Employee engagement: short termism and VUCA must be addressed

John Timpson, chairman of Timpson, explains why the shoe repair and key cutting chain only has two rules
John Timpson, chairman of Timpson, explains why the shoe repair and key cutting chain only has two rules

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), along with organisations’ tendencies toward short termism, are challenges that can be tackled through employee engagement. Jo Jacobs reports from yesterday’s Engage or Bust conference.

“There is a real correlation between employees being engaged and commercial success”, said Mark Price, outgoing managing director of Waitrose and deputy chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, speaking at the conference organised by Engage for Success.

Price explained simply that if employees are more engaged, they work harder; in turn this leads to increased loyalty from customers and sustainable profit.

Waitrose has seen a very strong correlation between the best managers and commercial success; and its low turnover, sickness absence and retention rates indicate the value of engagement strategies at the organisation.

“The magic of employee engagement is that people feel they own the business, in terms of decisions, strategy and profit. And working in this way helps the business grow organically,” added Price.

Our story to staff was ‘what you do matters’, ‘you can be proud of it’.” – Robert Devereux, DWP

Convincing shareholders of the value of employee engagement is one challenge that was highlighted at the Engage for Success event. Another is keeping a workforce motivated in a climate of budget and job cuts, particularly in the public sector.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demonstrated how engagement levels can still increase in such a climate. The department provides services through Jobcentre Plus, the Pension Service, the Child Maintenance Service and other organisations.

Robert Devereux, permanent secretary, explained how “spreading leadership throughout an organisation” was key to boosting DWP’s employee engagement levels by 12 percentage points (from just under 50% to closer to 60%), among a workforce that has seen staff numbers fall from 120,000 to 75,000.

Devereux has personally held sessions with thousands of local managers across the UK in the past three years, which has had a trickle-down effect on engagement among all levels of staff.

“Our story to staff was ‘what you do matters’, ‘you can be proud of it’,” said Devereux. “Getting staff to think about what they are doing, and improving the service, has enabled us to transform our results. Unleashing all the good work of engaged staff has led to half the number of complaints and £2 billion savings in operating costs.”

Engagement has been on the agenda at Marks & Spencer (M&S) for more than 130 years, but Tanith Dodge, director of HR, explained that the challenge of a VUCA world – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – was one driver for the organisation to change its company values in order to engage people and be connected.

“What engages and motivates staff now is completely different to 15 years ago. You can’t be complacent. There are five generations in one store, all with different needs,” said Dodge.

M&S’s new Fit for the Future plan aimed to drive a shift in culture and connect with employees. With communications stating “Be the best that you can be”, the strategy puts employees as individuals at the centre, gives staff a sense of purpose and recognition for their uniqueness.

Dodge said: “It is still early days but people would definitely say M&S is a very engaged place, with more cross-functional working; customer satisfaction scores have also increased.”

What engages and motivates staff now is completely different to 15 years ago. You can’t be complacent. There are five generations in one store, all with different needs” – Tanith Dodge, M&S.

The co-chairs of Engage for Success, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke also spoke of the current pressures bearing down on the workplace, such as short termism and the VUCA world, and outlined the pressures that come from people within the workplace, such as the desire to be empowered and trusted.

Clarke then explained that the UK’s two main problems are poor productivity and wellbeing, but stressed that engagement has the power to transform both these areas.

“We can choose, as organisations, to watch things happen, make things happen or wonder what happened,” she said.

“Let’s commit and re-commit to this vital journey as this is a triple win. [Engagement] is brilliant for employees. It delivers for organisations and delivers for our country.”

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