Employee engagement is seen by a growing number of organisations as a key issue in measuring employee attitudes, managing the behaviours of management, developing operational and human resource policies, and establishing a strong employer brand.

The essence of employee engagement is that given the right circumstances, employees will be prepared to 'go the extra mile' in the service of their organisation, and that’s great for the bottom line and employee wellbeing; so engagement is essential, as it simultaneously satisfies the needs of the company to be successful, and the needs of the employee, for whom work should be both satisfying and rewarding.

What is employee engagement?

Some commentators emphasise the similarity of employee engagement with concepts like the ‘psychological contract’ or ‘high commitment management’, which seek to understand how bundles of operational and people management practices influence individual employee’s attitudes and behaviours and improve business performance.

Others focus on the practical surveying techniques developed to measure the key drivers of employee engagement and establish an alignment between the day to day experience of individuals and something that captures the personality of an organisation. 

A further group might also compare the concept of employee engagement with more established concepts like employee involvement, consultation and partnership. This is supported by its emphasis on a two-way relationship between employees and management and commitment to mutual benefits. 

Following our work for government examining the evidence for employee engagement, we believe that there are four enablers of employee engagement:

The Four Enablers

Leadership

provides a strong strategic narrative which has widespread ownership and commitment from managers and employees at all levels. The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose. 

Engaging managers

are at the heart of this organisational culture– they facilitate and empower rather than control or restrict their staff; they treat their staff with appreciation and respect and show commitment to developing, increasing and rewarding the capabilities of those they manage.

 

Employee voice

An effective and empowered employee voice – employees’ views are sought out; they are listened to and see that their opinions count and make a difference. They speak out and challenge when appropriate. A strong sense of listening and of responsiveness permeates the organisation, enabled by effective communication.

Organisational integrity

Behaviour throughout the organisation is consistent with stated values, leading to trust and a sense of integrity. 

Engage for Success

In 2008 IPA director, Nita Clarke was asked by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to co-chair with David MacLeod a review into the importance of employee engagement to the UK economy, later referred to as the MacLeod Review.  The Review reported in July 2009 and you can download Nita and David's report here. 
 
In 2011 the Prime Minister gave his backing to the Employee Engagement Taskforce led by David and Nita and widely supported by organisations across the UK, including the private, public and third sectors.   In 2012 the Taskforce launched their website.

Nita regularly speaks on employee engagement at conferences, and advises businesses, third and public sector organisations on how to improve their employee engagement. 

How the IPA can help you with employee engagement

The IPA has been helping organisations to understand engagement and how it might benefit them and their workforces for some time. 

Find out how the IPA can help you improve your employee engagement.

The 5 Key Steps to Employee Engagement

 Creating an informed employee voice

Some of the challenges faced by organisations that have set up partnerships with both trade unions and information and consultation arrangements as their base include:

  • Why is the agenda full of the basic “tea & toilets” issues?
  • Why do representatives bring a wish list of requests from employees?
  • Why do so few people stand for election?
  • Why are employees disengaged from the process?
  • Why are managers unwilling to participate fully?
  • Why do they not see improved results from employee satisfaction surveys when they have been given a “voice”?

In many cases, organisations seem to be starting their consultation journey at the wrong place. Here, the agenda is unfocused and is often centred on “hygiene” matters, such as “tea and toilets” and meetings are dominated by trivial issues which would be better raised with line managers who are equipped to deal with them.  As a result, senior managers do not see the value of the process and quickly become disenchanted with it.

To have a more positive and strategically-minded employee voice, it is necessary to start the journey from a management-driven strategic agenda based on the major changes that are affecting the workplace. In conjunction with this, the process needs representatives who are able to understand a strategic agenda and will ask the questions necessary to elicit information on managers’ decision making rationale.

Only then can organisations take the first of five key steps that will change the employee voice from one which is interested only in trivial or individual issues to one that is informed and interested in their organisation’s strategy.

