Nita Clarke OBE, Director at IPA details why employee engagement has never been more imperative for the sake of the UK economy and public sector
As David Macleod and I were writing our 2009 report Engaging for Success, there was a widespread view that engaging employees, while possibly an interesting workplace approach, was nevertheless a nice-to-do. Many leaders, if they thought about it at all, probably considered it was a typical HR soft and fluffy initiative, which had nothing to do with the hard bedrock of profitability and productivity that kept them awake at night.
But as the impact of the financial crisis hit all sectors of the economy, something began to change. It became clear that those organisations which engaged with their workforces in meeting the challenges of collapsing markets and the credit crunch – in manufacturing particularly, – stood a fighting chance of coming out of the recession on their feet, rather than their knees. There was an increasing realisation that perhaps tapping into the wisdom of the crowd – employees in this case – could help provide solutions to improving efficiency, improving customer relationships and finding new markets. And subsequently, in the public sector, the herculean efforts made for example in local government to reconfigure services in the face of unprecedented financial pressures demonstrated clearly that deep engagement with staff could produce a positive outcome for services, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Today as the UK economy builds again, companies and organisations face a whole extra set of challenges, as the impact of the extraordinary changes in the global economy hit home. The pace of change, driven by increasing international competition is bewildering. New technology disrupts established industries at a breakneck pace – just look at the effect of the move to internet banking on employment in the financial sector; think of the likely effect of driverless cars on the automotive sector and drones for delivery on logistics; witness the impact of social media on taxi services, remote control operations and biotechnology on health care. At the same time, customers whether of public services or private utilities have become more demanding, less likely to be fobbed off with the argument ‘ but we’ve always done things like that’, or ‘we’re offshoring to increase our profitability’, even if the call centre drives customers to distraction.
In the face of the breakneck change, too many organisations are trying to run 21st-century organisations on last century’s styles. Yet it has become crystal clear that the old view of how people behave at work, based on deference and trust, which command and control and carrot and stick management styles rely on, just does not hold water any more. Neuroscience tells us why these approaches backfire because people will only embrace rather than resist change – and change their own behaviour – in an environment where it is safe to do so. In the immortal words of Daniel Kahneman: ‘the brains of humans contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.’
People are no longer willing to hang their brains on the door when they come into work, they seek meaning and fulfilment, and if their organisation does not or cannot provide a deeper purpose in an authentic way than simply meeting the bills, many will walk to another that does. How telling that in the recent Sunday Times survey of the top 100 graduate employers voted for by graduates themselves, no less than 4 were public sector, with the Teach First programme in second place. Also in the top 10 were the NHS, the Civil Service and the BBC; service sector organisations (including PWC on the top spot) took up another 3 places and although Aldi and Google made the list, they were joined by Britain’s leading retail mutual, the John Lewis Partnership at number 10. Also making an appearance in its first year was Frontline, the new fast track scheme into social work. Hardly a ringing endorsement of our private sector from our future leaders. No wonder the CBI has embarked on a groundbreaking campaign to restore trust in British business.
Of course, this provides a tremendous opportunity for our public services to proudly proclaim their noble purpose, and place it front and centre in both their recruitment and their operations. Now is the time for public services to convert this in-built advantage of a strong story founded on meaning and purpose, into a prime engagement strategy with both employees and the communities being served.
And of course overlaid on all this complexity is the challenge of transparency with Glassdoor receiving over a million hits a month in the UK alone, and Twitter and Facebook open forums for real-time feedback, exposing the reality that can lie behind the corporate spin. It has become clear that reputational risk is the greatest danger facing even the mightiest organisations today, as the recent experience of Tesco demonstrates.
In this new world, employee engagement is a must-have, not a nice to do. Deep engagement with employees, giving them a clear purpose aligned with the organisation, and space and opportunity to grow and flourish; managers and leaders who understand people and how to motivate them; employees with a respected and heeded voice about the work itself but also about the organisation’s strategy and future; and an organisational culture driven by values which are reflected in day to day behaviours, from the top to the bottom. These are some of the key elements that will change organisations from being composed of sullen, despondent and intermittently effective employees, to ones where people face the future with confidence. Remember, the world will not wait for us to get this message. For the sake of individuals at work, organisations themselves, and the UK economy and public sector, we need to start engaging now.
Nita is also the Co-chair, national employee engagement task force
Nita Clarke OBE