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Employee engagement: Tailoring it to the company

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Employee engagement

Kentucky Fried Chicken draws on the iconic ‘Colonel’, Yahoo yodels, and the Penguin Group depends on a shared passion for books. Annie Hayes discovers that engagement comes in many different shapes and guises.


What is employee engagement?

I am engaged therefore I am. HR would be delighted with the play on philosopher Nietzsche’s words of wisdom, if only it were that simple; and what do we mean by engagement anyhow?

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) 2006 report, How engaged are British employees?, engagement is a ‘passion for work’; a concept that “involves feeling positive about your job, as well as being prepared to go the extra mile to make sure you do your job to the best of your ability”.

It doesn’t just stop there either. The CIPD says that engagement has three dimensions: emotional engagement – being very involved emotionally with one’s work; cognitive engagement – focusing very hard while at work; and physical engagement – being willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for your employer.

And it’s a ‘feel-good’ factor that produces some enviable outcomes. Survey expert Gallup says its research consistently shows that engaged staff are more productive, stay longer and provide consistently great customer service, enhancing sales and customer return visit rates – and ultimately the company’s bottom line.

Sounds like an HR nirvana. Sadly, however, it’s an ideal that many organisations fail to fully attain.

How engaged is UK Plc?

When the CIPD last tested the waters in 2006, it found that just three in 10 employees were engaged with their work. Out of 2,000 survey respondents, that’s not a great result. Demographics do play a part. According to the findings, levels of engagement among the under-35s are significantly lower than those in older age groups.

“Prioritising training and using a management style that recognises achievement are key learnings for public sector employers.”

Kate Pritchard, head of employee research at ORC International

This in itself is worrying since it suggests that organisations are failing to meet the needs of younger workers. The CIPD says it is an outcome that has potentially ‘serious long-term’ consequences for organisations and for the career development of young people.

Some organisations, however, including Silicon Valley veterans Yahoo, have got it right. Speaking at the engage 07 conference last year, a Yahoo representative told delegates how achievement was celebrated with yodelling. I kid you not.

Singing for success is part and parcel of this innovative outfit’s engagement strategy. It’s part of the fun-loving culture that sees young applicant’s queuing up around the corner.

Fast food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has also been working on engaging young workers, and has put the iconic ‘Colonel’ at the heart of their employee engagement strategy.

Also speaking at engage 07’s conference in London, Karen Russell, people director at KFC, told delegates how they’ve translated strategies into key words and visual icons. Using a layered approach with the Colonel at the heart, five pillars with associated pictures have been rolled out: taste, people, service, restaurants and success.

“The more disparate your audience, the more you will benefit from a strong visual brand communication,” said Russell.

Identifying with the demographics really is crucial for any employee engagement strategy. According to the CIPD, women are more engaged with their work and more satisfied than men. Women work shorter hours, are happier with their work-life balance, and feel they get more support in this than men.

It’s something that publishers The Penguin Group has had to take on board; 74 per cent of staff are female, and maternity packages and flexible working schemes are all very generous.

HR director Helena Peacock recently told HRZone.co.uk: “Working for a publisher, you need creative people that are full of energy, passion and enthusiasm. It’s crucial that we ensure that there is a work-life balance element within the organisation to ensure that our workers are not too exhausted.”

Peacock also says that the love of books is a major part of the employee engagement strategy. Staff have the enviable opportunity to devour two of the free ‘pulp’ books (books returned by shops) per day or take advantage of the 60 per cent discount on Penguin titles.

Engagement levels also differ between sectors. A survey by ORC International, the employee research specialists, shows that public sector workers score lowest for overall employee satisfaction. According to their findings organisational pride in local and central government is 8 per cent and 7 per cent below the UK norm, with workers in the housing association the least loyal – 13 per cent below UK norm.

Kate Pritchard, head of employee research at the company, says: “Public sector industries need to learn from the current successes being seen in the private sector. Prioritising training and using a management style that recognises achievement are key learnings for public sector employers. Ensuring employee engagement is monitored via employee research allows organisations to measure, understand and improve conditions for staff.”

The CIPD echoes ORC’s findings and says that public sector workers report more bullying and harassment than those in the private sector, are less satisfied with the opportunities they have to use their abilities, feel more stressed, pressured and more critical of their organisation than those in the private sector. So clearly there is more work to be done, so how can employers that struggle with levels of engagement improve matters?

Raising the game

Kerry Ings, director for consultancy North Star, says it’s all down to two-way communication: “An engaged team is one where the concept of a ‘team’ exists. Creating an environment where ideas are shared, good practice is rewarded and positive debate is encouraged, it allows employees to feel a part of the organisation and their team and ensures there is a common understanding of the vision, mission and goals of the company.”

Stephen Walker, director of Motivation Matters, agrees and highlights the lessons of the famous experiment at the Hawthorne, Chicago plant of Western Electric, where they set out to show that raising the lighting level in the workplace resulted in higher performance. The researchers found that changing illumination levels sometimes improved performance, other times not.

“We find that some organisations think that their employees are engaged merely because they come to work and they are communicated to via notice boards and emails. However, we often find that companies do not listen to their employees, let alone engage them.”

Kerry Ings, director for consultancy North Star

“Eventually the researchers came to realise that work is a social function, that work embodies a wealth of relationships, communications and influences. They realised that the involvement of the managers and supervisors, and the researchers themselves, were playing a significant role in the results,” says Walker.

“The only experimental intervention that showed good results was the managers showing an honest interest in working with the people to find better ways of doing their work.”

Walker believes that when people believe their work is important, their manager cares about what they do and is prepared to help to make it better, their motivation increases and performance soars.

A top-down approach really does matter, adds Walker: “We can vouch for the effectiveness of doing this. You can see this in practice: the supermarket manager on the tills, the CEO on reception, Lord Nelson pacing the deck at the Battle of Trafalgar.”

The CIPD says it’s about having opportunities to feed your views upwards and feeling well informed about what is happening in the organisation.

Ings summarises: “We find that some organisations think that their employees are engaged merely because they come to work and they are communicated to via notice boards and emails. However, we often find that companies do not listen to their employees, let alone engage them.

“Often managers like to instruct and direct rather than to listen and adapt to the things that their employees (and their customers) are telling them. The model of communicating from the top down is all too common and the expectations managers place on their teams grow with little consideration of the impact on work output and morale.”

Engaging employees really is the only recipe for success. As Ings says, engaged employees are more likely to act as organisational advocates and can play a vital role in promoting their organisation. Companies that have latched onto this are the ones that are outstripping the competition at every turn.

One Response

  1. Employee Engagement
    Whilst the comments within this article are all relevant, I still believe strongly that the two main reasons we are not achieving “engagement” to the desired extent, are:

    1. It is not practiced from at the top. If the troops don’t see the senior folk in an organisation engaging with each other, can we realistically expect them to engage themselves?; and

    2. We don’t actually tell them what is required in language they understand………in other words, how engagement takes place within the Team. Take as an example the words used in the article, passion energy and enthusiasm. They will mean many different things to different people. Therefore it is necessary to explain to aspiring Team Members that if they come and work in your Team, then they will be expected to do certain things……….and give them examples of what passion energy and enthusiasm look like. Could well be way different from what they thought. They may be passionate and enthusiastic, but in a manner so different from what you want, they are considered failures in these areas. So change the fancy words into actual examples, and see the difference!! Cheers.

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