Why employees now rule Article icon

Why The old top-down command and control doesn't work anymore but there is some confusion about what should replace the system

Ten years ago, some wags probably saw employee engagement as denoting the number of workers with rings on their fingers. Now it is one of the most popular buzzphrases in corporate communications, with 48 per cent of respondents in the survey CorpComms Magazine ran to commemorate our 100th issue saying this responsibility had fallen under their remit over the previous decade.

Once the preserve of human resource departments, if companies bothered with it at all, employee engagement is now top of corporate agendas.

Yet what does this latest piece of corporate jargon really mean? Where did it come from, where is it going and what are the best methods of actually achieving it?

As is often the case with new trends, there are many interpretations. Some communicators believe employee engagement is simply a new name for internal communications.

Others attribute it as a necessary requirement to be on top of globalisation, social media and the Internet, sustainability and talent management.

John Smythe, co-founder of employee engagement consultancy Engage for Change, goes as far as to argue that employee engagement’s emergence has to be seen in the context of the social and political upheaval that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring.

‘At the level of the nation state, we’ve seen people throwing off authoritarian regimes and saying they don’t want to be ruled by despots anymore and want to be part of a functioning democracy,’ he says. ‘Equally, in the corporate world, workers are saying they don’t want top-down command and control with very little influence over decisions and instead want a more mutual, engaging workplace where their voices are heard.

‘In the 1990s, you had the era of command and control, but people have got tired of the marketing-led type of internal communication that’s essentially about getting stuff out and shoving it down throats. More enlightened bosses started saying: We don’t know the answers. Let’s ask our people what they think?

Smythe believes employee engagement’s rise is also due to changing demographics and the democratising power of social media, which has stripped middle management of their role as custodians of information, spreading knowledge and flattening and speeding up organisations.

‘The baby boomers, who are just about leaving corporate life now, were brought up when command and control was seen to be a good way of doing things,’ he explains. ‘Generations X and Y are much more open to being involved. New generations of workers simply won’t put up with a leader telling them he has decided something and everyone has to get on with it.’

Governments have encouraged the trend. In the UK, former ICI executive David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, a former adviser on trade unions to Prime Minister Tony Blair, were asked by the Government in 2008 to produce a study on the topic.

Their Engaging for Success report, which led to the creation of an Engage for Success organisation, a taskforce and high-profile sponsors including ITV chief executive Adam Crozier and WPP Group’s Sir Martin Sorrell, stated that employee engagement could be a ‘key to unlocking productivity’.

Rachel Miller, founder of consultancy All Things IC, says the report ‘kick-started’ the conversations for many communications professionals.

‘Six years on, I think there’s been a shift from it being seen as ‘a HR/Comms thing’ to understanding the importance to the future of businesses,’ she adds. ‘Employee engagement isn’t something extra. It’s what you do and the way you do it.

‘However, as the role of corporate communications is changing and evolving, so is the understanding of engagement and what it means in reality for workplaces. Savvy communications professionals should equip themselves with the vast amount of evidence, data and knowledge out in the marketplace at the moment relating to engagement, then translate it into what’s right for their own organisation.’

Stephen Duncan, head of employee engagement for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at public relations agency Weber Shandwick, believes that the issue is maturing, with executives increasingly accepting that it is necessary to increase staff acquisition and retention and de-risk operations by making them safer and more ethical.

‘There’s a realisation that if you do this aspect of your business right, then the benefits to your business in terms of financial performance and the experience that customers and shareholders receive become very positive,’ he says.

‘We’ve had to establish what the hard economic benefits are. That’s moved this from being a softish issue into something that’s a much harder business issue.’

In addition, Paul Arnold, director of change management consultancy Able & How, argues that high employee engagement levels lead to greater discretionary effort by staff and better organisations with higher total shareholder return.

