Thursday, 4 December 2014

Santa, can you help employee engagement?

Dear Santa,

My kids have been crafting their Christmas lists for weeks so I thought I’d send you mine too. It’s just a handful of things I’d love to change about the profession I’m part of. Can you help us achieve the following?
1.     Stop trying to define what we do – unless your elves can create a universally-accepted explanation, in which case please feel free to drop it down the chimney. Currently, the time we spend discussing what we do hinders us from getting on and doing it.

2.     Focus increasingly on business need – we’re getting better at this, but we must ensure everything we plan and do is rooted in – not just related to – business goals. We’ve got to articulate a clear, strong and measurable link at all times.

3.     We end talk of ‘adding value’ – I hate the phrase. It may be a personal thing, but I can’t believe people will be clamouring to keep it. Let’s just show how we plan to make a difference and get on with doing it.

4.     We accept surveys for what they are – they have a role: they’re not perfect, but let’s recognise that, take what we need from them and move on. 

5.      We give managers more attention – we know managers need more support to build communication skills and confidence. We’ve talked about it a lot, but not done enough about it. Let’s work with colleagues in areas like HR to make this a priority in 2015.

6.     We tame technology – new tools and platforms offer us major opportunities to improve the way we engage with employees, but we’re in danger of being dazzled by them. Let’s be clear on the engagement needs in our different organisations and find the right tool(s) to meet them (rather than approaching things the other way round).

7.     We get better at measurement – yes, I know I asked for this last year, but we need to go even further in the next twelve months. We need to be clearer, more consistent and more sophisticated in the way we evaluate progress, identify issues and demonstrate the difference we deliver.  
I could go on, but you’re a busy man (and having seen what my kids have written, I doubt you’ll have time to consider the rest of us). Any help with these areas would really benefit me, my colleagues and the organisations we work in or with. And I won’t have to hassle the Easter Bunny in a few months’ time.

Thanks in advance

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Six steps to engaging managers

One of my regular topics in recent months has been the way in which we engage and equip our managers to communicate with people in their teams. We know (and have known for years) that we don’t prepare them as well as we could, yet there still seems little consensus on how to improve this. So I‘d like to offer some suggestions on steps that any organisation can take to make progress.

1.      Define what you need – different organisations have different priorities. Some need to work on skills for sharing information, whilst others need to spend more time on how to build dialogue. Most need a focus on both areas to some degree, addressing the points and issues most pertinent to them. So don’t just pick an off-the-shelf development package for managers and hope it will fit: identify the key issues for your organisation, and the people with in it, before sourcing or designing a solution.  

2.      Identify people (and potential) – once you have articulated what you need, consider whom you might need it from: not only current managers, but also those with the potential to progress. The earlier you can identify and start to prepare these people, the more you can help them evolve into the type of managers you need.  

3.      Target employee ‘touchpoints’ – identify the various ways in which you currently connect (or could connect) with the people you have identified. Consider how you can use these touchpoints to convey and reinforce key messages about the behaviours you want to see. Don’t rely on training alone: seek and harness all the other channels and tools you have available.  

4.      Develop your training – training always plays an important part, but don’t rely on generic materials or exercises: they will seem a world away from day-to-day experience for your people. Root your training in familiar scenarios, with specific examples relevant to your organisation’s operations and ways of working. You are far more likely to gain the traction and inspire the behaviour change you need if participants don’t have to work to grasp the relevance.  

5.      Engage managers as people – throughout this process, help your people understand what’s in it for them: not just as company managers, but also as individuals. Help them see how more effective communication could aid their own enjoyment of, and well-being at, work. And give them the same support you would for anyone involved in change: the chance to ask questions, discuss issues and raise concerns. Don’t just give them materials or a training session and expect them to immediately deliver.

6.      Hard-wire behaviours – finally, make sure desired behaviours are reflected in objective-setting, recognition and performance management processes.
These are just a handful of steps to help any organisation engage and equip current and prospective managers with skills that they and the organisation will need. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

What does Sir Bob Geldof know about employee engagement?

One of the highlights of Microsoft’s ‘Future Decoded’ event this week was a presentation from Sir Bob Geldof.

