Not once in the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget nor the PM’s Industrial Strategy white paper was the employee championed as the single most important contributor to UK productivity. The Budget’s focus on driverless cars, a desire to retrain and upskill the workforce, and invest in a growing tech base are all futuristic. The white paper’s ‘sector deals’ in artificial intelligence (AI), auto, construction and life sciences are all ambitions.
Today’s productivity crisis was outlined, but the employee focus was on those from abroad imperilled by Brexit rather than on the ones we already have. Why bother ensuring the UK ‘remains a magnet for the world’s most talented and innovative people’, if we don’t work just as hard to make the most of the ones already here?
The urgency with which the PM called for employees to take a seat on the Board just over a year ago is just as strong today. Right now, employers struggle to understand the dangers of a uniform workplace culture and the need for a dynamic, collaborative one. Traditional management is failing to keep tabs with modern employees, to motivate, recognise and reward them.
Employees’ individuality is invaluable when winning ideas are at a premium, but the figures speak for themselves. Only 15% of UK employees feel they have a fun, creative working culture at their organisation, only 17% say their organisations are emerging new working cultures while 69% say their working cultures are ‘traditional’. Maybe that’s why the UK suffers from such high employee absenteeism and low retention.
This is hardly the Government’s problem, but it is a management one and the Government can help. The new and independent industrial strategy council, designed to assess government progress in key areas, should put employees front and centre in all matters relating to productivity. It should spell out the criteria to which managers should be held accountable when designing their employee engagement strategies.
It should start with the premise that too many boards regard employee engagement as nice to have, instead of a KPI. Neither do boards associate it with good governance, as indeed they should consider customer and wider societal engagement as well. Instead, the employee sits somewhere between the line manager and HR.
Across enterprise, a multitude of operational layers creates filters that obscure a true appreciation of the state of the workplace. Even boards with an interest in workplace culture end up working on assumptions instead of fact. A curious situation when demotivation, poor employee engagement, high absenteeism and low staff retention cost money and kill opportunity.
Modern industrial strategy starts in the workplace because a positive work culture is a productive one. Employees are also the strongest link with which to maintain customer trust and connectivity. Listening to and acting on the voice of the employee reduces turnover, boosts motivation and dramatically improves outcomes for companies and their customers alike. That's why growth companies never take their employees for granted.
UK managers have to work harder to give their people a voice, and then to act on what they learn. Across all the metrics, from flexible working to rewards programmes, team bonding activity to the sharing of information, working environments to employee motivation and retention, we have far to go in making our economy fit for purpose in such a disruptive and competitive world of work. We can do far better, and the workplace is where must start.
Chieu Cao is co-founder of employee engagement specialists Perkbox
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