What employee engagement lessons can the UK learn from across the globe?

  • To engage the employees they lead, managers themselves need to feel engaged, otherwise it will prove difficult to sustain high levels of team engagement.
  • Gaining advantage through employee engagement involves challenging previously held assumptions and accepting that employees want to show up to work for reasons beyond salary alone.
  • Find ways to communicate engagement effects throughout the year and use every opportunity, touchpoint, and communication channel to reinforce and recognise the employee engagement commitment.

The recent survey by analytics and advisory organisation Gallup, State of the global workplace published in June 2021 found that the UK and western Europe have the lowest employee engagement levels across the globe at just 11%, and eastern Europe’s levels rose seven percentage points from 2019 to 2020. It raises the question of whether the UK could learn something new in terms of employee engagement, particularly following the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

Employee engagement around the world

Leslie Rowlands, senior managing consultant at Gallup, says: “Globally, employee engagement decreased from 22% in 2019 to 20% in 2020, following a steady rise over the past decade. To engage the individuals and teams they lead, managers themselves need to feel engaged, as it’s very difficult for a manager who isn’t to sustain high levels of team engagement over time,” he says.

In the past 18 months, organisations around the world have had no choice but to rethink how they engage their dispersed teams.

Jonathan Maddison, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) managing director at Achievers, explains how its customer Kellogg’s already used its platform as its global engagement hub before Coronavirus. “When Covid struck and many of Kellogg’s staff became homeworkers overnight, they were able to adjust quickly to stay connected. The [organisation] encouraged colleagues to recognise each other for all the little actions that provide support. Kellogg’s complemented this with campaigns to promote wellness initiatives to motivate staff to stay positive and healthy.”

He adds that cultivating employee engagement internationally across different cultures varies, for example, in Japanese culture, there is a notion that praise implies there is no room for further enhancement, which runs contrary to the spirit of kaizen, meaning continuous improvement.

Yves Duhaldeborde, senior director at Willis Towers Watson (WTW), says that when looking at what inspires and engage people most, fair pay, understanding of a role and good manager support came up a lot. “What pushes people to work more, go the extra mile and stay with the business is more around having a voice, feeling empowered, collaborating well with teams. In France, there’s a lot of development opportunities, access to training to develop skills and feeling involved in the organisation, which really makes a difference. In the US, they focus on inclusion, job security and clarity in terms of fair pay and staff benefits, and other countries can learn from their sense of dealing with change,” he says.

The levers to drive employee engagement are relatively consistent globally, as Dr Piotr Bednarczuk, senior partner of strategic advisory in the EMEA region at Aon, sees a renewed investment in how employers think about employee engagement in the wake of the pandemic. “The enforced remote or virtual working environments many found themselves operating in required businesses to communicate more clearly and with purpose, shift focus to employee wellbeing and health and consider how they enable people to work flexibly. A silver lining for many was that often the negative perception of technology normally weighed engagement scores down for organisations, but I think it’s fair to assume many employees have been pleasantly surprised at how resilient technology has been during this disruption,” he says.

Engagement lessons

A growing number of UK organisations understand the business value of having engaged workforces, as they increasingly offer strategies, tools and practices, but more can still be learned.

According to Maddison, gaining advantage through employee engagement involves challenging previously held assumptions and accepting that employees want to show up to work for reasons beyond salary alone. “The most successful HR leaders acknowledge that the collective mindset, expectations, and values of the workforce have drastically changed and infrequent, traditional recognition programmes are not an effective way of aligning and engaging a geographically dispersed team. To boost organisational performance and profitability, frequent, peer-led and non-monetary recognition must form the cornerstone of every reward and engagement strategy.

Duhaldeborde points out that countries have a variety of engagement techniques that the UK could take on board. “In Denmark, they try to inspire staff by telling them exactly what the business is doing, respect others and use each member of staff’s skills effectively in order to keep them engaged in their work. In Germany and the Netherlands, there is a big sense of belonging in a team, which helps effective working, while in Italy, people feel that their own performance isn’t just theirs, it impacts the whole [organisation] and leads to rewards for the individual and the team. In Canada, employers help staff to articulate their performance goals and tell them what they need to achieve throughout the year, which is motivating and engaging for them,” he said.

The Aon global HR pulse survey, How Covid-19 is changing onsite and remote work published in May 2021, highlights that remote working is a useful employee engagement tool, but there is a lower emphasis on remote working in Asia (84%) compared to globally (94%) and in the UK (89%). “Focusing on what others are doing needs to be accompanied by workforce analytics to better understand what the [employer’s] own workforce requires to ensure productivity and business results,” Bednarczuk says.

Engagement challenges in other countries

Global engagement levels across the world have largely remained stagnant year on year, but can vary substantially country by country.

Rowlands believes it is important to recognise that the primary factor affecting engagement isn’t the country, but rather the extent to which leaders and managers are empowered to act. “In organisations where the role of manager is viewed as a position of enforcer rather than enabler, this may curtail levels of autonomy and empowerment. This may serve to create a culture where people don’t feel particularly valued, appreciated or recognised for their contribution. Instead, find ways to communicate engagement effects throughout the year and use every opportunity, touchpoint, and communication channel to reinforce and recognise the employee engagement commitment.”

In the UK and across the world, challenges such as the digitalisation of work and organisations have risen, as well as the introduction of new employees to the workforce.

Duhaldeborde says that across the world, people are sometimes struggling to find organisations that engage them, especially millennials and younger generations entering the workforce who want to feel connected and inspired by the organisation. “Sometimes being inclusive is a challenge for businesses in terms of the employee experience and engagement, as they need to show that they are being diverse in terms of hiring, pay and internships, with equal opportunities for all,” he states. “No country has brought it all together yet, as every [organisation] can be more diverse and inclusive. It’s still a work in progress.”