He was discussing the education of future generations. And he suggested that we are, as a society, way behind where we need to be: the world has changed around us, but we are still living and teaching in the 20th century. The reason, he believes, is that we are still grappling with the implications of a tidal wave of technological change. We have not been able to answer a fundamental question:
What does it mean when we are all connected to each other, all of the time?

It was a regular refrain during his talk. What does this ability to connect, the advent of ‘always on’ systems and devices, mean for the way we live and interact with each other? How is it re-shaping the nature of our conversations and relationships? And how should we change the way we prepare young people for society in response?
This fundamental question has resonance in the workplace too.

What does it mean when we are all connected to each other, all of the time?
Within our organisations, we’re introducing an increasing array of tools and mechanisms that ensure we are connected to our companies and to each other, any time, any place. In this digital workplace, we’re always seeking more methods for unlocking greater connectivity, more information sharing and increasing collaboration.

There are opportunities. But there are also implications. Do we always think these through?

Do we have a clear sight of how such tools are going to fit within – or help to reshape – the way we work? Are we effectively preparing our current employees (as well as new recruits) to make use of them? Are we engaging people on cultural usage as well as technical requirements? Are we regularly sharing and celebrating success stories as we see them? Are we doing enough to identify and address emerging issues?
If we can’t answer in the affirmative, I’d suggest we haven’t really grasped what these tools mean (or may mean) for the way we work and for the people we work with. We’re in danger of ushering in a new technological framework that is divorced from, rather than resonant with, corporate culture (even if the plan is to catalyse change in that culture).  

I sound this only as a note of caution. Technology is giving us many, many opportunities to enhance the way we work and engage with each other. But there are risks we need to manage, and we should think about Sir Bob’s fundamental question as we plan the road ahead.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Five steps to improve employee surveys

One of the reasons employee surveys have been getting a kicking recently (just check out other commentary for evidence) is a lingering perception that organisations won’t act on them. This is unfair – I don’t think anyone spends money on such surveys with the aim of ignoring them – but employers could get far more from them by involving their people in the process. Rather than treating them purely as passive recipients of a questionnaire, organisations should seek ideas and feedback from employees to inspire enthusiasm and advocacy for the exercise. I offer the following suggestions of steps to success.

1.      Involve employees in design – every organisation will have core questions that are repeated every time a survey is run. But don’t stick purely to these questions if they ignore current, pressing issues on which employees want a say. Explore whether there are other areas that you need to cover. Involve an employee panel if you have one, or regular focus groups if you run them. Take soundings from managers or employee representatives. It might identify other issues on which employee views would be valuable and on which questions would inspire them to take part.  

2.     Involve employees in communication – some organisations still follow a ‘hit and hope’ approach to survey implementation, sending out questionnaires supported by generic communication materials. But we’d never do this in any other campaign: we know we need diverse methods to connect and communicate with different employee groups, who prefer to engage with the company in different ways. So ask people in different parts of the organisation how you can best communicate with them and their colleagues regarding the survey. Then shape your communication plan and the tactics involved accordingly.
3.     Involve employees as champions – in many other initiatives, it is accepted good practice to seek employee ‘champions’ who can spread the word to colleagues. Yet it’s comparatively rare in connection with employee surveys, despite the benefits it could bring. Why not identify ’influencers’ for your different employee groups and connect with them to explain the aims of the survey. Emphasise that employee feedback can help shape the company, and that the survey is not being done for ‘show’. Ask them to encourage colleagues to take part, because the more voices you hear, the more compelling the evidence will be.

4.     Involve employees in analysis – not in the data crunching itself, but in interpretation of what the numbers really tell you about your organisation. It’s easy to draw conclusions from the centre, or based on a provider’s comparison with other companies, but discussing hypotheses and testing interpretations with employees can be a powerful way of rooting interpretation in the specific circumstances and culture of your particular company.

5.    Involve employees in action planning – finally, keep involving employees as you consider how to address the themes raised by your survey. After all, they have raised the issues: let them help shape the solutions. Creating working parties for different parts of the business, with a cross-section of employees in each, is a good way of spreading ownership of the process and inspiring collective commitment to action.