These five key steps are as follows:

 

Step 1: Bring employees closer to strategic decisions made by the senior management of the business – “The Strategic Narrative”

It is vital that every employee understands why key strategic decisions are taken and what the thought process has been. This means that strategy has to form the basis of discussions at information and consultation or partnership meetings in order that the representatives can scrutinise and evaluate management decision making. This will require them to ask the sorts of questions that employees will not necessarily think of asking at this stage of the journey. The answers to these questions have to be the foundation of the high quality communication back to the employees that is essential if the process is going to be successful.

The first job of any representative is to ensure the employees they represent understand the context, enabling them to make sense of why change is necessary. Employees should, as a result of the representatives asking a series of key questions, be able to trace any change in their own circumstances to a strategic decision. This has the effect of ensuring that employees do not perceive change as something that is done to them, rather than with them.

 

Step 2: Creating buy-in to the strategic decision.

Buy-in does not mean employees agreeing with or being happy with organisational change. The basis of employees buying–in to a decision that results in organisational change rests with their complete understanding of that decision.

This requires not only an understanding of why these decisions have been made but also how they have been made.  In a mathematics exam, marks are given not just for the final answer, but also for the process by which the answer is reached. Scrutinising senior management’s decision making is like that – it is not so much the decision at the end of the process that achieves buy-in, it is management’s “working”.

Essentially, respect for decisions comes when employees understand the process and, equally importantly, the quality of the decision. When managers begin to fully explain to employees their reasons for making a decision, and how the decision was made, trust between managers and employees increase as employees are shown that managers do not have a hidden agenda.

 

Step 3: the What, the Why and the What Else. 

Employees are almost instinctively suspicious about what lies behind major decisions that are taken in their organisation, and need reassurance that these decisions have been made with proper consideration.

Only an exploration of the “what else” will overcome this and it is, therefore, imperative that managers talk through the options that they have considered before they reached the final decision. This will, ideally, be done before that final decision has been taken but it can be done retrospectively depending on when the consultation starts. The timing is actually of secondary importance to the quality of the communication that the representatives and managers provide to the employees. It is this regular communication that will lead to Step 4.

The importance of the “what else” cannot be overestimated. Although the rejected options can only be communicated once a final decision has been taken, the realisation that management do, indeed, “think it through” has had a major effect on reducing or eliminating what the IPA calls “residual issues” that are caused by the implementation of unpopular change. In other words, the “what else” reduces the “moans and groans” and stops cynicism in its tracks.

 

Step 4: Continued improvement in employee satisfaction and the building of trust (the working environment).

As organisations move through the preceding three steps, employees will start to feel that they are in a “safe pair of hands”, and over a period of time will begin to trust their senior managers and the decisions they make. This is closely linked to employees feeling valued and having confidence in the way decisions are made. There is also comfort in the predictability of knowing they will be involved and that the decision making process is not clouded in secrecy.

 

Step 5: Create an informed and credible employee voice in a culture where employees want to contribute and get involved.

If the consultation process properly addresses any cultural problem by following the previous four steps, cynicism and rumour mongering will be reduced. It is within such a fresh, positive culture that employees will be interested in talking about organisational strategy. They will stop speculating about why something has happened and will be more interested in debating what might happen next.

The benefits of this engagement may well be seen in employee surveys. More employees will also want to stand as representatives as the role is proved to have real value and influence in the organisation and as more people become aware of the role as a result of better communication.

Perhaps more importantly, for some individuals it will result in a less cynical attitude and a more positive work experience. A representative might ask themselves if there is anything more significant that they could possibly achieve this than this.

These five key steps reveal why so many organisations have struggled to get employees engaged with an information and consultation or partnership process and why so many employees see that process as ineffective. Many have tried to start the process at Step 5 by setting up a simplistic “backwards and forwards” communication between the employees and the representatives with the latter bringing forward the wish lists of the former. This only leads to dissatisfaction and disengagement.

To create the culture or environment where more people want to stand for election to a forum or trade union than there are places, the organisation has to work through the key steps in order. There is no short cut. This reduces the importance of “quick wins” but it sharply increases the need to manage the expectations of the employees, particularly in terms of how quickly they will notice the measurable benefits.