So what are the best approaches? Engage for Change speaks of a ‘virtuous circle’ of attitudes (pride and loyalty in an employer), behaviour (going the extra mile) and outcomes (lower accident rates, higher productivity, fewer conflicts, more innovation, lower numbers leaving and reduced sickness rates).

It defines the four ‘enablers’ of employee engagement as providing a strong strategic narrative about an organisation, recruiting ‘engaging managers’, ensuring that employees have a voice and committing to organisational integrity, with values and mission statements reinforced by everyday behaviour.

Other advisers have come up with their own guidelines. Weber Shandwick’s Science of Engagement report, for example, lists ten principles of employee engagement. These state that employee engagement is a finite resource, requires reciprocity, is not binary and is about ‘what we want or what we like’.

It is delivered by immediacy, involves decisions that are ‘postrationalised,’ benefits from being multi-layered and can be divided into ‘capture’ and ‘build’ segments.

Finally, the report argues that minimising negatives is more important than maximising positives and that the best employee engagement decisions are those where experience is married with expectation.

If that list isn’t exhausting enough, Weber’s report identifies 19 ‘elements’ of employee engagement, ranging from aesthetics to empathy, integrity, intrigue and herd behaviour.

What does all this mean in practice? Smythe cites British Airways’ cargo operations in the 1990s, when industrial management and a heavily unionised workforce were polarised until a new leadership approach involved shopfloor staff in decision-making.

‘Bit by bit, they moved from being the awkward squad to becoming real owners of the process,’ he says. ‘It got me thinking that the role of leadership is not to tell people what to do but to get them involved in a constructive fashion.’

Alison Esse, co-founder of The Storytellers consultancy, gives two other examples. At packaging group DS Smith, she says employee engagement strategies were utilised to ensure that the integration of its acquisition of rival SCA Packaging did not result in the combined operation losing customers.

With a strong presence in France and Poland, DS Smith made the purchase to become a pan-European corrugated supplier but its scale and ambition was significant, given that SCA was larger than DS Smith, and would double the organisation’s size to 22,000 employees.

Esse says engaging people in a compelling ‘integration story’ so they understood the role they could all play in achieving success was therefore critical. The Storytellers worked with DS Smith’s executive team as part of its early planning to produce a ‘Leading Together’ narrative describing the company’s ambitions.

Three days after the acquisition’s completion, 200 leaders were invited to take part in the launch of this ‘story’, equipping them with the information to inspire their teams.

‘The story provided a strong, cohesive call to action, helping everyone understand, through dynamic team dialogue, how working together as one team would help the business to lead the market in terms of performance and productivity,’ says Esse.

She also praises the engagement programme that telecoms group Colt Technology Services organised when it was changing its focus from fibre-optic cables to cloud computing.

For this organisation, with more than 4,000 people in 15 European countries, a change in its operating model, a new proposition and rebrand meant a shift in behaviours and the way in which people interacted with its customers.

‘It started with a simple, six-chapter narrative,’ says Esse, ‘describing the journey Colt was on to revive its fortunes in an ever-changing, digital world, brought to life with a powerful visual identity which resonated with its new brand promise of Smarter, Faster, Further.

‘Anticipating potential pockets of resistance, Colt mobilised a dynamic internal ambassador network to support leaders in driving the story through the organisation, stimulating powerful change conversations at every level of the business which gave everyone a sense of ownership of the behavioural changes they needed to make in their part of the business.

‘The business accelerated the pace of change in just a few months, with a highly engaged workforce who had a very clear understanding of the journey the business was on, and the Colt story was hailed as the mechanism that enabled it to move from a declining company on the verge of extinction to one that was flourishing and growing.’

Other employee engagement strategies can seek to employ commercial deals to incentivise and reward staff. For Brenda McWilliams-Piatek, managing director of brand and communications at FedEx Europe, employee engagement is one of the major drivers of the company’s new three-year deal to sponsor football’s UEFA Europa League.