These are simple steps that would help to establish surveys as an effective part of continuous improvement for everyone in the company, not “yet another initiative” from the centre. As with so many things in the world of engagement, involving employees holds the key.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Defusing the ticking time bomb of corporate values

We’ve all seen plenty of commentary regarding changing workforce demographics and the impact on workplace dynamics. But these developments have even deeper significance for an organisation’s values, which could spark conflict rather than cohesion if they do not keep pace.

Researchers are telling us that generational demarcations within the workplace are now more pronounced than ever. Many organisations have several generations within the same workforce, from ‘baby boomers’ to so-called ‘millennials’, each of whom have different expectations, priorities and desired working practices. Blending such groups into a cohesive team is a major challenge for organisations of many types and sizes.
Yet there has been little discussion of the impact these developments might have on the core values that an organisation espouses.

Values can be powerful for any employer. I am not talking about synthetic sets of words or bullet points on websites or in corporate Receptions, but about clear and compelling summaries of the beliefs that guide an organisation and its people. When these are drawn from within, and developed into practical behaviours that people engage with and live by, they become strong and self-policing tools. But what happens when a workforce changes so much that current values seem archaic?
That is a real risk emerging from the shifts we are seeing. Distilling common values has never been an easy task, but the issue – and its importance – are now even more acute. Different generations sharing the same workplace may believe and feel contrasting things about their company. They may have very different perceptions of what values are or should be, and respond to them in different ways. The upshot is that a set of values that was articulated, say, ten years ago may no longer be fit for purpose. It may have little meaning to people that make up an increasing proportion of the workforce (particularly if those people have been recruited on technical prowess or potential alone). And so those values become an irrelevance to some, or even a trigger for clashes with other employees, rather than the powerful and unifying force they could and should be.

Organisations have to recognise and respond to this risk. The simplest way of doing so is to review the current values, and their associated behaviours, by gaining input from colleagues across the demographic spectrum. Ask them what they think and feel about the company. How they would articulate the beliefs that guide the way it does business. What resonates with them and what seems unrealistic.

Involve employees in a review; it’s good practice from time-to-time in any event, but it is particularly important now.  It could help renew and revitalise the role that values play for a changing workforce, rather than leaving them to become a spark for cultural conflict.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Helping the ‘squeezed middle’ support social

In a post last week, I highlighted the lack of focus on managers in discussions around enterprise social networks (ESNs). I’d like to follow that post by offering some thoughts on how organisations can address the issue.

Managers form the ‘squeezed middle’ in any organisation. They need to deal with twin – and potentially conflicting – pressures: expectations from leaders that they will deliver business plans in practice and expectations from employees that, whatever the corporate demands, their manager will look after their particular needs and interests. It is, to put it mildly, a tough gig.
But it’s a pivotal one, particularly when an organisation is seeking to introduce new ways of working. And this is, in many cases, exactly what the advent of an ESN is intended to achieve. The aims usually include breaking down silos and inspiring collaborating outside traditional role descriptions. This carries major implications for managers who, in many structures and cultures, have hitherto focused on a confined team, with defined roles and related objectives/performance management processes. Suddenly, employees are being encouraged to look beyond their traditional team(s), to contribute their time and expertise to questions and challenges faced by people in different parts of the company, whom they may never meet nor directly work with. If such collaboration is to become part of day-to-day life, managers need to understand and encourage it, embracing the opportunities rather than fighting against the implications. Yet we may not be doing all we can to engage and equip them for this change.  

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest some simple steps that any organisation can take to better prepare their managers for an ESN:
1.    Engage them – the first step must be to engage managers as a group in themselves. This isn’t an issue associated solely with an ESN, because greater recognition of the need to communicate directly with managers as a discrete group would enhance engagement in many contexts. But in this case, it’s important to help them understand the aims, benefits and implications of an ESN so they can engage with and process what it would mean for themselves and their team(s). This isn’t just about sharing information, it’s also about  seeking their questions, identifying and addressing their concerns, and identifying what additional support (if any) they may need to play their part. This is vital groundwork if you want new ways of working to take root within day-to-day business.

2.     Involve them – as you develop a tool to help spark new ways of working, involve managers to help you identify and address potential issues (for example, desired functionality, or implications for management systems beyond the new tool). Taking some simple and structured soundings at key points in the process could elicit valuable insights that you can use to develop or tailor the changes you’re intending to introduce.

