CEO Insight: Briggs Equipment's Richard Close on staff engagement

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As fears of another recession continue to mount, many business leaders are looking for new ways to either turn around their balance sheet or ensure that it grows.

But all too many simply fail to look at their number one asset: their people.   Over the last 20 years, I have worked with a number of businesses, transforming them from being multi-million pound loss-makers into multi-million pound profit-makers by ensuring that employee engagement was at the top of the priority list.   A key challenge for many HR directors, however, is that, when weighing up their core assets, businesses tend to think about stock or infrastructure first – even though without their staff, they would not be able to function.   To make matters worse, the issue of staff engagement tends to fall under a number of headings. Among other things, it is about ensuring that staff are paid well and/or entitled to a solid bonus scheme; that there is a happy work environment; that they feel supported in their efforts to find a good work-life balance and that they feel sufficiently challenged to try and improve themselves on a daily basis.   Workers will strive to achieve when they are happy and secure in their jobs and creating this type of environment doesn’t have to cost the earth. Instead trying to affect cultural change may be the way forward.   I joined Briggs Equipment six years ago when the company was making a £5 million loss and have since seen it turn a £3 million profit. One of the keys to this shift was, from day one, working with staff rather than against them.   Many of the directors and line managers had been with the business for a number of years and so it was important to tap into their knowledge and expertise before deciding on a turnaround strategy.   As a result, a number of approaches have been introduced over the last six years in order to enhance employee engagement, including:   1. Training – this is a key part of any strategy to ensure that you are helping employees to achieve their full potential at every level. Activities can range from helping people to improve basic skills such as being able to use Excel to more advanced management training. Whatever the level, however, it is important for staff to know that if they have the drive to get on, they will be given the opportunities to grow and achieve as much as they can.  2. Approachable management and better communication - one of the key changes that Briggs Equipment has made over the last few years is to get its board members to sit together in one room in the middle of an open plan office. This arrangement means that employees feel they can come and talk to the team about any issues that they have. It also encourages better communication among the company directors themselves.   3. Autonomous management - showing staff that you trust their decisions and what they do in the workplace is a fantastic way to motivate them. Urging people to contribute suggestions and ideas on how to run the business or make change is also important.  4. Regular face-to-face contact - ensuring that managers meet with workers for one-to-one catch up meetings and feedback is a key way to help engage them as they will feel more valued and, therefore, more motivated. At Briggs, for example, we have introduced quarterly business meetings, quarterly appraisals and monthly regional meetings in order to give team members the opportunity to air any concerns or put forward ideas.   5. Rewards - encouraging staff through rewards, whether financial or otherwise, may seem like a simple tactic, but a lot of people are motivated by it. HR directors and business leaders can work together to find the best approach, which may include anything from a tiered bonus scheme to one-off rewards such as a bottle of wine.  One of the key barriers to engagement, however, is a failure on the part of employees to understand how their day-to-day activities impact the business’ bottom line. As a result, before anything else can be attempted, it is important to ensure that any communication with them is clear and transparent.   In a turnaround context, for instance, if the organisation is in trouble, everyone is likely to know whether you like it or not. This means that talking to staff about the problems and how change will be effected is crucial.   Because employee engagement centres on employees though, it is also important to talk to them about what they want from their employer and the workplace.   Ask an independent third party organisation to conduct an anonymous survey about what they like and what they think can be improved upon in order to obtain honest, unbiased feedback that can be used constructively.   Finally, ensure that line managers are on board because, without buy-in from them, engagement is likely to be nothing but a distant dream. 
Richard Close is a turnaround expert and chief executive of Briggs Equipment.

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