The benefits of engaging staff: an MT debate

Engagement has become a fashionable topic of late, but how much does being a caring company affect the bottom line? And what do employees expect now from a progressive employer?

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2016

MT and Unum brought together some industry experts to find out…

Ian Wylie What is it that interests us about the concept of employee engagement and employers who care?

Rob Briner Employee engagement and care in organisations have become incredibly fashionable. And of course there is tons of evidence but I would say 99.9% of it is of extremely poor quality, from consultants and others seeking to sell you stuff. Why are we latching on to these apparently ‘new things’ that don’t seem so new when you compare employee engagement rates with satisfaction, which is about the highest correlation you can get? It’s the same thing, more or less. So I’m curious about what it is about this concept that seems to grab people.

Charlotte de Metz Engagement really came on our agenda when we went through a huge change and transformation programme, with two acquisitions in two years. In our first year, through our transformational stage, we had very little engagement with our workforce. Now everyone understands their part in delivering our results – whether it’s picking up the phone or defining the strategy and roadmap of a product. In order to embed that in our business, we made our managers accountable to selling engagement to their teams.

Isabelle Minneci Engagement is a topic on which we work every day. Our employee surveys suggest we have a high engagement level at L’Oréal. But we are losing people too. One element I’m working on a lot is the link between engagement and retention. It’s not always an obvious link. You can do a lot in terms of engagement, yet it doesn’t trans- late into retention. So I really want to explore that.

Rob Jones For me it’s less the link between engagement and a caring company than between engagement and a high- performing company. If engagement is just a fad, at least organisations are talking about something to do with people. If there is a link, let’s find it. Let’s start talking about it and then focus on getting more done.

Peter O’Donnell For me, an engaged workforce matters a lot. I want an innovative, creative culture where people can come with ideas, embed those ideas in our organisation and feel comfortable about taking personal risks. What appears to be clear is that engaged employees want to have an employer that cares about them – that’s the feedback I get from our employee opinion surveys. Caring is right on the corporate agenda and wellbeing is the number one thing that I go into boardrooms to talk about. There’s a direct correlation between trying to prevent illness, engaging workforces and the bottom line. From our perspective, as income protection providers, we believe it plays directly into that benefits package.

David MacLeod I agree that some of the statistics on engagement are extremely flaky. But if you put them all together there’s a general consensus that about a third of people in the workplace are broadly engaged, which means two- thirds are not. That’s two-thirds who have got more to offer. I’m doing a project where all I do is visit really great work- places and in each case I think, if I was to ever start my career again, I’d want to work here. Workplaces where employees are engaged are utterly inspiring.

Louise Brownhill It’s about day-to-day behaviours – what people live, breathe, feel and see. Because we’re a data- hungry organisation we have had to prove that this agenda demonstrably affects bottom-line profitability. We have a leadership index and an overall engagement index, and there is a perfect linear correlation between the two. So when we look at our high-performing businesses, in every instance we’ve got very strong leaders in there. So the question is, how do we work with leadership to create greater consistency in engagement?

Ben Willmott I’m interested in engagement from a leadership and management capability perspective and in issues to do with stress. There’s nothing wrong with pressure but when it exceeds employees’ ability to cope, with no respite, it impairs their cognitive abilities and the decision-making process. And I think therefore when we talk about performance, particularly with regard to risk management in corporate governance, that side of the debate is really important.

Claire Genkai-Breeze I’m a Zen Buddhist monk and I set up a business 14 years ago that tries to understand how organi- sations create the kind of culture we have been discussing – we describe this as a challenge of spirits. This idea of mov- ing into unknown territory, not being willing to work within the establishment constraints in order to get things done, but also to create community in organisations, for example, community with purpose and also community that is sufficiently sustainable and financially resourced so that everyone gets to play for a longer period of time in the way that they want to.

Ian Wylie Our survey with Unum of MT readers showed that 56% of them believe a caring company is one that builds its success on a happy and engaged workforce. Is that what you’re hearing too?

Rob Briner The notion that we all want work to be happy has long historical roots. Engagement is just another reincarnation of it. It is a rebadging of previous issues.

David MacLeod If we’re rebadging some things, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about that. The question is does that re- badging have to bring with it some of the changes that we’ve just been talking about? And I think it probably does.

