Ignore employee engagement at your peril

ignore employee engagement
© Fizkes

Neil Debenham, renowned business trouble-shooter, consultant and private equity specialist, explores why businesses should ignore employee engagement only at their peril

When dating app Bumble recently announced it was granting its 700 workers unlimited paid holidays, it became the latest in a long line of companies upping the ante on its employee engagement strategies.

By digging deeper at the finer detail of the Bumble’s latest perk, you could probably argue it is great for grabbing headlines, but once human behaviour is brought in as a factor, the reality that anyone will take – or be able to take – full advantage of unlimited paid holidays feels quite slim.

Whatever your take on the idea, it has certainly sparked debate. And the message from Bumble president Tarek Shaukat is loud and clear – the way we work, he said, and need to work, has changed.


The dark tunnel millions of businesses were plunged into by COVID meant they needed to shine a light on the very people who make or break a company – its workforce. If employee engagement was improving before the pandemic, COVID 19 helped accelerate it even further at an incredible rate.

Lockdowns, home working and job uncertainty meant companies had to think beyond the levels of employee engagement they had previously. Innovation in the space was stepped up, even beyond the Zoom check-ins and quizzes which were a feature of the early lockdown.

While COVID is still with us, as we open-up, companies are entering a new phase of employee/employer relationships. There’s a whole new set of rules for entrepreneurs to follow to not only maintain their position but to grow through employee engagement with offfices now re-opening and hybrid working set to become the norm.

If the first phase of this, in the pandemic, was about showing humanity existed in corporations, banding together and survival, this new phase – as we open-up – should be about development growth and inclusion.


It is unlikely that bosses and HR directors working in the UK’s millions of SMEs will be keen on the idea of unlimited paid holidays such as the initiative at Bumble.

Nor will they think that their organizations should follow VaynerMedia in the US, which has hired a Chief Heart Officer whose job it is to know what makes 750 employees at the company tick and use these insights to motivate individuals.

But with SMEs so important to British industry, it is vital that smaller companies understand the real value of their employees and do all they can to bridge the gap between getting paid and feeling valued.

No-one is suggesting that they have to undertake such shouty, risky measures to create a culture of caring for employees within its company DNA.

Employee recognition

However, employees today are looking for recognition which is beyond simply monetary. This is particularly true amongst the millennial generation which has been most affected by the pandemic in terms of job retention.

Staff want to see that the company they are working for knows what is important to them, thinks outside the box and thinks about them beyond the pay packet which arrives at the end of the month. It’s important for a business owner to recognise that an employees salary is a contractual exchange for the work they have done, recognition and rewards are recognition for the value they have added.

One of the most effective pieces of employee engagement I have ever seen came in the form of a simple hand-written letter from the CEO to the workforce thanking them for their efforts resulting in immediate employee engagement as the feeling of recognition echoed between all staff.

These types of genuine gestures, the ones which show you know something about your workers, will resonate far stronger than overblown strategies which could have been applied anywhere and to anyone.

The question in response to such measures from company leaders can sometimes be, ‘What’s in it for the company?’

The answers are clear. For one, those who respond best to authentic employee engagement measures will often be the rockstar employees who want to progress and help the company develop. These are the people who other firms would love to have on their books.

Employee engagement – done correctly – should be looked at as another form of investment for a company, not a bind which is left only to the human resources department.

As we enter a new phase of dealing with COVID, the tables are already turning in the battle for talent. Who could blame any employee for wanting to broaden their horizons after the period in which we have all lived through?

That means now is the time to ramp up measures to win the hearts and minds of the workforce – not forget them and dismiss them as a quirk of the pandemic. Firms that think engaging with employees is an initiative only relevant in lockdowns do so at their peril.


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