Philippa O’Malley: What future employee engagement issues do employers need to be aware of?

Employee engagement can refer to both the connection that employees feel towards their employer and their work, and how the employer communicates with employees on matters that affect their employment.

The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has resulted in some marked changes to the way in which employers engage with their employees. The shift to greater home working has required changes to the methods by which employers and employees communicate, as well as to the frequency and substance of that communication.

As the pandemic has continued, employers have recognised the benefit of regular engagement with workers on a more informal basis. We have seen an increase in the use of pulse surveys, which ask two or three questions at a time, and can be distributed and responded to quickly. These are proving a more flexible and efficient method of employee engagement than the traditional employee survey, which may only have been deployed once a year and typically had much lower response rates.

Changes in employee engagement can, as well as improving efficiency and relationships with staff, also pose issues and risks for employers. For instance, increased engagement is expensive and time consuming, particularly for smaller businesses and those without a dedicated HR function. It may also result in the business having less flexibility in relation to its future level of engagement, both legally and as a result of a change in expectation.

There are also risks under data protection legislation in employers holding more personal and special category data, for example relating to employees’ health and wellbeing. The potential exposure for employers, if they do not process employee data fairly, reasonably and transparently, is potentially significant.

Many employers adapt their approach to engaging with employees, but those that don’t risk losing out when it comes to recruitment and retention of staff. Much of the change in employee engagement over the last year has been as a result of companies fire-fighting and reacting to unprecedented circumstances. While inevitable and necessary in the circumstances, this may not form a solid basis for developing an approach to employee engagement going forward that benefits both employers and employees.

Employers would benefit from taking a step back and considering what they want to achieve through their employee engagement, and using the aims they identify through this process to inform their future engagement strategy.

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This article is based on content first produced by Slaughter and May for the Employment Lawyers’ Association (ELA) (June 2021).

Philippa O’Malley is an associate at law firm Slaughter and May