3.    Train them – the way we train (or don’t train) managers has been an issue for years. We all know it (and it’s worth hearing the words on this topic from Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD, in his recent interview with Engage for Success). Yet we still promote many people based on their technical prowess without giving them a grounding in the communication or engagement skills they’ll need to succeed.  And the introduction of an ESN only exacerbates that need.  Every organisation should be considering what training and support managers will need to aid the introduction and embedding of the tool and its associated ways of working.

4.     Engage with them (again) – you’ve got to keep connecting and communicating with managers to help them play their part. Continue to share information on progress. Invite and respond to further questions or concerns. Celebrate what the new tool and associated ways of working have helped to achieve. This can help you create an informed and engaged group that forms the bedrock for a stronger and more collaborative community across the organisation as a whole

5.     Help them  – the most enthusiastic managers will struggle if their organisation’s systems don’t align with the aims of an ESN. For example, if you are expecting people to collaborate across traditional team boundaries, you have to recognise that desired company behaviours and performance management processes should reflect this. In essence, such systems must show managers they should encourage rather than hold back such activity, and to participate in it themselves.
6.       Show them – last but not least, managers need to see role models, particularly leaders who eagerly embrace and participate in the ESN and associated ways of working. If all the other stars are aligned, but leaders suggest indifference, the changes you are seeking may still simply impact on the surface of corporate culture, rather than taking root within it.
I am sure there are many others, and would love to hear your views or suggestions. But these steps are crucial to helping to engage and equip managers to play their part. Without sufficient focus on them, an organisation only undermines the investment it makes in any new tool and associated ways of working.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Under new management: why enterprise social networks require a different approach

With all the fervour over the power and potential of enterprise social networks (ESNs) to improve the way we work and engage with each other, one important issue has been given less attention. What is the impact on managers?

As we empower people more and more to connect with peers in different parts of the organisation, enabling them to develop ideas and resolve issues together, we’re breaking down all kinds of silos but we’re also unpicking more traditional modes of management. Stowe Boyd talks about ‘leanership’: his vision of a situation in which teams organise and manage themselves, with everyone demonstrating elements of leadership on a day-to-day basis. Whilst that might seem a long way off for many organisations, the direction of travel is clear and we should be considering the implications for the way we prepare and support managers to play a changing role.
The issue is particularly acute because we haven’t caught up with the needs of today, let alone tomorrow. The ever-growing canon of literature and commentary regarding employee engagement highlights just how important a more involving and empowering approach to management is within organisations. We know that people will give more if they feel part of their team and their organisation, that they have a voice in it, that they are not just recipients of instructions. Yet survey after survey bemoans the state of our management skills, suggesting we are not equipping or supporting managers to fulfil this role.  And now we want managers to change even more?

Make no mistake about it, if we’re going to make the most of ESNs, we need managers at all levels to grasp and help catalyse change. We need them to re-think what constitutes day-to-day work for their people. We need them to liberate employees to connect and communicate with others in very different areas. We need them to reshape the way they organise people and to nurture behaviours that bust silos for the greater good.  And we will need them to consider implications for the way they evaluate and recognise individual contribution and performance.

This is a big change for managers – and for the organisation as a whole. Leaders will set the tone, and colleagues in Communications or IT will introduce the tools, but managers will hold the key to whether ESNs really change the way companies work or simply impact on the surface of corporate culture. Yet in my view there has not been nearly enough discussion or emphasis on how we can engage and equip them to play their part.

A theme I shall return to in future posts!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Avoiding ‘accidental disengagement’

There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about employee disengagement, isn’t there? If I’ve seen that stat from Gallup once I have seen it a thousand times (you know, the one saying c.70% of the workforce is disengaged). But I take issue with some of the commentary around it. Yes, sometimes there will be major structural and/or cultural issues to address. But there are also smaller things that leaders and managers do, without even realising it, that can have a major impact on the people around them. Here are some tips for avoiding ‘accidental disengagement’.

·       Consider communication style sharing information is a starting point. Sharing relevant and timely information is even better. But is the style you are using working for your people? Have you explored whether it is connecting with them and helping them process and respond to the information? If not, you might have the best of intentions, but your execution may be letting you down.     

