Example of (lack of) employee engagement

Caring about our work: Thoughts inspired by #EngageSummits 2016

We spend so much of our time at work, it is crucial that we enjoy it.

Work defines us. We talk about ourselves and other people in terms of “what we do”. For example, when we describe our grandparents, we almost certainly use their profession to describe them.

Last week, I attended the Employee Engagement Summit 2016 and these were the two key thoughts that stuck with me throughout the day. I enjoyed John Timpson’s talk (it took Timpsons 5 years to implement ‘upside-down’ management and they made a lot of mistakes along the way) and Alyson Fadil, People Director at Sofology, gave a very good talk on Sofology challenging traditional furniture retail and how it put its people at the centre.

Photo by Steve Chapman @stevexoh on Twitter

But three speakers stood out for me and took up most of my thoughts afterwards and into this week.

Calculating the Return on Employee Engagement

The first was a keynote by Alex Edmans (Professor of Finance, London Business School), who told us how Simon Marks, of Marks & Spencer, introduced nutritious meals (free or low cost, I’m not sure) for his staff after he saw one of his shop assistants faint and collapse on the shop floor. The assistant had not been eating so that her family could eat after her husband had lost his job.

Why did Simon Marks do this? The thought pattern is something like this:

I care about my workers. I want them to do well. By going the extra mile, staff will follow my example. And in turn, this was why Marks & Spencer was regarded for its high quality products and service.

It did not require analysts to calculate the cost of lunch versus how many more staff will not faint and the resulting increased productivity (although it helps if you’re the Chairman of the company). This is an example of corporate social responsibility (CSR) at the start of the last century, but we didn’t put a name to it back then.

The Purpose of HR

A similar theme came up in another keynote presentation by Peter Flade (Senior Adviser, Gallup) – The Purpose of HR: Work is key to how we evaluate and experience our lives. He began by highlighting how much time we work, and the relationship between

I have the right tools/resources to do my job
– and –
In the last month have you displayed unacceptable behaviour at home

I wasn’t surprised to hear this, but I was by how many. I didn’t note exact numbers but they more than tripled(?) when people don’t have the right tools (an example given of unacceptable behaviour would be arguing/getting upset over petty things because our minds are elsewhere). Unfortunately, work often leads to feelings of frustration, stress, anxiety which flows over into our personal lives. Peter made the point we are quite good at appearing to be professional at work, putting on a front, but less so when we get home. Very few of us can compartmentalise our lives into Work and Home.

Peter reported on some findings about how many people (globally) are struggling, surviving or thriving, how the role of work plays a part in this, and HR’s purpose in helping individuals thrive.

Example of (lack of) employee engagement

The awkward truths about Employee Engagement

A couple of talks later, I sat down to watch Rob Briner (Professor of Organisational Psychology, University of Bath) step onto the stage and take apart the business case for Employee Engagement.

“Shit! We’ve got it all wrong! What were we all thinking?” A few times I questioned myself, “what if Rob is right?”

Where’s the evidence? Is Employee Engagement actually anything new? (opens in PDF) Is there a ‘causal link’ between employee engagement and performance?

I agree with much of what Rob Briner said, especially when you break the argument down the way he did. Not having a common definition does hinder universal comparison, and for some EE is a wrapper for other practices and components (is that really a bad thing?). There are no longitudinal studies. Do high performing organisations cause greater engagement? (As opposed to the opposite, engagement drives performance.)

On reflection, Surveylab has cross-sectional evidence and plenty of commercial, non-peer reviewed research reports, anecdotes and case studies that “can’t be trusted”.

However, if you declare you don’t believe in Employee Engagement, then you are missing a trick, and a big one at that.

It’s less about academic studies, it’s more about enabling employee voice and acting on it

I scribbled this thought down in a later talk, partly thinking about our surveys. Work plays such a BIG part in everyone’s lives, and Employee Engagement is trying to make work better – for both the employee and the employer. That’s not to say every programme/intervention/plain-old-team-meeting will pay dividends (pun intended), but where would you rather work?

Yesterday, one of our web-servers failed and we had a ‘disaster’ on our hands. How we reacted wasn’t just down to our skill and expertise, it was also driven by caring about our work. Everyone came together to help: to troubleshoot and fix, to support, to communicate, to learn. There was no waiting to be told what to do, no panic, everyone understood what was required and where they could help. This was us demonstrating the effects of an engaged workforce.

In another company, with different people, but not ‘engaged’, I have no doubt the outcome would have been the same (server back up and running). What other impacts might there be? An overworked Sys-admin deciding there is more support and less stress somewhere else, clients putting a mark against this company frustrated by the lack of information …

Does Employee Engagement matter? Yes it does, because whether we like it or not, work defines us.