The engagement yardstick

Employee engagement strategies must be measured. Fiona Lander explains why

Despite the fact that employee engagement is a much discussed theme in HR circles, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 20141 report has found that only 13 per cent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. However, at a time when work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10 per cent on customer ratings, 22 per cent in profitability and 21 per cent in productivity, engagement levels have never been more critical. In light of this evidence, can you afford not to know if your people are engaged?

While HR and L&D professionals no doubt understand the importance of employee engagement, what can often be overlooked in the ongoing management of staff relations is the need to constantly assess the requirements of the workforce and then effectively meet those requirements. Benchmarking forms a vital step in almost all employee engagement interventions by providing an accurate understanding of the landscape which HR professionals may potentially be looking to develop. Engaging employees is a continuous process and sustaining engagement through regular monitoring is absolutely vital.

Graham Mitchell, business psychologist and strategic partner of the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo), outlines this new landscape: “Business conditions are changing daily and just as organisations must be agile to adapt to a shifting landscape, their engagement strategy must be equally light on its feet.” Of course, the traditional concept of a job for life is now much less popular than it has been in previous years and as a result of this greater mobility for employees, employers must engage in the right way in order to retain star talent.   

Mitchell says: “This new, empowered, ambitious attitude to career development is driving employers to foster an environment of continuous engagement. Today’s professionals want to work with a business that is going somewhere. HR departments are now tasked with differentiating their brand as a ‘great business to work for’ rather than a ‘nice place to work’. It’s essential that businesses evolve. Senior leaders can’t rely on doing tomorrow what they did to get results today.”

This shift in employee attitudes and associated impact on engagement is echoed in several recent studies. For example, according to the latest Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2014,2 which surveyed more than 2,500 organisations across 90 countries, companies are struggling to engage our modern, 21st century workforce. Today’s employees are more discerning and more dynamic than ever before, and as the world of business evolves, the way we manage our people has to develop to reflect and relate to this.

Deloitte’s report highlighted the fact that HR is evolving into an increasingly data-driven function, with the focus shifting from simply reporting data to enabling the business to make informed talent decisions, predict employee performance, and conduct advanced workforce planning.

In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, what employees want can change rapidly. As such, staying ahead of the curve to ensure that staff remain motivated can be a challenge. Progressive leaders are increasingly using benchmarking tools to ensure employee engagement strategies are relevant to the ever-changing working environment. With this in mind, what style of benchmarking systems should HR professionals be considering to effectively capture and capitalise on the attitudes and behaviours of staff?   

APSCo has recently launched an Employee Engagement Service (EES) to help organisations to bolster performance and the delivery of key strategic objectives by enhancing their employee engagement strategies. 

Whereas historically, human capital engagement strategies have been somewhat rigid, or disjointed, in structure, the processes advocated by APSCo promote a collaborative approach to data collection.

Employee engagement is a journey, not an event. Excellence is a moving target which is continuously pursued, yet never quite achieved, and as such, benchmarking and engagement strategies should be viewed in a continuous context. Today’s benchmarking tools are designed to fit the cyclical nature of effective engagement.

‘Snapshot’ surveys, such as APSCo’s ‘Pulse Check’ Model, act as a litmus test to gauge sentiment within an organisation. Benchmarking tools such as this are ideal for companies which are looking for a quick and easy way to ‘take the pulse’ of their people as a ‘stand-alone’ sense check, with a view to using the data to decide if a fresh approach to engagement is required as part of a longer-term programme.

It’s no surprise that studies highlight engaged employees as being energetic, dedicated and fully invested in and enthusiastic about their work. They’re proactive, display initiative and readily take ownership for their own personal development. Entry level snapshot surveys are relatively simple to administer, even within a small organisation, yet effectively highlight these super-passionate individuals. Employees are typically asked several questions, usually online, to establish their level of emotional investment in their organisation. Unlike legacy benchmarking tools, today’s models purposefully veer away from standard engagement terminology questions to draw out honest rather than ‘expected’ answers, providing enhanced levels of accuracy as a result.

Based on psychological research, models encapsulate the typical attitudes and behaviours of highly engaged employees into distinct core dimensions. Organisational engagement is then evaluated by benchmarking employees on these characteristics.

Core dimensions may include those such as ‘vigour’, which is defined as high levels of energy and mental resilience, a willingness to invest effort in one’s work and persistence, even in the face of difficulties; ‘dedication’, which is characterised as feeling fully involved, a real sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride and challenge; as well as ‘absorption’ – being fully focused and happy engrossed in one’s work.   

For those decision-makers who are looking for greater depth in their benchmarking methodology, contemporary macro-level models enable organisations to investigate their people’s engagement in greater detail. These models are also typically tailored to be aligned more closely with the needs of a specific business and its future objectives.

