Where have we been going wrong with employee engagement?


HR leaders gathered in London to voice their concerns over what engagement means…

 

The age of disengagement

In early 2019, HR Grapevine interviewed HR guru Josh Bersin about the present state of employee engagement. He didn’t mince his words. “When you ask an individual what it’s like to work these days, most of them tell you that is actually kind of sucks,” Bersin explains.

This is no glib assessment from the analytics expert. The US-based HR guru’s words tally with research from people science and engagement experts Hive, who found that only 30% of employees feel actively engaged whilst working. Additionally, one in 10 say that they don’t even have one good day at work per week.

Those working in HR will know this empirically: they are the function that gathers the data on engagement; the function increasingly tasked with finding a solution to ailing levels of eNPS amongst others. Whilst the latter sounds good and proper – who wouldn’t want to fix falling levels of engagement? – Bersin warns that HR shouldn’t fixate on engagement as if it exists in a vacuum.

“Being highly engaged is great but if you’re highly engaged and not doing any work, I’m not sure the CEO is going to be that happy because they still have to deliver”

“When you ask an individual what it’s like to work these days, most of them tell you that is actually kind of sucks”

“That [engagement solution] should just be a means to an end. Being highly engaged is great but if you’re highly engaged and not doing any work, I’m not sure the CEO is going to be that happy because they still have to deliver,” he tells HR Grapevine.

It is this contextual and holistic understanding of engagement – both in terms of what drives good engagement and then, subsequently, what engagement drives – that was focus of a recent Hive and HR Grapevine roundtable of senior HR leaders from a broad cross-section of different industries.

Ryan Tahmassebi,
Director of People Science

Chaired by Ryan Tahmassebi, Director of People Science at Hive, the leaders discussed levels of engagement at their own firms, what role senior leadership and culture played in improving engagement, how to best collate data on engagement and what role technology could play. Below is a run-through of some of the most important and contentious aspects of engagement they touched on from that morning.

 

 

 

Engagement is for life, not just for the annual survey

Most of the HR leaders at the roundtable believed that there was still a place for the annual survey, but they were frustrated it didn’t always result in the implementation of initiatives to improve the employee body’s working life.

Whilst the HR function at one UK high street retailer said they believe the annual survey offers good insights into the engagement of the employee population, any outcomes that their HR department felt the need to implement are often seen as less pressing than other business matters.

There were also questions over what form the annual survey should take. Many agreed that free text responses allowed employees to give a better insight into what blockers existed to engagement. It was just that going through it afterwards, unless a text analysis tool was used, that could be slow going.

Yet, even if firms are still keen on the annual survey model, and even if this means a lot of HR legwork, the consensus around the table is that engagement should be something that the people function is constantly interested in.

“Engagement can often be a construct that many employers can bring in when they want to and park when they want to. Encouragingly, more employers are starting to see engagement as part of their day-to-day experience,” Tahmassebi adds.

 

 

 

 

Blockers from above

The annual survey could also be a weathervane for the culture of a company. Depending on the questions asked, it can highlight whether the senior leadership team are genuinely interested in engagement and care whether the staff are engaged. One leader explained that her senior leaders weren’t interested in the survey – even though it provided good data.

Many of the invited people function leaders thought it was crucial that senior leadership was bought into any potential change – acting as evangelicals for any potential changes to culture that might come out of the back of it.

It’s what HR and the senior leadership decide to do after they have measured engagement that is most crucial. Tahmassebi adds: “It’s about using data as a starting point to understand where a business is, regards engagement, and then use that to set steps and goals to drive improvements.”

 

 

 

 

Don’t take engagement shortcuts

One of the main conceptual issues with engagement, according to Tahmessebi, is that as research has shown correlations between engagement and productivity many employers are trying to find shortcuts. “Some are now asking employees: ‘Are you engaged?’ They follow this up with: ‘If not, why not?’ Rather, it should be about putting people at the heart of the people strategy, putting people experience at the heart of business strategy and ensuring it’s something that people are thinking about and talking about every day.”

Georgina Reeves-Saad, Employee Engagement and Experience Lead at British Council, attended the roundtable and agreed that engagement isn’t the endpoint itself.

“While the term ‘engagement’ often feels like jargon… it is really about the emotional relationship an employee has with their employer.” She argues that by thinking as engagement as part of the whole it can improve customer and business outcomes.

 

 

 

Line managers are crucial

One of the crucial ideas was around how line managers managed engagement. Consistency across teams and functions was crucial. Having soft skills, to adequately manage people and being data savvy were also big asks.

“Line managers and senior leaders are absolutely crucial here,” Tahmassebi explains. “They play such a pivotal role but unless they see engagement as absolutely central to their role, you can understand the way in which they see it as an additional thing. A ‘getting around to it if they have the time’ thing.”

 

 

 

‘Engagement is a meaningless word’

“We’ve got to stop viewing engagement as a measurable construct once a year and start viewing it as a byproduct of a great culture and great employee experience,” Tahmassebi explains. “Let’s authentically focus on creating workplaces where we do have great understanding of what it should feel like to work there and actually work really hard to improve and maintain that great experience, culture and trust.”

If the above isn’t done, then Tahmassebi argues that engagement could become a meaningless word. If there is no action after the measurement of engagement, then what is this measurement driving for the business? What questions are you asking of yourselves and of the company afterwards?

“We have to realise that when we talk about improving engagement, we are talking about cultural change here,” Tahmassebi concludes. “That’s not easy. You must stick at it. You have to be willing to put the effort in to see it through.”

