Viewpoint: Skills and Engagement

The annual State of HR Survey makes compelling reading for HR professionals across the economy. The flagship survey of senior professionals, conducted by the employment team at law firm Speechly Bircham and the HRM Learning Board at King’s College London this year obtained feedback from 350 organisations with a combined workforce of more than 1.1 million employees.

Taking a snapshot of views in November 2009, right in the depth of the recession, the survey found that while some sectors, such as financial services, appeared to be emerging from the downturn, others, particularly the public and third sectors, had yet to feel the pinch. The remainder were still in the thick of the worst recession in living memory.

The researchers asked HR professionals to talk about their experiences the previous year and what they expected to happen in the year to come. Some interesting themes and trends emerged.

Employers have embraced flexible and part-time working in a way never seen before. Some 38% report an increase in the use of flexible working and 21% an increase in part-time working.

At the same time, the number of employers using compulsory redundancies has decreased dramatically – 46% compared to 80% reporting their use the previous year.

Retaining skills

The inference is that employers really are using flexible and part-time working to maintain key skills, preserve jobs and avoid redundancies.

This chimes with the government’s jobless count which appears, for now at least, to have levelled out below the levels one might have expected based on previous recessions.

This must be a positive message; employers will hopefully now view flexible working as a positive and valuable part of their workforce strategy. Those regarding it less positively may find that they cannot put this genie back in the bottle – having embraced alternative work practices when they need it, employers may find it difficult to reject requests from employees going forward.

Also, they may find that a number of employees have got used to part-time working and have adjusted their lifestyles accordingly. There may be others who were forced into a change and want to return to full-time work but the overall result is likely to be a lasting increase in flexible and part-time working.

The survey confirmed that employee engagement is the number one priority for HR professionals, with a significant 68% of employers citing this as a major issue for 2010. What is new, however, is the insight we have gained into what HR is doing to increase or maintain engagement – and the effect it is having.

Nine in 10 respondents looking to drive engagement were doing so through more effective leadership and management of staff; 79% were attempting to develop better staff relations with line managers.

Engagement strategies working

With further analysis, the survey found that all HR activities that were aimed at driving engagement were associated with increases in levels of staff engagement. The strongest association was with better job design; making sure people know what they are being paid to do, and have roles that fit well in terms of business needs.

The need to focus on engagement reflects the damage that has been done by the recession. A number of survey findings indicate that there are likely to be major problems ahead; workplace stress, worsening employment relations and grievances have continued to increase over the past year and more of the same is expected for the year ahead.

Another key indicator of engagement, staff turnover, has reduced considerably over the past 12 months, but is expected to pick up as the economy recovers and new job opportunities begin to emerge.

This all confirms that HR is right to focus on driving up levels of engagement – but unfortunately does not give any comfort that this will be an easy exercise, particularly if attrition levels increase.

As Professor David Guest from King’s College London puts it: “Many senior HR professionals are pinning their hopes on employee engagement as a means of emerging from the recession. There is a strong risk that they will be disappointed if the labour market improves.”

Richard Martin, partner, Speechly Bircham

More details on the research at

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