With a disparate workforce of 15,000 parcel deliverers and sorters throughout Europe, she says the continent’s most popular sport provides a focus to engage employees by allowing their children to become match day mascots and enjoy other privileges.

Employee engagement is changing, however. Arnold says companies have in the past focused on employee opinion surveys and employee engagement scores ‘with it not being uncommon for large multinationals to make increasing their employee engagement score one of their top three to five strategic ambitions in a particular year’. Now, he says the emphasis is less on increasing such scores or asking employees to complete vast surveys.

‘Organisations are starting to see these surveys as a management tool, with the insight coming out much more designed to help managers understand what it is they need to do to engage their teams,’ he says. ‘Employee engagement has gone from being a very public key performance indicator to being about management insight.’

Smythe would rather employee surveys disappeared altogether. ‘I think there’s a danger that employee engagement will be a fad,’ he muses.

‘The worst crime is just relabeling internal communications as employee engagement but not doing much very differently. Then there are the companies who think it’s all about just doing endless employee surveys. I would ban all employee surveys: ban the excuse that allows companies to say they’ve done them and that’s all they need to do.

‘Employee engagement also can’t just be something that’s done by employee engagement departments. The function is simply there to get the ball rolling and do some of the organisation and coaching. It’s the leaders at every level that actually have to do it. It’s part of how people are leading and managing every day.’

Esse is worried too. ‘Employee engagement is one of those phrases that gets bandied about,’ she says. ‘I think there’s a danger that it just becomes part of corporate jargon and one of those management phrases that doesn’t mean anything.

‘Look what’s happened to the phrase ‘brand experience’. The focus should be on what happens if your employees aren’t engaged. What makes people tick is feeling valued at work, having a voice, being involved in the conversations. Generations X and Y and millennial employees expect that and, if they don’t get it, they will leave.’

Duncan, meanwhile, is concerned that employee engagement will become too process-driven. ‘Employee engagement isn’t in itself a process,’ he warns. ‘It’s not a thing that you do per se. It’s more the case that engaged employees are the outcome that an organisation receives when it does lots and lots of other things really, really well.

‘Some of those are things that communications departments have real influence over. For example, the clarity with which they express the strategy and values of the organisation really helps engage people.

‘But there are many other things as well that lead to that outcome. It’s really about getting together a coalition of the willing in an organisation.’

Communicators see further changes in how corporate communications departments approach employee engagement over the next decade.

‘Communication, alongside engagement, is not the role of just one team,’ says Miller. ‘I expect conversations about engagement to increase, and hope that the level of attention and measurement matches up, so you not only know what isn’t working, but have a clear understanding why.

‘You need to constantly listen to and seek feedback from employees. A-once-a year engagement exercise is less than ideal, yet I see it constantly inside organisations.

‘Engagement has got to be real and you need to act authentically. Simply focusing on engagement to be ‘seen to do it’ is obvious and feels hollow.’

Isabel Collins, founder of consultancy Belonging Space, sees the emphasis moving to culture, values and a sense of belonging. ‘Belonging is the 21st Century challenge and the reason that culture can make or break a business,’ she says. ‘A lot of the corporate challenges that come up are very much related to what people feel they belong to. Culture informs decision-making at an intuitive level. People make decisions in certain ways because it’s how they do things.

‘It’s a problem with integrating mergers and acquisitions and also with silos within organisations. Humans identify with small groups that appear to be similar to us but what we struggle with doing is belonging to several tribes at one time. 21st Century life and business requires us to do that.’

What there’s consensus about is that employee engagement is far from easy.

‘It’s hard,’ maintains Smythe. ‘It’s the well-governed inclusion of the right people in decision-making at every level. The more that you do it, it starts to be in the lifeblood of the business. The challenge is about how organisations lead and manage. The employee engagement bit is almost an irrelevance.

‘It started off as a set of rules but actually it’s not. It’s a way of thinking, a way of leading, a way of sharing power and seeing the whole use of power in a very different way.'