·       Ask questions – some people avoid asking questions for fear of the answers, but others may be trying to be considerate. For example, they might want to keep time employees spend in a briefing to a minimum. But asking questions shows a willingness to seek and hear opinions, to check understanding and/or to discuss issues. Failing to do so suggests the relationship is one-way traffic.

·       Balance tools – there is an ever-growing array of new tools and products to aid communication and collaboration. But whilst you may want to give employees the latest tools to help engage and equip them, don’t lose sight of those who might prefer existing methods or mechanisms. What is empowering for some can be disengaging for others, so getting the right balance is key.

·       Check support – assuming someone has what they need to deliver what’s expected of them – even if, on the face of it, everything seems all OK – can cause frustration and disengagement, meaning that neither you nor the people you are managing get what they need. You might be giving people space when what they want is more support.

·       Discuss training – there are still many occasions on which leaders appoint managers based purely on their technical competence. This can have an unintended consequence if the new manager lacks grounding in communication skills, and his or her behaviour then undermines rather than strengthens team engagement. Both organisations and individuals should recognise the risk and discuss any support that’s needed.

·       Say thank you – research shows just how powerful a simple “thank you” can be. Recognising the time and effort people put into their work can be motivating. Failing to do so has the opposite effect.  
This is just a handful of steps. I am sure there are many more…

Friday, 12 September 2014

Avoid engagement akin to a house built on sand

The Global Benefits Attitudes Survey from Towers Watson puts a spotlight on the link between stress and engagement – but risks sending us the wrong way for potential solutions.

We all know that high levels of stress can be destructive and I’m not sure this survey offers any revelations when suggesting it affects engagement.  Both absenteeism and presenteeism are known phenomena in this context and we have seen the effects explored in many studies in the past.
But what do we do about it? Rebekah Haymes from Towers Watson suggests employers could educate staff on “the benefits of more sleep, physical activity, good nutrition and work-life balance”.

Really? Surely the high levels of stress explored in the survey can lead to lack of sleep and a poor work-life balance in the first place. I’d be pretty peeved if the manager whose excessive demands were placing me under massive pressure and ripping the heart out of my home life started telling me I should go to bed early. 
Ms Haymes is on firmer ground when she hints that effective communication and feedback structures have an important role to play. Reviewing and strengthening processes for sharing information and building dialogue can help to shape the type of open, collaborative culture that enhances engagement and helps reduce stress.

Employers need to consider a range of factors here. These include the way leaders set out and involve people in where the organisation is going (and why). How information on company plans and progress is shared. How teams and individuals are prepared for (and supported in) their roles. How managers seek and respond to questions, ideas and concerns.
Assessing such areas – and taking action where required – can help to create a more involving, engaging and productive culture for employees and leaders alike. It’s not a quick fix, nor a simple solution. Anyone with experience of trying to nurture cultural change will tell you that. But it’s far more likely to have a successful (and sustainable) impact for an organisation - and the people within it – than seeking to educate stressed employees on sleep patterns. Such initiatives may have their place, but only when more fundamental issues have been addressed. In any other context, they will be like a house built on sand.  

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

I don't want no satisfaction

Holidays meant I missed this little gem exploring factors informing adaptability to change.

It summarises research suggesting that highly satisfied employees don’t always advocate change. Which seems to me fairly obvious: satisfaction inevitably equates to contentment with the status quo. And that hardly breeds enthusiasm and energy for change.
To me, it’s another reason why exploring employee satisfaction is a complete red herring (don’t even get me started on ‘happiness’). Far better to focus on nurturing a culture that inspires and supports people to keep growing and challenging. To go beyond what’s needed. To look for ways of changing how things are done.

Such spirit doesn’t come from being satisfied, it springs from being dissatisfied – or at least being unwilling to accept that the way things are is the way they should always be. That’s what we need to be inspiring within our organisations, along with the systems and tools that help people turn such restless energy into efforts and activities that align with organisational goals.
Help employees connect with the company mission, strategy and values. Give them clarity on roles and expectations. Keep sharing information and discussing their questions and concerns. And give them the opportunity and autonomy to shape the world they work in.

There’s a lot covered by those 40 words. And no doubt much more besides them. But nurturing a culture along those lines is far more conducive to growth, and the change that’s necessary to spark it, than focusing on satisfaction with the status quo.  

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Is technology really that new?

