Is engagement HR fluff or vital to economic growth?

Last year, the Government asked David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, authors of the Engaging for success report, to create the Employee Engagement Task Force in an attempt to tackle UK productivity at its roots. One year on from its launch, they tell Laura Chamberlain why engagement is still key.

Employee engagement is a topic that is often seen as a “fluffy” HR issue, yet both the Coalition Government and the previous Labour Government have made it a priority to tackle low engagement levels in UK companies.

While some employers would argue that they don’t have the time or resource to look at “soft” HR issues such as engagement in the current financial climate, MacLeod, non-executive director of the Ministry of Justice and chair of the employee engagement task force, argues that engagement is now more important than ever.

He says that, when times are tough, organisations need to do four things to grow: they’ve got to give fantastic customer service; they’ve got to come up with new forms of competitive advantage for their goods or services; they’ve got to come up with more efficient ways of doing what they do; and they’ve got to enter new markets.

“Who does that?” MacLeod asks. “The board might ask for it to happen, but it’s the employees who give the service, who come up with innovation, who find cheaper ways of doing things and who get things launched in other countries. Whether you’re engaged or not, whether, as an employee, you are offering the most of your capability and potential or not, is going to be a massive determinate of whether you do those four things.”

Changing cultures

The Employee Engagement Task Force wants your stories

MacLeod and Clarke ask that any employers that have stories on how they have boosted employee engagement send them in to the task force so they can be shared with other employers on their upcoming website.

Clarke says: “If you’ve got examples, even if it’s four paragraph anecdotes please send them to us because we are developing this website and we want to populate it with everyone’s stories.”

Employers should send their stories to [email protected]

Clarke, who is deputy chair of the task force and director of the Involvement and Participation Association, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to help employers develop new ways of working based on trust and collaboration, adds that changing workplace cultures is another reason employers should look at engagement.

“We’re in an era where there is much less deference, much less trust, but also in an era where command and control basically doesn’t work anymore. People aren’t prepared to hang their brains on the door when they come into work.

“How do you get innovation in an organisation? How do you meet customer demand if you don’t have an empowered front line with a voice?” she asks.

And it’s not just MacLeod and Clarke who think engagement is vital. The issue has been picked up by both the Coalition Government and the previous Labour administration.

Former business secretary Peter Mandelson commissioned MacLeod and Clarke to review the potential benefits of employee engagement for organisations and employees in 2008. The subsequent report found that, while there were some excellent examples of engagement, there were barriers to uptake, particularly among smaller firms.

More guidance wanted

MacLeod says that organisations found the research helpful but wanted more guidance on what they should do in order to engage their people better.

As a result, David Cameron launched the Employee Engagement Task Force at the end of March 2011, with the aim of boosting growth by helping employers with their engagement strategies.

The task force will soon be launching a website with a toolkit for employers, offering ideas and inspiration on tackling engagement, which will share success stories from a variety of organisations.

Vanessa Robinson

Nita Clarke, deputy chair of the task force and director of the Involvement and Participation Association.

MacLeod explains: “We decided that we wouldn’t develop a paint-by-numbers model of employee engagement, as it simply doesn’t exist. However, there are fabulous examples of really engaged employees who bring outstanding results and we knew we could find that, shine a light on it and make it easier for other organisations to benefit from that experience.”

But, if there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method of tackling low engagement, where should employers start when looking to address this problem?

MacLeod warns that they shouldn’t panic and implement a bundle of engagement initiatives before they’ve thought them through.

“If you’re a larger organisation, walk around the place and find out who is getting good results, find out how it is happening and go and experience it. Then go outside to other organisations and see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”

He adds that employers can find examples of engagement in articles and webcasts that are already available on the internet. The task force will be making more of this type of content available soon.

Other key areas employers should look at, says Clarke, are listening to the workforce and giving them a voice. “Talk to your people, get interested and get a little bit of confidence about the topic, because you can’t force people to engage. You have to create the circumstances and the honest conversation about what it feels like working there and what you can do to make it better, that’s what lays the foundations for engagement. It doesn’t have to cost you a penny.”

