What does 2016 hold for employee engagement?

engagement march

Need to know:

  • The use of technology to support and increase engagement through networks, forums and idea sharing platforms can also unlock the creativity and innovation within the workforce.
  • Employee engagement strategies should evolve to reflect changing workforce demographics, such as the growing number of generation Y employees.
  • Employee wellbeing should form a core component of any employee engagement strategy, with a means of securing employee feedback on the factors that affect their physical and mental wellbeing, whether in or out of work.

Employee engagement is critical in every business whatever its size as a driver of talent retention, enhanced performance, and ultimately, increased productivity. Yet the key to higher levels of engagement continues to elude many organisations.

Engagement is very hard to quantify; a Gallup poll conducted in 2011-12 suggested that, worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged, a figure that has barely budged in recent years.

In addition, the survey Employee engagement: how British business measures up, published by Red Letter Days for Business in June 2015, found 36% of respondents to be engaged. And in its Spring 2015 employee outlook report, published in May 2015, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that figure to be 39%, up from 38% in the autumn 2014 survey. So, in line with global trends, UK employee engagement growth has been fairly static.

Economic factors have played a part. Jonny Gifford, research advisor at the CIPD, says: “Levels of employee engagement in the UK have stayed fairly stable overall over recent years, including before and after the recession. Although the effects of the recession clearly hit some people in aspects of engagement, the number of high-stress, low-security jobs seemed to go up.”

One of the challenges facing employers is being able to measure employee engagement levels within their own organisation. The majority of organisations lean towards the use of traditional online surveys for feedback, but then fail to communicate properly the intent of the survey and the use of the feedback that they receive.

Duncan Brown, head of HR consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “We’ve seen big [organisations] carrying out big staff surveys and then do nothing with the data. We’ve seen organisations where survey completion rates are generally good, but the actual questions do not offer a lot of guidance. The result is that employees become disillusioned.”

However, others are seeing a significant shift away from HR-led attitude surveys and more in the way of immediate initiatives to gee up a work unit.

Professor Paul Sparrow, director of the Centre for Performance-Led HR at Lancaster University Management School, says: “Organisations continue with the same survey measures simply for the sake of benchmarking, but their engagement managers are more savvy about what the measures tell them and don’t tell them. In the service sector, they are more interested in measures of employee advocacy.”

He adds that employee engagement is moving more into the corporate communications, marketing and customer service world.

Some organisations are clearly rethinking their approach to employee engagement, as evidenced by their use of social technology, including enterprise social networks that work like an in-house Facebook.

Gifford says: “In particular, these are seen as a way to communicate to employees better about strategy, vision, changes [and so on] to give employees a stronger, more effective voice; to help connect employees, creating stronger communities; to strengthen employees’ identification with the organisation; and facilitate ideas and problem solving from employees.”

More organisations are also implementing technology to help streamline business processes, create efficiencies and improve performance. Increasingly, this technology is being used to support and measure employee engagement.

One way employers are doing this is through the use of ‘ideation platforms’, such as the one developed by 7billionideas. Through the platform, employees are able to submit ideas that deliver quantifiable time and cost savings for their employer, which management can review, and in many cases, subsequently implement if they wish.

Jenny Pool, co-founder of 7billionideas, says: “In one FTSE 100 company we worked with, increasing employee engagement was its number-one focus at board level. Since introducing an ideation platform, employee engagement has risen and innovation is being captured every day in its business.”

A sophisticated reporting system allows an organisation to see when innovation is taking place, how often, and by whom, and the impact this has on cost savings or revenue generation.

At the same time, employees feel their ideas are being heard and implemented, and that they are being recognised for their contribution, which further boosts employee engagement, says Pool.

Changing workforce demographics are also set to shape future engagement strategies. Generation Y employees, also referred to as millennials, are those aged between 18 to 34 who now represent the largest segment of the workforce. Having grown up with rapid advances in technology, they want to work the same way that they shop: online, anytime, from anywhere, and via mobile devices.

Henry Thompson, director Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at customer service company Zendesk, says: “If we consider that 41% of millennials say they prefer to communicate electronically at work rather than face-to-face, or even over the phone, businesses must adapt accordingly to attract, engage and retain their millennial workforce.

“Providing access to mobile devices and encouraging the use of social media for work purposes will not only enhance a business’s relationship with its employees, it will enable millennials to instantly connect, engage and collaborate with colleagues in ways that are natural to them. Inevitably, this will lead to better work productivity.”

Workplace wellness is another topic that sits high on the corporate agenda. As a result, some believe that the very definition of employee engagement should be broadened to reflect the growing importance of employee health and wellbeing and the impact that it has on engagement, rather than treating it as an add on.

Ben Moss, managing director of business psychology firm Robertson Cooper, says: “To get an accurate measure of employee engagement, [employers] should be asking questions and inviting feedback from staff on all aspects that may affect or impact their physical and psychological approach to their job, and consider the health and wellbeing factors affecting employees both in and outside of work.

“This bottom-up approach allows employers to demonstrate that they care and are willing to not only listen but to make the changes needed to ensure that all employees are offered the opportunity to have a good day at work. In turn, this will reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.”

In spite of considerable economic turmoil in the market, most economists see continued moderate growth in the UK economy, suggesting little change in the macro-economic picture, with pay rises remaining modest. So what does the year ahead hold for the business of employee engagement?

Brown would like to see a move towards greater integration of reward strategy with overall HR strategy, with particular focus on development and talent management.

“Those [organisations] running effective engagement programmes are the ones that recognise the links between customer engagement, employee engagement and financial performance,” he adds.

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Engagement measurement will continue to deliver key insights, but it will be pointless in any attempt to truly engage a workforce unless there are on-going conversations around what makes a good day at work, Moss says.

He says: “The top-down annual employee survey approach will wane as we see an increase in organisations adopting a bottom-up approach, focused on live conversations with employees in which they are given a platform to voice what’s important to them.”