Amid the usual torrent of articles trumpeting some new technology within the workplace, a couple of surveys caught my eye. The first, from PwC and covered by HR Magazine, says more than half of employees believe technology will significantly change the world of work in the next 5-10 years. The second, from Hay, highlights technological convergence as one of the megatrends shaping the future of employee engagement.

Once I had got past the use of the word ‘megatrend’ by Hay (ugh!), I was bowled over by the complete lack of news here. Technology changing the way we work? And offering new opportunities for engagement? Surely not?!
It does not take Sherlock Holmes to see that technology has been re-shaping things for many years. The way we work, the hours we keep, the locations we work from have all become much more varied as a result. The tools we use to engage employees now are, in some cases, very different to those used five or ten years ago. And those tools will evolve again in the next five-ten years. That’s life.

Organisations have coped with this to date, responding to trends (note to Hay: not ‘megatrends’) and harnessing – or at least recognising – how evolving technology can help.  Some cope better than others, and some use technology more effectively than others. All will continue to be courted by new tools purporting to be the answer to their engagement dreams (or nightmares) in the years ahead.
But we must remember the purpose such tools exist to serve. Because however dazzling the range of current options, and the new opportunities that will arise, the principles of engagement remain the same. Every organisation must analyse the role engagement should play within business goals, and then develop a framework to inspire, challenge and support diverse employees to play their part. New technology will have a role. But the framework should harness such tools, rather than being built around them.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Survey seems to be the hardest word

The knives are out for employee engagement surveys. Detractors are speaking out ever-more strongly, criticising the value such surveys deliver and attacking the cottage industry that has sprung up around them. I have been at events where such objections have been strident and impassioned. But are they really fair?

Let me get this straight, I am no apologist for employee engagement surveys. I do think they can be overly complex and, in my view, too many research houses roll out a set methodology to everyone, rather than identifying and pursuing the type of research that best suits a particular organisation and its goals.
But I feel they may be getting a raw deal here.

Surely, the fact that we have research dedicated to employee engagement is a step forward. We now have employers who recognise the importance of the topic, see the difference that it can make to their organisations and want to understand what they can do better. In the days when employee engagement or internal communication were dismissed as distractions from core business, that was never the case. But now, we have research exploring the environment from many different angles, rather than – at most – a few vague questions in a much broader survey.
The large research houses have clearly invested in developing robust methodologies, as is their wont, having seen a commercial opportunity to extend their research expertise into this area. You can’t blame them for that. As highlighted above, I do have concerns over ‘one size fits all’ methodologies, but at least there is now a ready-made range of options for those organisations who want to take action. And I know some have derived useful insights from them.

Of more immediate concern, I think, are the organisations who go ahead and conduct research but then do nothing with it. You know the situation: an organisation launches a survey – with or without a research partner – and tells people it’s a chance to ‘have your say’. People give their time and views – but nothing ever happens. At the very least, as someone who takes part in research, you expect some sort of acknowledgement and feedback, if only to know why certain suggestions won’t be followed up. You’re probably hoping for change in some areas. Instead, you hear nothing as the research findings get filed in the proverbial drawer and left to gather dust.
There may be many reasons behind this this lack of action. Insights might be complex. Actions might be unclear. Resources might be tight. But all of these can be overcome.

Analyse the findings in more depth to crystallise the most powerful insights. Share findings for functions or departments with the leaders there, and get them to create action plans with their people. Identify volunteers to help you make progress on ‘quick wins’. There are many different ways of using the research itself as a catalyst for action, rather than it becoming a roadblock to progress.

In these situations, research really is killing engagement rather than helping it. That’s why, to me, lack of action is the most immediate issue to address. If research is more routinely seen as a launch pad for progress, rather than a self-contained exercise, we’ll see surveys as a practical tool to improve engagement and value them more highly as a result. If research is not approached in this context, it can be more destructive to engagement than not doing anything at all.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The flexibility challenge

The increasing popularity of flexible working across Great Britain has been highlighted this week in a report from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC).  The study – Flex appeal: Why freelancers, contractors and agency workers choose to work this way – says that more than one in three people has worked as a contractor, freelancer or agency worker at some point, and 41% of people are considering working that way in the future.