Mitchell says that: “Just like an organisation’s marketing function, which has become more closely aligned with wider business operations in recent years, people management is now recognised as requiring direct alignment with an organisation’s core objectives.”

These macro-level benchmarking tools are based on what is generally accepted to be the ‘gold-standard’ of employee engagement research as an indicator of organisational health. Macro-level models are usually structured around 12 core questions, which are then often supplemented with bespoke enquiries created for each individual organisation. Unlike simpler models, the fact that these are easily modified to take account of cultural nuances or to explore specific issues, mean that they not only provide an instructive barometer of current engagement levels, but also highlight potential development ‘hot spots’. As part of an ongoing engagement journey, macro-level models are often used as a regular engagement sense check when working towards enhancing performance.  

Organisations that are just embarking on their engagement journey, or who recently have or are currently formulating a long-term organisational vision, often benefit from implementing a forensic, multi-layer strategic effectiveness model. The benefits of successful employee engagement strategies are no longer based on opinion – it’s a fact that companies with engaged workers perform better. As such, employers are increasingly turning to comprehensive tools which provide a detailed, dimension-by-dimension insight into ‘base camp’ position and provide a perfect platform from which to devise a comprehensive engagement strategy.

The next generation of multi-level models combine evaluation of general engagement levels with more wide-ranging organisational analysis. Usually administered online, these surveys are split into distinct areas including a general engagement section and another designed to gather an omniscient perspective of the company. In addition, these highly-detailed surveys can incorporate response space for commentary or be run in conjunction with face-to-face, 1-2-1 or work group sessions to allow the ‘story behind the headlines’ to be elicited.

Clients who are investing in an in-depth benchmarking tool are typically heavily involved during the development stage, selecting from a ‘menu’ of organisational dimensions to create a business specific instrument. These dimensions may include areas such as: learning and development, vision and strategy, culture and communication, leadership and line management, organisational framework and progression, operational processes and protocols, individual level ‘my role’ analysis, and rewards and incentives. Surveys may even, in some instances, incorporate the evaluation of core organisational capabilities such as change agility and self-confidence.       

“Engagement benchmarking is now viewed more strategically than ever before,” explains Mitchell. “Whereas previously, high levels of emotional involvement were aligned with ‘soft’ results such as staff retention and greater levels of innovation, today we know that engagement impacts core organisational outcomes such as productivity and profits.”    

Models such as those outlined above have the advantage of being accessed either as stand-alone interventions or a first stage diagnostic in support of a longer-term programme, each can be refined to deliver the nature, focus, range and depth of analysis relevant to a particular project. [pullquote]Benchmarking engagement is a process, but it is the quality of that process that determines the potential value in the exercise[/pullquote].

Sophisticated decision-makers understand that effective people management comes down to more than just cost-cutting or setting incentives to elicit high performance. True success can be measured by HR and L&D’s ability to drive business performance and growth through partnership with the management team through implementing engagement strategies.

“Organisations can find value in the benchmarking process itself from day one. Employees positively respond to the fact that their employer is demonstrating an interest in their wellbeing. [pullquote]The data collection exercise may be a shot in the arm for morale, but without a sustained approach to engagement, any goodwill can quickly be lost[/pullquote],” Mitchell says.  

Once HR directors have a clear insight into engagement levels within their organisation, they should then take a pragmatic approach to using their newly gleaned intelligence. They must analyse the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of their business with a view to improving systems and processes accordingly. Solutions should, of course, be aligned to key strategic priorities to deliver desired results. APSCo EES advises organisations on how they should utilise their data to positively impact their bottom line. HR directors can discuss initiatives until they are blue in the face but only decisive and influential actions will have a real impact on employee behaviour. More often than not, employee engagement levels can be dramatically improved through investment in leadership training. Leaders essentially engage, or disengage, the professionals who work in their teams and an ever growing body of evidence continues to show that line managers have a significant impact on an employee performance.

As the economy continues to show ever-increasing signs of buoyancy, the increase in competition for top talent will no doubt intensify, putting ever greater pressure on the importance of effective engagement. Training and development programmes, based on data collected though benchmarking, will, of course, help to improve retention. However, employees’ personal development needs must be aligned to what employers wish to achieve as an organisation. People really are the greatest assets – so harness their potential and direct it towards what you want to achieve as a business.

It’s worth noting that, according to employee engagement guru David MacLeod, engaged staff deliver 50 per cent higher customer loyalty, 50 per cent higher sales and 27 per cent higher profits – all figures that any company owner would find hard to ignore. 

Essentially, through developing effective – and ongoing – employment engagement strategies, we can better understand our workforces and so effectively adapt the way we communicate with them. 

An engaged workforce is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it is a ‘must-have’ and the message is clear that effective benchmarking ultimately holds the key to successful employee engagement.





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