Higher levels of employee engagement is a mission the HR function will find worth taking on

Businesses must adapt and change to survive in the modern, competitive landscape. This means those that will dominate and thrive will be excellent in managing the processes of adaptation and strategic change. To achieve this without an engaged workforce is unthinkable, in my opinion. The problem is we don’t really have a sound understanding of how to achieve this, as almost all the serious research is US-centric and oriented to the service sector.

The best businesses do more than merely cope with a changing world. In simple terms, employees need to see future goals, identify with them on their own terms, and be prepared to work towards them and ‘go the extra mile’. We intuitively know when we are there, as we can feel a certain atmosphere about the business there is a healthy sense of stability (where constant change can be tolerated) and people come up with more and better ideas to achieve their goals.

It is clear that as society has been rapidly changing, so has the employment relationship. As employment benefits rewarding loyalty and long service have been replaced with cash, or taken away altogether, and as job security has been replaced with uncertainty, employees are less likely to be committed to an organisation over time, other than for fear of loss of livelihood. Indeed, as change has become the norm, most people have experience of job redundancy, and employee communication is often glossy ‘spin’ not grounded in the reality that employees see around them.

Unfortunately, most performance management systems are heavily process-driven and not well executed by the managers and mentors involved. There is a pervasive drumbeat exhorting everyone to ‘perform’, with unattractive consequences if one doesn’t. Logically, few can be top performers, and most will not get there and achieve the rewards on offer. For many people, it may be better not to try.

But why? And how can we identify on an ongoing basis the levels of employee commitment, and develop strategies to make improvements?

In recent years, managers have been subject to ‘de-layering’ and restructuring, and there has been less training for a weaker and less well-equipped new cadre. Personal exposure to litigation has become a reality, and for many managers the principal role is compliance in a more authoritarian and structured world of work driven by ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, shared-service centres and outsourcing. These factors have contrived to stretch and weaken managers.

At the same time, the ‘war for talent’ has focused on acquiring and assimilating ‘the best’, with less focus on ‘raising the average’. With better talent acquisition, assimilation and development among managers, employee engagement should improve – and, as a result, so should productivity.

It is clear that it is not only the performance of the manager that matters, but also the changing nature and composition of the workforce, and how we choose to address different segments. What is it that is changing in 21st-century society that really has an impact on the employment commitment?

Delivering higher levels of employee engagement is a mission worth taking on for the HR function to contribute seriously. This year, an inquiry has been launched with more than 25 major UK and European organisations working with the Henley Management College to really get the answers in a rigorous way. We’ll share more as we progress.

Peter Mills
Associate director,
The Rialto Consultancy

Do you think employee engagement is a worthy mission? E-mail personneltoday@rbi.co.uk

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