Increasing flexibility can offer benefits to people on both sides of the working equation. It can help employers introduce more fluidity to their staffing plans as they seek to get the right people, in the right places, at the right time – and can increase their ability to change plans rapidly where needed. It can also give workers, many of whom are now meshing rather than balancing work and home lives, the chance to exercise more control over their short- and long-term assignments.  There is a potential ‘win win’ for everyone involved.
From an employer’s point of view, however, this does bring its challenges.  After all, workers might want flexibility – but customers want cohesion. They neither know nor care whether the people they deal with are temps or ‘lifers’. They just want consistent, top-quality service and will judge the company – and decide the future of their custom – on their experience. So it’s essential that all the workers concerned are engaged and equipped to deliver brand values day in, day out.

The growing array of employment arrangements, patterns and/or locations makes this more difficult. Organisations must connect and communicate with an ever-broader range of people to ensure they understand and can deliver the behaviour needed from them. And this means a more sophisticated approach to engagement may be required: from greater understanding of each group to tailored programmes of activity that inspire spark and sustain the response desired from them. 
As ever, this is not just about sharing information, but also about building dialogue; whether someone is with you for a week or 20+ years, they need the same opportunities to ask questions or raise concerns. They may even bring fresh ideas that long-standing employees would never have thought of.
Flexibility in, cohesion out. It’s a process of increasing importance to employers of all types and sizes. And a more sophisticated approach to engagement holds the key.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Engaging and equipping line managers

Sir Brendan Barber has written an interesting article on the increasing demands being placed on line managers in the workplace. He focuses on how to help them deal with conflict, but his argument has wider ramifications for the way organisations engage and equip managers to play the difficult role expected of them.

Sir Brendan’s contention is that the field of employment relations now centres on individual as opposed to collective rights, and that this places considerable pressure on line managers to focus more closely on the needs, issues and concerns of each team member. This adds to stress and workloads, and leads some managers to feel over-burdened and under-supported. In the face of falling line manager confidence, Sir Brendan believes it might be time to “call in the cavalry”.
You could raise similar concerns over the role managers play within employee engagement. Put simply, they are expected to be all things to all people. Leaders look to them to translate global strategy into local action, and hold them accountable for results. Front-line employees, meanwhile, expect their managers to be their inspiration, support and confidant, empathising with them rather than the company.  Line managers are therefore in a difficult yet pivotal position: they face contrasting (and sometimes competing) demands from employer and employee yet are expected to keep everyone united and pulling in the same direction.

But they are rarely given enough (if any) information and support to prepare them for this role.
As many commentators have observed, organisations don’t spend enough time training and equipping line managers to fulfil their challenging roles. We still tend to promote people based on technical excellence and expect them to immediately adjust to the different (and increasing) demands that come with a management position. In such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that we see a fall in confidence and a drop in performance.

At the very least, prospective line managers must be trained in the basics of employee engagement before they take up their new role. After all, the way they inspire, challenge and support their new team(s) to perform will be one of the main differentiators from their previous, non-managerial position. From the principles of effective engagement to the skills needed to achieve its benefits in practice, such training can be focused, intense and very practical. But it is essential to give managers at least some guidance and initial experience as they take on their crucial new role. And if Sir Brendan’s call to action on workplace is heeded, this should form one part of a wider overhaul of management training and support...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

It's not just about Generation Y...

I can’t help thinking that the recent LBS/Deloitte study on Gen Y is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

The study “reveals” that 80% of those being classified under the Gen Y banner don’t intend to stay with any one company for more than five years. The report’s authors go on to suggest that employers must re-orientate their ‘employer value proposition’ (got to love that phrase…) and component practices to appeal more to the priorities of this particular group.

Is any of this really news? There has been plenty of research into Gen Y in recent years, and extensive debate over how to inspire, motivate and challenge these employees to play their part. There has been general acknowledgement that employers need to engage Gen Y in different ways. So it’s a fairly well-worn path that LBS and Deloitte have sought to follow, without having an awful lot new to say about the situation or the opportunities/imperatives involved.
I think the bigger question, on which it really would be interesting to have more in-depth research, is how employers can best balance the requirements of different demographic groups such as Gen Y and ‘baby boomers’ to forge a well-oiled, well-integrated workforce. In my view, there’s not enough analysis or insight on this, but it’s an issue that is only going to increase in importance as the balance between different groups within the workplace (however loosely they are defined) continues to shift. 

