Empower and inspire the right people and they will excel

Getting the best from staff can mean the difference between success and failure in a business world full of ups and downs, as Tim Smedley reports

Employee engagement could also be known as “getting employees so excited about their job and the company that they give their all, and in doing so make the company more successful”. It sounds too good to be true. But in actual fact, there are plenty of examples out there of how this can be achieved.

The multi-sector services company Sodexo, for example, won the Investors in People Award this year by focusing on communication, recognition, and learning and development. Across its 35,000 people in more than 2,000 locations, this included chief executive roadshows, leadership Q&A sessions, health and wellbeing initiatives, recognition awards, and even recruiting a former rugby world cup winner Matt Dawson as an “engagement ambassador”.

Taken individually, such things might seem gimmicky, but taken as a whole they reinforce a message that employees are valued and their ideas matter.

“When people started talking about this 20 years ago, it was about sending out messages from the top and newsletters,” says Jeremy Starling, managing director of employee engagement consultancy Involve, whose clients include AstraZenica and Vodafone. “But it has moved on to being about… employees helping to create and contribute to the purpose of the company.”

At Sodexo this came down to “having the right infrastructure to say ‘we trust you in your day-to-day role to make decisions that you believe are right for our customers’,” says Angela Williams, HR director for Sodexo UK and Ireland. “That means there’s an entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of autonomy.”

Creating staff autonomy and measuring performance by outputs, rather than by prescribing their inputs, is central to improving employee engagement. “It’s freedom within a framework,” says Mr Starling. “It’s the leadership’s job to sell the why and the what – why we are doing this, what we are all about – but then you ask your people the ‘how’. Your people are the experts; by asking them and by acting on their ideas they feel they have a stake in it, that it’s theirs and not just something being done unto them.”

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In the mid-2000s, the Gleneagles luxury hotel in Scotland launched an employee engagement scheme for its 800 staff. Staff quarters were refurbished to look as plush as the guest suites, a new canteen was built, and artistic black-and-white photos of staff were taken and framed. Community initiatives were also launched and staff visited schools to talk about careers in hospitality. The hotel subsequently avoided catastrophe during the recession via the goodwill of its employees helping out in new roles. Chauffeurs even became golf caddies. HR director Janette Scott puts this down to “communication on a two-way basis and being absolutely open. In the recession, people did what they did because they were truly proud to work for Gleneagles the brand and the organisation, and felt they wanted to do their bit to protect it”.

The same approach doesn’t necessarily suit every business. Engagement consultants Hunter Roberts were called in by global chemicals company Chemtura in a last-ditch attempt to stave off bankruptcy. “We agreed a very clear business plan,” recounts Susy Roberts, Hunter Roberts’ founder, “and cascaded this right through the organisation by giving every single person their own commitment and results plan, showing them what they needed to do and what their measure of success was.” $100 million was added to the company’s market value within a year. It had given previously disillusioned employees a new clarity and purpose to their role, and also a renewed sense of freedom by trusting them to achieve the results as they saw fit.

Employee engagement, measured as discretionary effort and intention to stay in the company, is the highest it’s been in the past five years, according to leading member-based advisory company CEB. Record numbers of employees are volunteering for extra roles and responsibilities at work. Yet this is largely to protect their jobs, rather than feeling more engaged with the company. In fact, 60 per cent of highly engaged employees report they are now less engaged and that the work they do is not aligned with company goals.

One of the simplest yet effective metrics for employee engagement is optimism – conveying a belief that the organisation will perform well in the future. In many cases higher effort comes from a combination of pride, energy and optimism, more so than so-called ‘concrete’ benefits, says CEB.

Focusing on values is best suited to a business that is already performing well and is attempting to increase performance still further. Focusing on role clarity and a clear business goal is better for businesses that need turning around. The same goes for small or large companies, but the tools may be different. “In small companies it’s much easier and quicker to get alignment, because you’re not working across a global audience,” says Ms Roberts. “But equally you’ve not got the same power of support functions, such as HR and internal comms, that you have if you’re a big global company.”

Similarly, says Mr Starling, the most powerful way to boost employee engagement is face-to-face. “It’s an emotional conversation, you can’t do it by e-mail,” he says. “A smaller business can get all the management together quite easily. A global organisation can’t do that, so then you start to bring in things like webcasting and building champions within the business – a self-selected group of people who are very passionate about business purpose and about bringing it to life.”

Some may still believe that employee engagement only really comes down to one thing – how much people are paid. As a concept, however, this has been increasingly and vocally discredited, says Ms Roberts. “Pay and reward has to be reasonable, but providing it is reasonable, then giving someone a pay rise is only a motivator for two days. [Pay] is actually only a de-motivator, if they really feel undervalued by what they’re paid,” she says.

A significant proportion of engagement though does come down to hiring the right people in the first place. As Gleneagles’ Ms Scott says: “If people are a miss-match culturally to the organisation, it’s always going to be very difficult to engage them. Part of the recruitment process is trying to make sure the people we do recruit can believe in and support the core values set and culturally fit the organisation.”

But every company has to start somewhere. “The first step is what are you going to engage employees with?” advises Mr Starling. “They have to be engaged with something. The biggest trend we are seeing is that companies are really trying to articulate their purpose – what they stand for.” B&Q, for example, has even simplified its purpose down to one word – “helpfulness”.

Engaging employees around a clear business goal, giving them the support and freedom to achieve it, and ensuring that they feel valued means you are more successful, you have better customer experience, you’re more efficient, you have better ideas coming in and are quicker to change, says Mr Starling. “It’s not some side project to get a little bit more out of people, run by the HR department. It resonates across the whole organisation and is a massive, ongoing effort.”