Nita Clarke: Engaging employees will help organisations face the future with confidence

Nita Clarke

More and more organisations are coming to realise that how they run their business is as important as what they do. That culture really does eat strategy for breakfast, and that getting the workplace culture right is the precondition for meeting the myriad challenges that every employer, in the public, private and third sector, faces.

Some are putting the pieces together; improving productivity and performance requires a workforce that embraces change and innovation, that is aligned, motivated and engaged. But that requires a very different way of managing; not the traditional hierarchy, bureaucracy, and command and control, which stifles the workforce, but empowering the front line to deliver the outcomes desired, in an enterprise where everyone is committed to its success.

But we are still a long way off. Even today, only around a third of the UK workforce is actively engaged at work, which is a waste of individual potential and organisational performance. Evidence suggests that for many people, work damages their wellbeing, with stress and burnout on the rise. For far too many people, Monday morning is a dreaded, unnecessary trauma. And I would hazard a guess that a lack of engagement at work, a sense of not being listened to by the employer, being treated as a unit of labour, a human resource rather than a human being, explains, at least in part, the alienation that appears to have contributed to the Brexit vote.

These problems are made worse as many organisations cut expenditure, particularly labour costs, to the bone, requiring people to do more with less, with the threat of insecurity hanging over them like Damocles’ sword. Skills shortages may well be compounded by the impact of Brexit and of cuts in immigration. The increasing use of non-standard forms of work, particularly affecting those with few skills and little bargaining power at the bottom of the labour market will inevitably lead to more scandals such as the employment practices at Sports Direct.

There is a relentless tsunami of challenges coming over the horizon as the technological changes of the fourth industrial revolution, robots, artificial intelligence and big data, cloud computing and blockchain, the automation of knowledge work, digital fabrication, the Internet of Things, revolutionise the workplace. In all the furore about job losses in the US, the simple fact (real, not an alt-fact) is that, according to research published by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research in June 2015, over 80% of lost manufacturing jobs in recent years have been as a result of productivity growth, largely driven by robotics and automation, not relocation to cheaper countries.

Indeed, economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne suggest that 35% of UK jobs are at risk from automation over the next 10-20 years, according to research published in collaboration with Deloitte in November 2014, and this time the jobs at risk are going to be in the service sector.

Over-pessimistic, maybe. But the times they are a-changing for sure. And that includes profound changes in the workforce too. No longer will people just put up with being poorly managed, their views ignored, working in toxic low-trust cultures, treated unfairly, in jobs stripped of meaning and purpose, for organisations where values and ethics are simply slogans on the wall.

To survive this turbulence, employers need to turn to their only asset: their people. Ensure that the workforce is aware of the challenges, and of the opportunities, and can act as key partners in navigating the way ahead. Ensure that their views are listened to, as well as their advice about how to do the job better. Ensure their warnings about egregious behaviours are heeded, that bad apples at whatever level are weeded out, that a diversity of views eliminates the danger of groupthink. After all, in this era of transparency, reputational risk has undermined organisations that were once thought impregnable.

Engaging employees to create the right culture is perhaps the greatest challenge employers face. Get it right, and it will help organisations face the future with confidence.

Nita Clarke OBE is director at the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) and co-chair of the Employee Engagement Taskforce