation charts and fuelled by drive and spirit not punitive counter-measures. Jon Husband’s “wirearchy” concept is the kind of infrastructure to make the most out of people and their endeavours.

A humane workplace where social is the only word we need to define culture and engagement. Where people feel part of a social movement but also happen to have a contract and pay in making things better for people and our planet. Where social is how we feel, think and do.

Social – not engagement – is the future of a more humane workplace. Let’s get engaged with that.

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