In many respects, discussing employee engagement can be to state the blindingly obvious. After all, CEOs shouldn’t really have to be told that they need to talk to their staff and be able to listen. Perhaps this continues to be such a hot topic because too many leaders allowed themselves to become estranged from their employees and now it’s a case of getting back to basics.
That means interacting with people and getting everyone to believe in the business. After all, a fully engaged and motivated workforce will be a powerful agent for any organisation seeking to change, grow and deliver success. Criticaleye finds out how leaders from a range of organisations are making it happen.
1. Test the Water
The first step is to ask employees for feedback. Most organisations still find the annual employee engagement survey an important barometer here.
Maria da Cunha, Director of People, Legal and Government Affairs at British Airways, says: “While you shouldn’t get too hung up on measurement, I do think it’s useful to have some way of checking how you’re doing. In a large organisation like ours, which has many sub cultures, it’s quite important to get some sense of whether you can prove you are going in the right direction.”
Just keep it simple and understand what you want to try and achieve. Tea Colaianni, Global HR Director at Merlin Entertainments Group, comments: “In our employee engagement survey we ask just one key question: ‘Why do you enjoy working here?’… while it turns out that 95 per cent of our employees enjoy working for Merlin, we try to spend a lot of time working out why there are 5 per cent who aren’t engaged, and the goal is to try and turn them around and make them ambassadors for the brand.”
2. Be Visible
Obviously, CEOs need to get out and talk to staff. “I do a lot of floor walking,” says Martin Balaam, CEO at IT services concern Jigsaw24. “It’s important to be out there and visible, not just having forums and presentations… but to make sure you take time out to chat and reflect on things with your staff. You can often tell what the mood of the office is just by walking through it.”
It’s harder to get around when you’ve a globally dispersed workforce, but there’s still no substitute for face time. Jane Griffiths, Company Group Chairman for EMEA at Janssen, the pharmaceutical division of global healthcare organisation Johnson & Johnson, comments: “Two weeks ago I was in Russia and Poland; next month I will travel with my leadership team to Istanbul… it’s important to go and listen to what the situation is like in different markets and meet with people in different offices face to face. You’re trying to dig deeper into the organisation all the time to see who’s there and who needs more input into their development.”
The other key thing is for middle managers to be engaged and behaving like ambassadors of the decisions made at board level. Colin Hatfield, Senior Partner and Founder of Visible Leaders, a consultancy that specialises in leadership communication, says: “There’s often this great intent at the top of the organisation but it falls down in that layer below, at the local leadership level. Frankly, that is where engagement really happens because the point of this is to get teams engaged…
“If those leading teams within an organisation are not engaging people, then it’s not going to happen. So the emphasis needs to be on helping that layer of leadership do the right things to drive engagement forward.”
It’s a point taken up by Paul Isaac, who until recently led HR for the industrial business of DHL Supply Chain in the UK: “[Engagement] is about the visibility of more senior managers, actually visiting sites, talking to individuals, getting to understand first-hand how those individuals are engaged with the business and the site where they operate.”
3. Walk the Talk
To get any sort of lasting engagement, employees will want to see that you’re serious about taking their views on board. That means being honest, says Ella Bennett, Human Resources Director for the UK and Ireland division of global IT systems and services provider Fujitsu: “It won’t all be good news and openly recognising that helps build leadership credibility. We use…online discussions where people can raise issues in real-time, suggest solutions and get immediate responses from senior players in the business… We make sure the executive team is always accessible.”
Maria comments: “Feedback can get lost in the corporate machine, so people might feel nobody’s listening or that they aren’t contributing, when actually they may be making a very important contribution. So having a feedback loop with clear, two-way communication is the most important thing that can be done and often one of the hardest to get right in a large organisation.”
Such was the case for Nick Allen, former VP of Strategy and Portfolio at oil and gas giant Shell, who was tasked with the challenge of understanding how the organisation could better retain female middle managers. “It required listening to why they were leaving and being willing to take on board the things you may not have thought about, or that may be more difficult to execute than you would like,” he recalls. “I ran virtual focus groups using… video conferencing with six female managers and it was genuine dialogue, so I ended up getting them to chair and facilitate the discussions… [because] you really want to get to the point where the solutions come from them.”
What engagement really boils down to is good old-fashioned communication. That means listening to employees, acknowledging their views and making them feel that they’re opinions count for something.
The mistake is to think that employee engagement can be created in bitesize programmes or one-off team building initiatives. As Colin says, “Organisations with a truly engaged workforce simply see it as part of everyone’s day job.”
I hope to see you soon.