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Employee engagement: Making it work. By Paul Avis

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Employee engagement is the current buzzword in the HR world. Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Employ-Mend Ltd, explores what this means in real terms and provides some insights and clear recommendations as to how best employers can get the most from their people.


What is Employee Engagement?
Any employee who simply turns up for work and then goes home, often putting in minimal effort or enthusiasm, is not engaged and at worse is showing presenteeism: being there and adding little or no value is not engaging with their employer. Employees who turn up, are enthusiastic, committed to work, participative, are energised by doing a good job and ultimately stay with the organisation are engaged and will be any organization’s biggest asset. With higher productivity, more skills retention, high morale and achieving self-actualisation (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), every employer should look to engage with their employees and make the experience of working a positive one: no Monday morning fears, sleepless nights, general disphoria, job seeking, sabotage etc. would be the base level that should be aimed for.

With employee movement between roles increasing to 11 roles in a working lifetime as opposed to seven some 20 years ago (source: Employment Policy Institute) and an average service of 3.63 years as opposed to an historical figure of 5.71, it is evident that job opportunities and employee expectations are growing. Share incentive plans do provide some protection and are seen by many as ‘Golden Hancuffs’! Indeed with 59 percent of ‘engaged’ employees planning to stay with the current employer, compared with 24 percent of ‘disengaged’ staff (source: Towers Perrin 2005 Worldwide Employee Engagement Survey), retention of core skills is one of the biggest challenges facing employers and hence ‘Employee Engagement’ should be a priority business challenge rather than a peripheral HR function.

Engagement Methods
Many employees have a diverse approach to communication preference when engaging with their employer. For more traditional workplaces, printed materials such as newsletters, staff briefings on the business, regular face to face contact with senior management, provision of personal financial planning surgeries, Employee Assistance Programme briefings, employee health fairs and initiatives (non smoking, walking club, healthy eating at the staff canteen or restaurant etc.), annual events (Christmas Party, conference, sales conference) etc. all provide the human dimension to interaction and in any organisation these communication opportunities should not be overlooked.

For more IT orientated organisations these core communication approaches can be augmented by more recent innovations such as text communications (birthday, Christmas etc.), on-line access to areas on health, staff handbook or intranet, extranets from third parties, personal development and flexible benefits information and telephonic support are all routes by which many employees may like to access employer oriented information or support. Possibly the most over used and potentially destructive are organisational emails: at a base level the volume of irrelevant information that permeates means the an absence or holiday returner is often still wishing they were away!

Tailor making messages and distribution lists (why does a sales person in Belfast need to know that someone has left their lights on in the car park or what is for lunch when the head office is in Manchester?) seems common sense but the volume and quality of many emails, let alone the content and tone, can really demotivate employees and so care should be taken on every one that is sent.

The key transaction: between line manager and employee
Many line managers are not trained in employee engagement and believe that the employee is there purely for work and that they should not engage with them on a ‘personal’ basis. As well as customising the communications model to the personal needs of the employee, a good line manager will take an interest in each one of their direct reports with the aim of providing them with the tools that are needed to make them a success in their current role.

It could be through the provision and funding of training, noting events that affect them, it could be team building and away days, more responsibility, empowering them and so forth: whatever is needed to make the workplace experience positive, to make them and their contribution feel valued, even important. Some organisations resist training and personal development and this could be viewed as backwards: they are not engaged employees until they have the skills to leave but the desire to stay! For some roles, such as repetitive, boring manual work this may be harder to achieve but inter-departmental competitions, employee of the month or year, ideas boxes which are acknowledged and acted on, provision of radio or TV on site, lunch time competitions etc. can all be used to motivate employees.

For other organisations flexible working is key: as long as the work is done does it matter where and when? Having to work in an office a two hour commute away and attend nine to five when, for some employees, home working would produce a more focused, longer day seems foolish. One of the failings in many engagement strategies is recruitment leading to inductions: whilst there is often a great deal of effort put into the current portfolio of employees often the joining process is not a great advocate of that good practice.

