Using technology to test staff commitment

Once dominated by hunches and feelings, evaluating and boosting staff engagement can now be aided by hard-nosed statistics and technology, writes Jessica Twentyman

“Human beings are complicated creatures,” says Monica Parker, an organisational behaviouralist and social scientist at management consultancy Morgan Lovell. “When it comes to measuring their engagement, it’s simply not enough to ask them, ‘Are you happy?’ or ‘Are we, as your employer, giving you what you want?’”

The complex responses that these simple questions evoke require more investigation and discussion than many managers realise, if they are to truly understand employee engagement.

That said, the employee survey is still a valuable weapon in the corporate armoury. In a recent survey conducted by internal communications specialists Melcrum and Newsweaver, respondents were asked what key performance indicators they used to measure the success of internal communications. The two most popular answers given were “employee survey results” and, more worryingly, “none”.

In her work with Morgan Lovell clients, who include the BBC, Google and Microsoft, Ms Parker uses a tool called Hatch. It’s a simple online survey that takes employees about 15 minutes to complete on their desktop or mobile device, but the “predictive behaviour” science behind it is pretty sophisticated.

By asking questions about what factors influence employees’ behaviour, Hatch is able to determine what changes an organisation needs to make to its culture, teams or work environment to drive better business performance.

The view that employee engagement or its effects on company performance can’t be measured is pretty outdated, says Laurence Collins, director of HR and workforce analytics at management consultancy Deloitte. The real watershed moment, he says, came as far back as 1998, with the publication of a study in the Harvard Business Review, showing how US retailer Sears was able to reverse its previously poor financial performance by improving employee engagement. “That made a lot of human resources professionals sit up and take notice,” he says.

For smart companies, the interaction of employees with technology can provide a rich source of data about their levels of engagement

As a result it’s now largely understood that, when it comes to metrics, rates of employee engagement are typically reflected in two areas, he says. These are “outcome measures”, which show how engagement translates into discretionary effort by employees, reflected in improved productivity and performance (employees sell more product or come up with more ideas that result in new products and services), and “persistence measures”, such as levels of employee retention and absenteeism.

For smart companies, the interaction of employees with technology can provide a rich source of data about their levels of engagement, from their comments on the chief executive’s latest blog post on the staff intranet, to their use of company-provided mobile apps, says Mr Collins. Some companies, he says, are now taking the same “sentiment analysis” techniques used to understand online customer comments and applying them to employees’ online interactions.

But technology isn’t just a source of data for gauging employee engagement. It is, in itself, a mechanism by which it can be improved, according to a report published last year by IT market research company Forrester Research.

“Technology is essential to keeping today’s global workforce engaged,” says the author, Forrester analyst T.J. Kett. “Ideation tools, performance management software, gamification, social collaboration tools and mobile devices are just a few of the elements of a growing toolkit that keeps employees engaged, productive and focused on having a positive impact on customers.”

At food manufacturer Danone UK, the implementation of an online benefits platform from Thomsons Online Benefits, accessible through smartphones, has done much to boost employee engagement, according to the company’s UK head of rewards, John Mayor. During a recent benefits-selection window, more than 83 per cent of Danone’s UK employee base logged on to the platform, against the company’s own internal target of 60 per cent, and the goal of encouraging at least 80 per cent of company pension scheme members to switch to a new pensions offering was met.

In particular, social networking tools for collaboration between colleagues are deemed essential for connecting workers to a company’s success. In a Forrester Research survey, for example, 85 per cent of those using social software say they know how their work contributes to the company’s mission.

That’s certainly true for IT services company HCL Technologies, according to their chief human resources officer, Prithvi Shergill. Much of the company’s workforce of more than 88,000 employees work remotely at client sites worldwide, and yet they are able to stay in touch with colleagues and engaged with their employer via Meme, an internal social networking platform, which they use to receive and share news, views and information, and submit new ideas and client leads.

“Through Meme, employees have a clearer understanding of the company’s mission, their place in achieving it, and the help that colleagues and co-workers can offer them along the way,” says Mr Shergill.

And at Telefonica Digital, a London-based arm of the Spanish telecommunications company, while the employee survey still has its place, other tools are coming into play, according to Colin Watt, head of people development and engagement. The company has deployed Microsoft’s Yammer tool for enterprise social networking, and is currently assessing other technology-based approaches for both boosting and measuring employee engagement.

“If you’re solely relying on a twice-yearly workforce survey to measure employee engagement, then you’re likely to miss a trick,” says Mr Watt. “You’re basically waiting for something to happen to your business, rather than taking regular pre-emptive steps to engage more closely with employees.”