Employee engagement priorities for uncertain times

A new year usually brings with it a sense of optimism - at least for a short while. So how are you feeling about 2017? I don’t think I’m the only one wondering just what is coming next.

So much happened last year it feels like we are waiting with bated breath and, not the least, for the arrival of a new resident in the White House. What’s more, having taken the seismic decision to leave the EU in June, the ‘Brexit plan’ still seems some way off. Questions are being asked of our leaders at the highest level. All of which creates uncertain times - something we are getting used to, but at a price. 

Earnings growth? Don’t hold your breath

While the political map changes, the initial impact on the markets has been negligible - but that doesn’t mean the hard working population hasn’t had a rough time of it. In November the prospects for wages were described by Paul Johnson, Head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies as “dreadful’. By 2021 wages in the UK will still be lower than they were in 2008. That’s the longest period without earnings growth since the Second World War. 

While there will always be in-demand skill sets and roles that still attract big money, life for many people in the UK workforce will fall into the Government’s ‘JAM’ category - those ‘just about managing’. These are the people on the production line, in the call centre, who we need to remain committed and productive - despite the challenges they might face.

CBI - employee engagement the ‘top priority’

So, in this climate it’s no surprise to see that employee engagement is the top priority of UK employers in 2017. In December, the CBI Employment Trends Survey was published, having questioned 353 UK companies and organisations of all sizes.

Asked for their biggest workforce priorities for 2017, 48% chose 'achieving and maintaining high levels of employee engagement', followed by 41% citing 'retaining talent' and 37% saying 'improving leadership skills’.

When the CBI asked businesses for their thoughts on the benefits of high levels of employee engagement, nearly three quarters of respondents (73%) saw improvements in productivity and performance as one of the main benefits - and over half (57%) referred to increased customer and client satisfaction.

In my experience they’ve neatly summarised the business case for investing in employee engagement initiatives. But that’s the ‘why’ to do it - the ‘what’ to do isn’t quite so clear. So here are some of my personal employee engagement priorities for these uncertain times.

We need strong and visible leaders more than ever

With Brexit looming many organisations are facing huge and as yet unknown change. For some it will mean changing business markets, for others even relocation to other countries. We already know that major London based financial institutions are looking at moves to Paris and Berlin. 

At times like this, strong leadership, trust and transparency are the pillars of good employee engagement practice. Good leaders do just that - they are present - they don’t hideaway. Straight communication builds trust - corporate spin doesn’t. And don’t forget your customers are wondering what is coming next too. If leaders communicate honestly with their people - they’ll then do the same with your customers.

The line manager and employee relationship needs investment

It’s not only good leadership that will be put under pressure. There’s the well known statement “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” You may have heard it, and for good reason. Despite their original buy-in to a business, it is the strength (or not) of the relationship with the direct manager that usually holds the retention key. 

Given the uncertain economic forecast and change, it will take more than pay and benefits to keep good people. The line manager and employee relationship will be tested - but will be central to good engagement. The line manager will have a bigger part to play in building empathy, and being able to motivate and retain. That’s why investment in developing managers to become better at the people skills required will be key.

Your culture must live up to expectations

Good leaders and line managers, trust, transparency and a positive employee experience - they all contribute towards to the culture of the organisation. 

We’ve probably all experienced those organisations where there’s a significant difference between the mission statement and what employees actually experience. The bottom line is that organisations are ultimately judged by what they do, not what they say. It applies to customers and employees in equal measure. It’s not enough to say you put your people first if you don’t back it with actions.

Say you have a fun and relaxed culture? Prove it. I’ve said this in other articles - if you put in a pool table but the culture stinks - no one will want to play! It’s not what it looks like, it’s how it really feels. An engaged workforce appreciates a culture that matches expectations, listens and responds to any concerns.

Engaging the blended workforce

I see this in the creative industry and HR - it’s when full-time permanent employees work side-by-side with freelancers. It’s grown through the growth of the freelance worker or ‘gig economy’ over the past few years and sees the workforce ‘blend’ to work on projects together. Many freelancers work this way through redundancy and change - they take the flexible route often in place of the permanent roles that are being scaled back due to uncertainty. 

While it’s good for plugging talent gaps, it raises employee engagement challenges. How do you build the same sense of ownership in a flexible worker? How do you manage people who often work remotely? Where is the sense of team? The need for a good ‘candidate and employee experience’ is just as important for freelancers. As people move between organisations so will their opinions - good and bad.

The research speaks for itself: CareerBuilder found that, if the candidate experience was poor, 42% of candidates would never seek employment at the company again and 22% would actively tell others not to work for that company.

In conclusion

It’s quite likely that you’ll be asking more from your people in these uncertain times, possibly without any additional reward or reassurances of job security. They’ll have concerns - and you probably won’t have all the answers. That’s why strong and transparent leadership, good line managers and a culture that lives up to expectations will all play a part in engaging your people. 

The way we work is changing and if you can also manage the expectations of the growing flexible workforce you’ll help them feel the same sense of ownership that comes with good employee engagement.

How engaged is your organisation?

Have the priorities raised in this article left you wondering where to start with employee engagement? 

The en:Rich engagement feedback audit has been designed to help you look into your organisational culture and get a valuable view of your current levels of engagement and motivation. What’s more, you’ll identify the steps the business could be taking to keep staff motivated and build greater team spirit.

Author: Richard Roberts
Posted on: Friday 13th January 2017

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