How many employers summarise their specific benefits on job advertisements and then explain these in more detail when the employee joins: a good recruiter should be selling the organisation at every opportunity to get the best talent and then reinforce this through a positive induction rather than, “Here is the staff handbook to read, please complete this risk assessment and you sit here…” This first experience in an organisation can set the culture that pervades throughout their time there.

How does non-engagement manifest itself?
The cultural dimension of non-engagement should not be underestimated and the best place to start is with the barometer of attendance management. With the absence policy directly relating to another 30 or so policies line manager competence will increase with each managed absence as each policy will have to be used. For employees there is nothing so fractious as unmanaged persistent short-term absences (which encourage good employees towards absence indifference and entitlement mentality) and alongside line manager variances in approaches this is a hot spot of non-engagement.

One of our clients found that only four percent of employees breached their absence policy triggers and yet caused almost 30 percent of all absences: 50 percent of those left as they were disengaged and the other 50 percent decided to stay as they knew their attendance and contribution was valued, no one was sacked for their absence! In research, undertaken by PPC Worldwide (2005), the issue of employee engagement and health is clearly one that needs addressing as when line managers were asked:

  • What issues do you find least comfortable to deal with?

  • 31 percent said specific events e.g. family bereavement, 28 percent industrial tribunal, 25 percent bullying, 22 percent drug or alcohol addiction, 21 percent serious long term ill health.

  • Why do you find it difficult?

  • 57 percent said they find it hard to balance being professional and sympathetic, 51 percent do not like workplace confrontation, 31 percent felt not trained, 20 percent do not deal with emotions at work, 13 percent unsure of what language to use, do not have the confidence to tackle these issues and get embarrassed when doing so, seven percent found it hard to empathise, four percent not part of their role and three percent not familiar with the absence policy.

One can see from this that sickness absence training should be about employee engagement: the line manager should know the employee, keep up to date with their individual situation and if problems occur own the ‘problem’ and offer support: if not themselves then via the plethora of benefits and services that could be available. Specifically many Employee Assistance Programmes offer an out-sourced wellness service whilst providing on-line screening tools for stress, work life balance, coaching and career development and so for managers who are struggling can support, but do not abdicate responsibility, from the really ‘personal’ arenas.

Summary

By making the employee experience of work a personal one, with tailored communications, benefit packages and transactions, the employer could increase their profitability e.g. Towers Perrin (2004) found that a 15 percent increase in employee engagement immediately led to a two percent increase in operating margin, and reduce staff attrition. Regular staff surveys do provide an indication of how employees feel about their work, colleagues and their future with the organisation but how many employers act on this corporately, as well as personally? And that is the point: however good the corporate stance nothing can ever replace the personal dimension and that is employee engagement. It is also an opportunity for HR professionals to really make an impact on the business and sit at the top table of decision making.

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For more information please contact Paul Avis at Employ-Mend Ltd, The Drive House, Manor Farm, Kenn Moor Road, Kenn, Near Clevedon, North Somerset BS21 6TZ (tel: (01934) 875930; fax: (01934) 875915; e-mail: [email protected]


One Response

  1. Not Robots
    I agree that we need engaged employees but we must accept that there are going to be days when it is not just going to happen. I am sure everyone with out exception has shown examples of presenteeism: being there and adding little or no value I certainly have. I certainly have. After all, we and all our employees are only human despite what some bean counters would like. Surely we should be looking for employee engagement at least 80% of the time. What about times their children are sick, their mother has cancer, their behind with their loan payments, their husband/wife partner is threaten to leave them, they have a heavy cold, they have the starts of a bug, they have come back too early from the flu due to company pressure etc all these thing will detract form their ability to engage.

    I have no reason for the figure of 80%; just a figure plucked out of the air but if staff in most companies were operating with 80% engagement most organisations would be a lot more effective.

    In one of my previous role I worked for a very large global firm with very few exceptions everyone was at their desk before the HR Director was in and only left after he left. Many people would have said that this was an engaged workforce due to their dedication to their jobs. I would question that there was anything like 50% employee engagement; people weren’t there because of their commitment more like because of their fear.

    Hours of attendance must not be confused with engagement. Failure to engage may be down to factors like managements failure to act or even acknowledge a report sent to them six weeks ago. If they don’t care why should I?

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