Creating a single employment proposition that can turn its face and to, and remain credible for, each group is going to be increasingly difficult, perhaps stretching the whole idea to breaking point. Instead, I can see employers articulating an increasing number of audience-specific employment offers, far more than they do today. We may be moving into an era when the employer ‘proposition’ becomes the employer ‘framework’, with a shift from cohesion (inherent in the current EVP concept) to co-ordination.

That’s the area in which employers of all types could benefit from more guidance and research. Focusing on Gen Y alone only tells part of the story. There’s a bigger issue on the road ahead.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Trust matters

The CIPD’s Employee Outlook report, published this week in association with Halogen, suggests that employee trust in senior managers has fallen to a two-year low. It’s the latest in a long line of such studies, stretching over many years, highlighting an erosion of trust that can undermine performance.  

The key factor in this research is that employees do not feel involved in important decisions. Without an opportunity to give input to the organisation they work for, employee confidence and trust fades away. Suspicion about instructions from ‘on high’ pervades.  

Hardly surprising, is it? We all feel more confident in, and committed to, an organisation if we feel we have some involvement in it, that our views and opinions matter. If we’re expected simply to do what we’re told, with no chance to explore or make suggestions, the whole relationship is very transactional. There’s no warmth, little engagement and no chance for ideas from the front-line. And if employees feel they are simply being ‘done to’, why should they give their best? Or bring energy, enthusiasm and discretionary effort to support an employer that sees them simply as a recipient for instruction?
Given this is hardly rocket science, it’s frustrating to see the same type of findings come up again and again. Senior managers in all industries have to grasp the benefits that a more engaging culture can deliver and start implementing simple systems to nurture stronger relationships with their people. There are many simple, practical ways to spark and sustain dialogue with employees, within teams and beyond, to help the organisation work more effectively. After all, you can hardly forge trust in an environment when communication is wholly one-way.  Unless leaders finally respond, they’ll simply see more trust drain from their organisations and leave vast vats of employee potential left untapped.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Missing people in M&A

There’s a slightly depressing story in Human Resources this week suggesting that people problems in mergers and acquisitions are on the rise. In a thawing economic environment, where such deals are bound to increase, that’s got to be a concern.

But the most depressing thing is that we have heard similar things before. Many times.  

There is plenty of literature, going back many years, on the importance of engaging and supporting people involved in a merger or acquisition (on either side). Focusing too much on meshing facilities or balance sheets, and not enough on fashioning an effective team, means any new entity becomes rather less than the sum of its previous parts. The value that the change is expected to deliver proves rather illusory as previous projections become akin to a house built on sand.
There are many people issues involved in any such change and highlighted in the Mercer report that lies behind this news story, but to my mind none is more important than employee engagement. It is simply vital to develop and implement a clear, comprehensive and flexible engagement programme to inform and involve diverse employees in the progress of change. This much is intuitive. So why doesn’t it always happen?

There is no simple answer, but I would highlight two, contrasting situations that I have seen over the years:
·         in the first, employee engagement is simply not seen as important enough in the grand scheme of things, and the team involved in designing and delivering change only looks to colleagues for support when they have, to all intents and purposes, already developed the approach themselves. Those nominally responsible for employee engagement or internal communication are then handed something of a ‘hospital pass’ as they seek to weave in some core principles and good practice – but they are already fighting a losing battle

·         in the second, internal communicators are involved – much earlier on – but are so keen to make things happen, or feel the need for action is so great, that they essentially escape the bounds of the change programme they are supporting. This can lead to a rush of unco-ordinated communications, at different times, with confusing messaging and inconsistent dialogue. A recipe for disaster, through which communication is throwing up more obstacles rather than smoothing the way.
These scenarios may look extreme, but I’d suggest both are fairly common. And they both demonstrate a poor grasp of the role and importance of employee engagement during change.

To me, the way to resolve is this is to establish engagement as a core business priority from the early stages of planning for change, and to ensure that the resultant programmes always maintain an umbilical link with the project they are there to support. This is vital in any scenario, let one in which the stakes are as big as they are for a merger or acquisition. As the pace of such deals picks up, I hope it’s something we’ll see more of in practice.