MacLeod also stresses that, while staff surveys are a useful starting point, they shouldn’t be your only tool to assess engagement levels. He says that when you do a staff survey, you should think of it as 10% of what you’re doing, rather than 90%.

Audio: Nita Clarke explains why employee engagement is critical to business success


“The survey’s not a bad starting point but you then need to say what we’re going to do is talk to employees, we’re going to get them into workgroups and workshops, we’re going to find best practice and we’re going to share it. If the survey’s just a spur to improve, then you get the real benefit from it.”

Managers play vital role in engagement

Managers also have a vital role to play in engaging the workforce. One of the four enablers for engagement identified by MacLeod and Clarke in the “Engaging for success” report is engaging your managers, an issue that was also raised in recent research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and HR consultancy Penna into manager and leadership development (MLD).

It found that, in organisations where MLD activity was highest, employee engagement levels were 5% higher than in other organisations.

In addition, research from XpertHR found that the quality of line management was one of the top three most significant factors that affect employee engagement, alongside pay and job security.

Clarke says that the CMI is right in pointing to the need, as part of the skills agenda, for a real understanding of what the role of leadership and management is.

“In our report, one of the four key enablers of engagement is the role of an engaging leader. We know that people join organisations but leave managers and yet we persist in making people managers because they’re quite good at the job they last did, which doesn’t tell you anything about what their people skills are going to be like, and then we just hope for the best.”

Vanessa Robinson

David MacLeod, non-executive director of the Ministry of Justice and chair of the Employee Engagement Task Force.

MacLeod agrees that technical skills alone are not enough to create effective managers. To fully utilise the talents of staff, he explains, managers need to make sure their teams are engaged.

For example, one case study the task force has come across is that of Toyota chairman Sir Alan Jones. He told MacLeod and Clarke that, as far as Toyota was concerned, there was one job it wanted its managers to do and that was to get the best out of its people.

The car manufacturer has based its whole strategy around the firm belief that its most valuable asset is its people and that managers should help employees realise their potential. In the “Engaging for success” report, Clarke and MacLeod noted that Toyota’s focus on enabling employees to have an intellectual and emotional relationship with their work, as well as a financial stake in the success of the company, was key to its ability to continuously improve productivity from the shop floor to the boardroom.

But if managers are so key to engagement and yet there is no “paint-by-numbers” solution, how should employers get managers to boost engagement in their teams?

Clarke says that, while there are many different personality types, you don’t have to be a particular one to manage. What matters is that you understand people. Managers that do will be in a good position to help engage their workers.

“If it feels inauthentic, or if it feels like yet another initiative, then you’re starting off with a huge handicap,” she says.

“However, if you have honest conversations with people about why you want to tackle engagement – ‘look this is what is coming down the track, if we continue with this we’re going to lose our markets’ – then it is more likely to be accepted. It’s not about managers saying ‘right you’ve got to saddle up’, it’s about saying ‘how do we meet this challenge together?’ and it has to be authentic, it has to feel real.”

Four key enablers

In essence, employers looking to boost engagement have to create a culture in which engagement can thrive. As a starting point, employers should look at the task force’s four engagement enablers – creating a strategic narrative, engaging managers, giving employees a voice and making sure there is organisational integrity – and assess which is the most important in terms of the context of their organisation.

For example, an organisation with low levels of trust should first take a look at organisational integrity.

While recent research from XpertHR found that awareness of the importance of employee engagement has never been higher, it also found that almost one employer in four (23%) believes that their employees are less engaged than one year ago.

Audio: David MacLeod sets out what employers should consider when tackling engagement


The task force and the Government agree that employee engagement is going to be key in rebuilding our economy, but, at the moment, more organisations need to understand its importance.

MacLeod argues: “The topic is rising up the agenda because of the changing nature of work and those doing it are seeing spectacular results. Those who get it are out there, there’s just not enough of them.

“This topic is critical for the UK short and medium term and anyone who says that they don’t have the time to do it, you know immediately that they don’t understand how important engagement is.”

So it seems that while engagement may not be the easiest thing to tackle, it cannot be disregarded by employers as HR “fluff”. If organisations want to grow their business by boosting productivity and innovation, then the engagement of their staff will be critical to their success.

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