No longer is employee engagement a happy-clappy buzzword thrown around HR conferences. It earned a place on the Government's agenda when, last year, business secretary Lord Mandelson commissioned engagement consultant David MacLeod to investigate a link between engaged staff, productive businesses and the bottom line.
MacLeod said Mandelson looked him in the eye and asked if engagement was just a 'nice thing to do' or if he seriously thought it could boost productivity. His subsequent report The MacLeod Review proves it can and does.
But surely employers struggling to keep afloat during the economic storm could be forgiven for not taking the time to make work a fun and happy place - or could they?
Take ITV, for example. It had more than its fair share of problems in 2009. The Guardian reported that the channel's profits had slumped by 41% as a result of having to compete with 450 other UK-based rivals for advertising revenue at the height of recession. The company, which employed 4,000 staff, made 400 of them redundant, leaving no part of the business untouched.
But the idea of a potential end to the recession brought with it new challenges - as ITV's HR head Mark Doyle confessed at the European HR Directors Business Summit in January. 'Last year,' he said, 'we scared the living daylights out of staff, and people are still considering leaving.'
But he reported that in the most recent employee survey at the start of 2010, engagement was back up to pre-recessionary levels. 'There is no master plan - no silver bullet. And our people have done more creative things than we ever thought about.'
And those things have stuck, he claims. 'We want engagement scores to rise further. But although it is a tough year, we have to keep smiling. We have been here before.'
New ITV boss Adam Crozier joins a month after the organisation announced profits of £25m for 2009 - admittedly mostly on account of big cost-cutting by interim boss Mark Cresswell, rather than an engagement strategy.
Whether or not the MacLeod review will make a difference to long-term employment legislation or HR policy (Angela O'Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency, says talking to HR directors about engagement is like 'preaching to the converted'), it's time employers realised that an engaged workforce can pay dividends as the economy struggles in a fragile recovery.
HR magazine's Reward Survey, published this month, found that less than half of the organisations polled conduct frequent research to find out what staff want and need from the business. Hardly surprising then, according to recruitment consultancy Endaba's survey of more than 5,000 staff, 50% think their CEO couldn't care less about them. And, as the Institute of Leadership and Management reveals, 31% of staff don't trust their senior management teams. The Chartered Management Institute's chief executive Ruth Spellman argues that if companies want to flourish this year, they will need to review the quality of management approaches to nurture a talented and productive workforce.
Although David MacLeod's review may have been seen as preaching to the choir, employers could do with reminding. The Right Management consultancy claims that although 60% of managers recognise the importance of engagement in business, only 18% use engagement strategies to worthwhile affect.
Engaging staff certainly paid off for Nando's last month when the Sunday Times put it at the top of the bill among its Best Companies To Work For. Instantly, the restaurant chain's brand changed from a high-class version of KFC to the place students and jobseekers want to work.
In order to top the list, Nando's proved that its staff don't mind that it can't compete with the level of salaries and bonuses enjoyed by the City, for example. They think they get a fair deal at the organisation, they rate their managers highly and they are proud to serve chicken to their customers.
Banks note - it takes more than money to get employees to go the extra mile.
David Woods is a senior reporter for HR magazine
HR SPEAK: COMPETENCIES VS COMPETENCES
According to the satirical cartoon Dilbert, many employers end up inadvertently promoting their least competent employees. Like all good jokes, it rings true - thanks in no small part to two of the most over-used terms in the HR lexicon, 'competencies' and 'competences'.
The idea took hold in the 1980s: a core competency is a particular attribute required by someone's job, such as IT skills, industry know-how or customer service.
By the 1990s, confusion had set in, as the near-identical term 'competences' began to be thrown about HR departments as well. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, competences are the 'minimum standard demonstrated by performance outputs' rather than individual traits. In other words, competencies are inputs from staff and competences are outputs.
Many employees are probably unaware of the difference, but HR departments measure both competenc(i)es during the appraisals process, itself often a part of a wider talent management programme.
The problem, as Dilbert (and Lawrence J Peter before him) noted, is that such paper competence offers little insurance against real-world incompetence. If someone hits their competences, they can be appointed to management, and, sooner or later, they'll be promoted to a position where they become incompetent. Time for a rethink?