 

 

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The age of disengagement

In early 2019, HR Grapevine interviewed HR guru Josh Bersin about the present state of employee engagement. He didn’t mince his words. “When you ask an individual what it’s like to work these days, most of them tell you that is actually kind of sucks,” Bersin explains.

This is no glib assessment from the analytics expert. The US-based HR guru’s words tally with research from people science and engagement experts Hive, who found that only 30% of employees feel actively engaged whilst working. Additionally, one in 10 say that they don’t even have one good day at work per week.

 

“Being highly engaged is great but if you’re highly engaged and not doing any work, I’m not sure the CEO is going to be that happy because they still have to deliver”

 

Those working in HR will know this empirically: they are the function that gathers the data on engagement; the function increasingly tasked with finding a solution to ailing levels of eNPS amongst others. Whilst the latter sounds good and proper – who wouldn’t want to fix falling levels of engagement? – Bersin warns that HR shouldn’t fixate on engagement as if it exists in a vacuum.

“That [engagement solution] should just be a means to an end. Being highly engaged is great but if you’re highly engaged and not doing any work, I’m not sure the CEO is going to be that happy because they still have to deliver,” he tells HR Grapevine.

 

“When you ask an individual what it’s like to work these days, most of them tell you that is actually kind of sucks,”

 

It is this contextual and holistic understanding of engagement – both in terms of what drives good engagement and then, subsequently, what engagement drives – that was focus of a recent Hive and HR Grapevine roundtable of senior HR leaders from a broad cross-section of different industries.

 

 

Chaired by Ryan Tahmassebi, Director of People Science at Hive, the leaders discussed levels of engagement at their own firms, what role senior leadership and culture played in improving engagement, how to best collate data on engagement and what role technology could play. Below is a run-through of some of the most important and contentious aspects of engagement they touched on from that morning.

Engagement is for life, not just for the annual survey

Most of the HR leaders at the roundtable believed that there was still a place for the annual survey, but they were frustrated it didn’t always result in the implementation of initiatives to improve the employee body’s working life.

Whilst the HR function at one UK high street retailer said they believe the annual survey offers good insights into the engagement of the employee population, any outcomes that their HR department felt the need to implement are often seen as less pressing than other business matters.

There were also questions over what form the annual survey should take. Many agreed that free text responses allowed employees to give a better insight into what blockers existed to engagement. It was just that going through it afterwards, unless a text analysis tool was used, that could be slow going.

Yet, even if firms are still keen on the annual survey model, and even if this means a lot of HR legwork, the consensus around the table is that engagement should be something that the people function is constantly interested in.

“Engagement can often be a construct that many employers can bring in when they want to and park when they want to. Encouragingly, more employers are starting to see engagement as part of their day-to-day experience,” Tahmassebi adds.

 

 

Blockers from above

The annual survey could also be a weathervane for the culture of a company. Depending on the questions asked, it can highlight whether the senior leadership team are genuinely interested in engagement and care whether the staff are engaged. One leader explained that her senior leaders weren’t interested in the survey – even though it provided good data.

Many of the invited people function leaders thought it was crucial that senior leadership was bought into any potential change – acting as evangelicals for any potential changes to culture that might come out of the back of it.

It’s what HR and the senior leadership decide to do after they have measured engagement that is most crucial. Tahmassebi adds: “It’s about using data as a starting point to understand where a business is, regards engagement, and then use that to set steps and goals to drive improvements.”

 

 

Don’t take engagement shortcuts

One of the main conceptual issues with engagement, according to Tahmessebi, is that as research has shown correlations between engagement and productivity many employers are trying to find shortcuts. “Some are now asking employees: ‘Are you engaged?’ They follow this up with: ‘If not, why not?’ Rather, it should be about putting people at the heart of the people strategy, putting people experience at the heart of business strategy and ensuring it’s something that people are thinking about and talking about every day.”

Georgina Reeves-Saad, Employee Engagement and Experience Lead at British Council, attended the roundtable and agreed that engagement isn’t the endpoint itself.

“While the term ‘engagement’ often feels like jargon… it is really about the emotional relationship an employee has with their employer.” She argues that by thinking as engagement as part of the whole it can improve customer and business outcomes.

Line managers are crucial

One of the crucial ideas was around how line managers managed engagement. Consistency across teams and functions was crucial. Having soft skills, to adequately manage people and being data savvy were also big asks.

“Line managers and senior leaders are absolutely crucial here,” Tahmassebi explains. “They play such a pivotal role but unless they see engagement as absolutely central to their role, you can understand the way in which they see it as an additional thing. A ‘getting around to it if they have the time’ thing.”

 

 

‘Engagement is a meaningless word’

“We’ve got to stop viewing engagement as a measurable construct once a year and start viewing it as a byproduct of a great culture and great employee experience,” Tahmassebi explains. “Let’s authentically focus on creating workplaces where we do have great understanding of what it should feel like to work there and actually work really hard to improve and maintain that great experience, culture and trust.”

If the above isn’t done, then Tahmassebi argues that engagement could become a meaningless word. If there is no action after the measurement of engagement, then what is this measurement driving for the business? What questions are you asking of yourselves and of the company afterwards?

“We have to realise that when we talk about improving engagement, we are talking about cultural change here,” Tahmassebi concludes. “That’s not easy. You must stick at it. You have to be willing to put the effort in to see it through.”

 


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