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Fiona Lawlor

Jack Morton Worldwide

HR Director And Senior Vice President

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HRD Insight: Jack Morton’s Fiona Lawlor on sustainable engagement


If there’s one thing that’s needed to help business survive recession, it’s an engaged workforce.

Yet all around, there are signs that such engagement is sadly lacking in British industry today.
The majority of UK workers have had much to contend with over recent years, including pay freezes and soaring inflation. Add to this rapidly rising unemployment rates, which are now at a 17-year high, and it is understandable as to why a lot of employees are feeling insecure. 
Conversely, although the same situation may make some employers feel rather comfortable in terms of staff retention and productivity, they would do well to remember that workers in fear of losing their jobs are unlikely to be motivated.
We are living in an age of dramatic upheaval in many industries. Public sector unrest over pensions shows no sign of abating, job losses continue apace both there and in the private sector (not least among the banks) and an ethical crisis of monumental proportions is taking place among newspaper groups – a situation that must have untold implications for staff morale.
These examples, disparate as they may be in generating employee dissatisfaction, illustrate exactly how all-encompassing the staff engagement issue is. This variety is also one of the reasons why ‘engagement’ as a concept is so hard to quantify and why so many engagement programmes fail. 
The clue, of course, is in the term ‘programme’, which often indicates an intensive, one-off attempt to get people on board before everything goes back to normal and bad habits are resumed. Any modicum of engagement achieved using this approach is simply not sustainable, however. 
Brand power
Instead genuine, lasting engagement requires a real desire to connect with employees on a 24/7 basis so that it is embedded into corporate culture. But such an approach necessitates a sound understanding of both employee satisfaction levels and of how aligned people are with the company’s vision and goals. 
While it is great if leaders have passionate vision and clarity of purpose, such vision will not inspire personnel to commit to the organisation and do their absolute best for it if it is out of tune with the reality of their working lives. And no amount of award-winning advertising to that effect will convince a disaffected workforce otherwise. 
Therefore, if your engagement strategy is to be effective, employees must understand the significance of the brand and be able to connect with it. As a result, it must be about more than just a set of guidelines on a page. Your internal community has to live and breathe it. 
But how do you achieve this? US-based not-for-profit medical services provider, Scott & White Healthcare, for one, wanted to ensure that, as it continued its rapid growth path, it would be able to retain its best people.
Comprehensive focus group research revealed, however, that while its clinicians were lauded and celebrated by senior staff, the rest of the workforce was left in the shadows. Thus, it became clear that the organization required a communications plan that would help it demonstrate to all of its 9,000 or more personnel that they were valued and considered to be of vital importance. 
To this end, an ‘It Matters’ campaign was launched to highlight behind-the-scenes, out-of-the-spotlight moments in order to show just how vital a role each individual played in a patient’s care journey once in hospital.
Staff were photographed at different moments during the working day and their voices were captured in interviews. A manifesto of what mattered was then released in order to clarify how the quality of patient care provided made the organisation different to others.
Campaign material, which all featured real members of staff, was then distributed through a number of channels, spanning the internal website and posters to ID clips. And crucially, the campaign (that Jack Morton helped create) lives on and is being applied to both current and future employment programmes and policies.
Devolving responsibility
Of course, there are many other means of achieving engagement and to reflect the organisation’s vision and purpose. These generally fall into two categories: internal activities such as training, health benefits or family-friendly policies and external activities such as corporate social responsibility initiatives.
Company CSR activities can be a particularly effective way to boost staff motivation levels, improve skills development, enhance leadership and teamwork and strengthen feelings of connection with the organisation. 
While most major brands already have extensive initiatives in place, smaller companies can also get involved, for example, by offering support to the local community or joining a wider group such as the Global Corporate Challenge. The Challenge is a worldwide corporate health initiative, which encourages staff to give something back, while at the same time improving their own health and building team spirit. 
For every participant enrolled into the scheme, an equivalent child is entered into the Global Children’s Challenge – a health initiative intended to encourage children from all over the world to become more active.
Whatever the route you choose to foster engagement, however, crucial success factors include ensuring that employees are given responsibility for thinking up, developing and communicating their own ideas to others as well as giving them the time and freedom to pursue them.
Some companies make the mistake of trying to police all staff communications, but the most successful simply don’t interfere. Instead they allow workers to engage in genuine dialogue and recognise the fact that, in this socially-connected age, the debate will most likely already be taking place in cyberspace anyway.
This means that trying to repress it will only backfire and potentially damage trust. And it is these open and honest discussions that have proven themselves time and again as the best way to help build that trust and achieve buy-in around those difficult decisions.
By the same token, staff are far more likely to remain loyal if they perceive that their employer is both ethically sound and honest – something that News International might have done well to remember.

Fiona Lawlor is HR director and senior vice president of brand marketing agency, Jack Morton Worldwide.

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Fiona Lawlor

HR Director And Senior Vice President

Read more from Fiona Lawlor