Rob Jones No one was talking about how to make me happy when I went to work. We’ve defined all these metrics about how to make Generation Y happy, therefore, we have to work hard to make them happy. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to do what they want. We need to help them adjust to the world of work rather than changing it to suit them.

Isabelle Minneci I think it’s the first time we’re experiencing four generations at the same time in the same workplace. Organisations need to be flexible in terms of ways of work- ing to suit all the generations.

Louise Brownhill I take a simplistic view about engagement. It’s about knowing your people – there isn’t a silver bullet in how to have an engagement strategy that suits every- body. It’s having ongoing dialogue to know your people at a deep level and therefore how you flex your engagement approach to suit that individual.

Peter O’Donnell If you’re coming into the workplace you want career progression, gym and bike subsidies. When you get a bit older pension goes up, protection goes up. If I get ill what happens? Women and men also want different things. You’ve got to think these things through and communicate it as an employer.

Ben Willmott A well-constructed engagement survey can provide that nuance to really understand your people, if you use and apply the data properly.

Ian Wylie So how should we measure engagement?

Rob Jones I think we should have a robust set of measures. But also we should trust competent managers and leaders to actually act on their insight and intuition and exercise their managerial discretion.

Isabelle Minneci There’s lots of evidence to show that companies that have great engagement generally have great results as well. But you don’t do it just for the performance. If you have a good reputation, you’re able to attract talents and retain them.

David MacLeod As a marketing man, I absolutely agree. The worlds of HR and marketing are coming together.

Louise Brownhill Employee surveys are an effective temperature gauge. But they shouldn’t dominate an engagement strategy. We’ve just moved from running a survey twice a year to once a year and, from the board down, what a negative reaction we had to doing that. Our people really want to do these surveys – it’s a way to give them a voice.

Peter O’Donnell If people feel their voice isn’t being heard they won’t want to wait a year.

Isabelle Minneci Between our main employee surveys we do live, mini-surveys where employees answer 20 questions with handsets in front of the leader of their business unit. The results are anonymous, but shown live on screen. When we introduced it, none of our leaders wanted to do it. It’s one thing to read it in your office but to do it live is some- thing else. But it has allowed us to raise our engagement because employees say, not only do you survey us, you’re courageous and transparent.

Charlotte de Metz If you don’t have that buy-in from your leaders and make them accountable for doing it, you haven’t got a hope in hell of achieving it. Leaders have got to stand up and be courageous, but also acting it out daily to ensure engagement is sustained.

Claire Genkai-Breeze That method fosters engagement in and of itself. It opens up debate about the challenge of other levels of engagement people can get involved in.

David McLeod Our research shows that employees need a sense of where they’re going and why they’re going there. It gives them meaning and purpose. Secondly, the person they work for is absolutely critical, as is that they are treated as a human being not a human resource. Thirdly, they must have a voice. If you want to turn people off, it’s extremely simple: stop listening to them. Fourthly, the values on the wall should be reflected by and large in the behaviours employees see among their bosses and peers.

Rob Jones I dislike the obsession of HR or internal comms to do ‘initiatives’. Stop the initiatives and focus on making the core machine work better. If your values are your values, don’t reinvent them every three years when you’ve only just got used to the last set. We’ve made each manager, functional leader and leadership team accountable specifically for our engagement effort.

Ian Wylie What are the obstacles, challenges and opportunities for engagement? Ben Willmott Our quarterly employee outlook survey consistently points to a lack of trust in senior leaders and the extent to which people feel they are consulted in a meaningful way about all the things that affects them. For many organisations, poor senior leadership is what derails engagement.

Louise Brownhill I’m positive about the opportunities that technology is going to create in how we engage our people. With increasing globalisation, we are working more in virtual teams, so how do you create engagement in teams where people may never meet each other face to face? We developed a crowdsourcing platform where anybody in the firm can suggest solutions to business problems. That’s huge for giving employees a voice and engaging them. It was one of our secretarial staff who came up with the greatest idea. So technology offers massive opportunities.

Claire Genkai-Breeze As humans, we’re physiologically able to cope with about 20 minutes of excessive stimulus and we are beginning to understand how many people in the workplace are perpetually ‘hyper-regulated’. What that does to their capacity to think, relate and engage means that sometimes the quality of the dialogue you can have with people in that state is deeply skewed – they can become very accusatory and dramatic. We need to help people learn the skills to be more resilient and how to down-regulate so that they can engage as an adult, not a complaining child.

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