Purple Cubed MD, Jo Harley, quizzed three business leaders – to find out about the challenges they face and how these can be overcome
Happy employees? Good retention? A zen-like state, where the individual is the organisation and the organisation is the business?
While so many articles, conferences, rankings, meetings, consultancies and even careers are dedicated to the holy grail of great employee engagement, the irony of the topic is that there is still much disagreement about what it means and what it can do for a business.
Perhaps it’s time we talked about the views of engagement as a spectrum of thought and ideas, rather than one single (and all-too-often misunderstood) strategy. What we are sure about though is that done right, and aligned to the culture of a business, engagement is a catalyst to motivated, productive people and a bouncing bottom line.
At Purple Cubed, we talk about engagement being a whole company challenge, not just that of HR, so in order to get to the bottom of the conundrum of ‘what is engagement’ we decided to take the question to a cross section of business leaders.
Danielle Harmer is Chief People Officer of fast growing consumer financial company Metro Bank, Robert Purdy is Director of IT, Customer Management and Delivery at mobile telecommunications giant EE and Clive Jacobs is Chairman of Jacobs Media, the parent company behind leading industry titles such as The Caterer and Travel Weekly.
Let’s cut to the issue with these heavy hitters: What does engagement mean to them?
“Being aware of every part of your business and its people,” says Jacobs. “It’s about caring what you deliver to customers and running good business principles. It’s about communication that’s swift, thoughtful and genuine between the top of the business and the bottom, and all the way through, but it must be driven by the top.”
Harmer is just as decisive: “You need to be clear, consistent and the same when engaging either customers or colleagues,” she says, adding: “Employee engagement means the extent in which the employee has an emotional attachment to the organisation. It’s the way we want both our colleagues and customers to describe, and feel about us. There is a simple theme that runs through everything we do at Metro Bank and that’s – how you treat people is how they will behave.”
“We also see engagement as being a two way thing, it’s an emotional attachment where we care about each other, it’s fine to show you care about people and that you want to have a relationship with them.”
And Purdy supports both: “Employee engagement represents the involvement of everyone in the things that move a company forward. It is not a tick box exercise or one way communications to employees. Comms don’t drive engagement.”
“It’s about involving people and helping them understand that they contribute to the key objectives of the company and how the bigger company strategy relates to them. Engagement is not a distant thing – it is present and it is powerful.”
So far, so good. But do the commentators agree on why employee engagement is a vital strategy within business?
Purdy explains: “We are number one in our field for customer service in the UK – and we came from the bottom. We attached the objective to get to number one to our engagement strategy. People in the call centre were engaged with offering great customer service; tech support were engaged by making sure all the systems were in place to provide a great customer experience. We focused on this strategy from high level right down to day-to-day operations. We made sure all employees were aligned in this vision and it worked well. This is about making sure employees are connected; making people see that there is more to their job than turning a handle.”
And Jacobs agrees, stating that engagement is not a ‘fad’ that business leaders are (or will be) losing interest in.
He adds: “If people feel valued and recognised then that makes the biggest difference. You make people feel valued and recognised by incentivising them fiscally, but often being rewarded verbally matters most as well as leadership by example – management being prepared to roll up their sleeves and get involved.”
“You create a culture within the business and that’s effectively the DNA of the business. People will be working longer and we all understand that you need to be happy in what you do in order to get the most out of yourself and the business. Work has to be rewarding and the companies who make this the most rewarding will do the best, the ones who don’t are short sighted but again this is a cultural thing and led from the top.”
So why so much confusion and misinformation around employee engagement?
“There are two things that annoy me,” explains Harmer. “The first one is that employee engagement has become simply ‘scores’. Scores are outputs; knowing this doesn’t help with what you need to know, which is what do we need to do to create happier places to work. Yes it’s good to know that a significant percentage of people like their boss or like to work here but where I need to focus is how do I improve on this, to make us better and a score just doesn’t tell you that.”
“The second thing is the employee proposition and employee brand vs external brand. It doesn’t make any sense to separate these, for example it’s like saying this is what we do as a brand and then we say to people, behave like this because we have a separate employee brand, this is how we’ll treat you as an employee not what we do as a brand…”
Purdy suggests: “There is still a very old school mentality in some businesses, simply concerned with traditional means of profitability and success – they don’t realise people are more than a commodity. Also, engagement is hard to get right; there is a cost to engagement and it can take time. Some people don’t have the patience to see the value.”
So what’s the way forward for an engaged, empowered, enabled UK economy in the opinion of our experts?
“The value of people has to be shown to be proportional to key objectives and cost,” says Purdy. “We can show that to our board pretty well at EE and I think this is why HR is given air time at the top table. Engagement and its value is very much part of our culture and that’s understood by the board.”
And Harmer adds: “You give your people responsibility and treat them like adults, it’s as simple as that… When it comes to culture, engagement or empowerment, never mind the banners outside your offices, if someone landed from another planet and saw our company and was able to identify and describe our company culture, then that’s what it’s all about. That all starts with the individual, it starts with you.”
And Jacobs concludes: “Strategy and engagement is everyone’s responsibility, not just HR. HR to me is a type of style in how we run the business with all your people, bringing them onside. On a practical point, you also learn more from people at the coal face and it’s the simple stuff that matters. It’s fundamentally important that you engage with your people at every level and get rid of the layers of bureaucracy, because when feedback is provided through layers, it’s often sanitised by the time it reaches the top… When you do this [right] you improve your business with your customers and suppliers.”
“You’ve just got to listen.”
Wise words indeed.