14th Dec 2012
The McLeod Review concluded two years ago that levels of employee engagement in the UK were disappointingly low, largely because managers had failed to realise the importance of the concept.
The review, led by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, was commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Its findings were welcomed by unions as well as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which described it as “the best thing that's happened to HR for years”.
However, a couple of years on engagement levels don't seem to be rising to any noticeable degree. According to a survey undertaken last year by ORC International, only 43% of UK workers believed that a positive relationship existed between staff and managers within their organisation.
Just under half considered their company to be well-managed, while only 54% were positive in undertaking their day-to-day tasks. So it seems that managers are still unclear about how to truly engage their staff.
Employee engagement is one of those things that you recognise when you see it - but that doesn't, by the same token, mean that it can’t be defined. Definitions tend to hinge on workers’ commitment to their employer and its success, alongside a willingness to do their best for the organisation as a whole.
But this is not quite the same as job satisfaction. It is perfectly possible to enjoy your job without identifying in the slightest with the aims of your employer.
Customer service links
Francis Goss, head of employee engagement at HR consultancy Grass Roots, says: “You know when an engaged atmosphere is there - people are firing on all cylinders, there's creativity and a sense of common purpose. And there's a sense of integrity - the feeling in the business that what we say on the website is what we really do."
There's no doubt that an engaged workforce is also good for the bottom line. A recent report from US research firm, Tempkin Group, revealed that highly-engaged employees were two-and-a-half times more likely to do something good for their employer without being expected to and 30% less likely to take a sick day.
"Employee engagement is one of the key foundations to long-term success," points out managing partner, Bruce Temkin.
Surveys likewise show a direct correlation between levels of staff engagement and profitability - something Grass Roots' Goss believes applies particularly in customer-facing sectors such as catering and retail.
"If you walk into a retail store and you're dealt with by an employee who is highly engaged with their job and with the organisation, it's very clear to see, and there's a big effect on the customer experience," he explains. "Leading UK retailers are looking at the link between the two, and the correlations between employee engagement and customer satisfaction seem to be very noticeable."
So how can organisations increase their levels of employee engagement? Well, as ever, the first step is to identify how engaged their staff actually are in the first place and where particular problems are arising.
Numerous companies offer surveys that are intended to do help this. Questions typically cover employee attitudes to benefits and working conditions, learning opportunities and communication - in particular, whether they feel that they are listened to.
Metrics and measurement
They are also likely to examine staff attitudes to management as well as to the organisation itself. The advantage of taking this approach is that it provides clear metrics to measure the results of any change, although informal chats or focus groups may produce more meaningful feedback.
But it is important to follow any findings through. A recent poll by HR consultancy, Aon Hewitt, discovered that managers who reviewed their survey results and identified suitable actions based upon them, had an average engagement score of 63%.
This figure compared with a score of only 27% among those who had access to the results but didn't bother to do anything with them.
There is a surprising tendency among many organisations to believe that measuring engagement will be enough to somehow magically improve it, however.
While the factors affecting engagement vary from organisation to organisation, taking the time to improve communication is nearly always central. This means that it is important to ensure personnel understand the organisation’s aims and their role in helping to fulfil them.
More crucially, however, it is about giving workers a voice that they are confident will be heard. A recent survey conducted by the International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation in conjunction with Buck Consultants revealed that, after an individual's supervisor, employee communications were the biggest single influencer on staff engagement levels.
Some 39% of respondents indicated that the amount of communication that they were party to had a strong influence on how engaged they felt, while 47% considered the impact to be moderate.
The simple things
Rewards and little perks were likewise cited as important and were deemed to foster a sense of teamwork. Chaz Brooks, director of PR agency, ChazBrooks Communications, believes that giving such treats is one reason why his company was rated 'first class' by the Sunday Times' Best Places to Work survey.
“We have a table football game that we play now and again, team days out and things like that," he says. "A few months ago, we all went out for a team treasure hunt, and once, we hired a narrowboat and took it up and down the river for the day."
According to Brooks, it also helps if the organisation is fairly small as it makes it easier to accommodate an employee's individual circumstances, thus improving staff retention rates.
"We have two people who have been with us a long time - one for 14 years and one for 12 years - and both of them wanted to emigrate," he says. "We've made it possible for them to stay with us through remote working. They're two of the best people we've ever had working with us - and they're still working with us."
Most organisations that have experienced success from their employee engagement programmes point to the importance of being flexible as well as having good communication strategies in place.
Outside consultants can be brought in to help identify problems and fix any issues that are deeply rooted in an organisation’s structure or working practices. But surveys also repeatedly show how vital it is for employees to feel that they are being heard, which means that small changes can be just as effective.