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Employee engagement is broken: time to rethink the whole damn thing

May 14, 2018 - 7 minute read

An engaged employee is 17% more productive, 37% less absent and they score between 12% and 34% higher in customer satisfaction ratings. No wonder US companies alone spend close to $1bn on employee engagement each year.

So, employee engagement is a good thing and we’re investing in it. Job done, next problem. Each night, CEOs the world over must send their CHRO another ‘happy face’ emoji text, say a thankful prayer to St Starbucks or The Holy Hilton (the patron saints of customer-facing employee engagement) and contentedly hit the hay for another perfect eight hours of sleep.

Just one tincey-wincey little problem: employee engagement is actually falling. It’s important. We’re throwing cash at it. And it’s not working. The conclusion? We’ve been doing it all wrong.

The intentions and objectives behind employee engagement are noble, and the people committed to making it work within an organisation are smart and well-intentioned but, for the vast majority of companies, the penny still hasn’t dropped.

The term ‘employee engagement’ remains less about creating a sustainably committed workforce and more an attempt to place a ‘pizza at lunchtime’ shaped band-aid over the gaping wound of being a crap place to work.

Time to redefine the whole thing.

employee engagement retail report

Who is responsible for employee engagement?

Traditionally, HR has taken the brunt - probably as it’ll be the HR department that’s responsible for sending out the annual employee engagement survey. Anything to do with people management generally gets screwed up and thrown back at HR, hitting them on the back of the head while they’re not looking.

In the truly engaged organisation, employee engagement is likely driven by HR, recruitment, communications and middle management - in particular regional managers and store managers. If these functions are all on board and committed, organisations stand a good chance of not wasting all of that $1bn per year. Which, I think we can agree, would be nice.

Top down or bottom up?

The usual process goes something like this:

rethinking employee engagement

  1. Someone senior hears the term “employee engagement” at a conference and gets all hot under the collar
  2. They pay a king’s ransom to a consultant who tells them what to do
  3. They write an unfeasibly big cheque to an agency who turns the idea into a powerpoint presentation and/or video, while adding expressions like “core competencies”, “move the needle” or “bleeding edge”. If they add the term “there’s lots of moving parts,” it means they’re going to ask for more money.
  4. Said powerpoint/video gets pushed down into the organisation where it will be applauded for a week or so, and then never be seen again, until rediscovered by an intern five years later.

While the whole organisation should live and breathe engagement, there are two vital audiences that most need to be on board:

  1. The C-suite
  2. The part-time student on the shopfloor

If employees at the very, very top and the very, very bottom of the organisational food chain are walking the walk, you can be certain that everyone else is too.

Programs vs Culture

In the past, employee engagement has been carried out using programs, activities and events which are short-lived and don’t become embedded. Organisations need to instead look at their DNA, look at what matters to their employees and the values they hold dear, and create true engagement based on that.

If you believe in health and wellbeing, provide employees with access to local gyms or organise your own running club, instead of a poster going up once a year to celebrate World Health Day. If charity is important to your company, allow employees to take a few days of paid leave each year to dedicate to causes that matter to them, instead of asking for handouts to the company’s chosen charity once a year. If you believe in family values, extended maternity and paternity leave or letting employees leave early on their partner or child’s birthday is more impactful than a bring-your-daughter-to-work day once in a blue moon.

Programs disappear. Culture sticks.

How to measure engagement?

Employee engagement is like a company’s annual report - it goes unmentioned and unheard of for a whole year, then there’s a week of song and dance before it submerges below the corporate waters for another 12 months.

And what a song and dance the annual employee engagement usually is! A Tolkeinesque magnus opus of a survey that takes hours to complete; hours and hours of “I strongly agree, I agree, I don’t know, I disagree, I strongly disagree.” An option for “please make this torture end" should be added.

And then, a mere four months later, you get the results back. Results that are so overly complex that the only thing HR knows what to do is to benchmark them against competitors, whose employees are just as confused and disenfranchised.

Great organisations understand that employee engagement is fluid and fast-moving, and therefore use mobile tooling to get quick, easy and relevant thoughts from employees on a consistent basis, and then shares the outcomes with managers in real-time, so they can implement changes to get the most out of their teams. If that sounds simple and obvious, it’s because it really should be.

And what are we measuring anyway?

This is the really big one. Even the best, most insightful employee engagement survey means nothing in isolation.

If you’re in an industry with a high number of customer-facing employees, link your latest employee engagement figures to customer satisfaction numbers like NPS, for example.

Not only will you see a more complete story, but you’ll also have the business case for getting more budget from your C-suite.

From some employees to all employees

Necessarily, the budget, governance and execution of employee engagement takes place in corporate functions, but that often leads to a blinkered vision of the company. When you think of your organisation, you probably think of the relatively small amount of desk-bound employees working at HQ and not the vast majority of non-desk employees in stores, factories and warehouses; you think of your brand as being the beautiful marketing your colleagues create, rather than the thousands of human micro-connections your frontline employees have with customers every day.

rethinking employee engagement 2

To become a truly engagement-focused organisation, this approach should be turned on its head. Your company and brand is the student who works eight hours a week on the shopfloor, the delivery driver who interacts with suppliers, the housekeeper who encounters customers in the corridors.

They must be empowered with the right tooling and messaging to connect to the larger organisation if engagement is to become more than just a band-aid.

Engaging non-desk employees
Matt Warnock

Written by Matt Warnock

Matt is Content Marketing Director at Speakap. He's here to help you achieve corporate greatness.