Making sure people are engaged at work is a massive business opportunity, and is one that is too big to be left solely in the hands of HR.
Organisations with high levels of employee engagement are almost twice as successful as those with low engagement. Yet most companies pay lip service to the fact that their people are their most valuable asset.
Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They are 57% more effective, have 48% fewer accidents, and make 41% fewer mistakes. Absenteeism and illness are significantly lower in engaged organisations, while disengaged employees are 87% more likely to resign. Engaging the workforce can solve the terrifically expensive recruitment and churn challenge.
So why, then, does the latest Gallup poll find that only 13% of employees are highly engaged at work and 67% are not engaged at all; and that the vast majority of those who profess to be engaged are senior-level executives who have a greater stake in the company?
Why would two-thirds of employees feel uncomfortable about recommending their company to a prospective employee, and why are 44% of the UK’s senior managers suffering from regular stress at work?
According to a recent Deloitte report, around $540 billion is lost every year as a direct result of employee disengagement, and that’s before we factor in the potential sales uplift from “employees ambassadors.” This is not a good situation to be in.
Defining Employee Engagement
Professor William Kahn of Boston University did the earliest employee engagement research in 1990. He defined it as “when engaged, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally.”
There have been many alternative definitions since then, and there seems to be some confusion about what the word “engagement” really means. The term is a little ambiguous, and while it is bandied around a lot in the world of HR, it often seems vague across the rest of the business. “Engagement” can mean spanning rational and emotional commitment, going above and beyond the call of duty, presence, or having a positive attitude towards the company. It also encompasses energetic involvement, passion, and harnessing potential.
But whichever definition you choose to run with, there is a clear story to be told.
Employees are most fulfilled, productive, and brand-loyal when they feel their contribution to the company is respected.
Employees are the best they can be when they are rewarded for their work, when they feel connected to their colleagues, when they understand and buy into the company purpose and mission, and can see how their daily work contributes to that purpose.
Purpose Powers Engagement
Shared purpose is a powerful engagement lever. But just stating what that purpose is on posters positioned around the workplace isn’t enough. Once a company decides its purpose and values, everyone in the business needs to “walk the walk,” including leadership.
The unfortunate truth is that although many company leaders may talk about the importance of their people, they find it challenging to let go of the safety of the “command and control” mechanistic organisational view.
All too often, employees continue to be treated as little more than the fuel that keeps the machine running.
The terminology says it all when we talk about “Human Resource.” Wouldn’t it feel nicer to just talk about people? And while we’re at it, how about dropping the confusing “engagement” word and telling a human story about fulfilment, happiness, fairness, and connection?
Employee Happiness Drives Sales
Brands spend vast amounts on media campaigns and smart ways of getting cleverly crafted messages in front of customers, with reach proven by ROI statistics. But stop for a second and consider that customers trust what an employee has to say far more than they trust marketing messages, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer.
It turns out that employee evangelism drives trust, and therefore sales, better than any other form of marketing.
If you invest at the right level in strategic employee engagement plans, you can increase the chance of your employees doing your marketing for you, whether that’s across social channels, or face-to-face when they talk to potential customers, partners, or employees.
Think twice, however, before you rush into an ambassador programme to incentivise employees to spread a positive brand message across their social networks. Customers are hyper-sensitive to inauthenticity on social channels and ambassador programmes are only truly effective if the messages come from the heart.
If employees are genuinely proud of how their company operates, how it nurtures and respects their colleagues, they will become evangelists. If they can hold their head high about what the company does, they will be more than happy to become genuine ambassadors.
Companies have to move beyond traditional marketing to earn the trust and loyalty of their customers, inside and out.
Stories Drive Change
Employee engagement, driven by powerful internal communications, should be core to every organisational strategy and even more so in complex, multi-brand organisations spread across geographies.
But before that can happen, leaders have to commit to a clearly defined picture of a future state. What does the next phase of the business look like? Is it a place where “can-do” attitudes reign, where people feel valued, where success is celebrated, and where honesty and knowledge-sharing are expected, as well as incentivised? Is it a place where accountability and transparency get more than lip service, and where hard work is expected, and the quest for work-life integration is genuine?
Driving behaviour change is the most difficult thing of all. It is most effectively tackled by strategic communications.
It’s time for organisational storytellers and HR professionals to team up to make a real difference. Together, they need to find ways of using communications frameworks to generate, and share, stories that embed engagement, behaviour change, and loyalty.
Culture change cannot be driven by fear and mandate. It can only be driven by passion, purpose, and excitement.
To achieve lasting success, companies need commitment from the very top, and to ring-fence appropriate levels of investment over realistic timescales. Knowing what we know, doesn’t it seem sensible to refocus a proportion of the massive media budgets onto new, potentially more effective, ways of doing things?