Memo from Melbourne: Employee Engagement is a Key Tool

by Ed Wooller, Managing Partner EMA Partners Atlanta, LLC. It (May 2009)

Far from being a luxury, Employee Engagement is a key tool for navigating through the current economic turbulence, according to a white paper commissioned by our colleagues in Australia

Is employee engagement a necessity or a luxury in these turbulent times? That’s the question researchers posed to senior executives from thirteen organizations facing diverse commercial and human capital challenges in Australia.

Researchers discovered that while most organizations would take another look at the financial resources available, they did not believe there was reason to reduce focus on employee engagement. “The increased business success likely to follow from increasing engagement is typically summarized as increased productivity and performance” they reported

Since 2000, when the term ‘Employee Engagement’ came into common usage, organizations have had a term that encapsulates the work they do to attract and retain quality employees.

Through 2008, with close to full employment and a shrinking pool of top talent available, most organizations set aside budgetary spend for employee engagement and have put considerable thought into it. Those organizations’ values often underpin employee engagement strategies and practices, enabling employees to make a connection between the organization and their own values, motivations and philosophies.

From a business perspective, this comes at some expense: investing in innovative employee benefit schemes, embedding employee engagement into cultural norms, and deploying those who don’t share the organization’s values. This can be at variance with the challenges of the current cost reduction focus – whereas employee engagement may, in fact, bring significant longer-term and sustainable benefits.

In the current difficult times, factors such as organizational restructures, redundancies and changes in management have an impact on organizations’ ability to drive and improve employee engagement. At these times costly activities aimed at improving employee engagement might take a back seat. However, understanding employees and their personal motivations was cited as important, and activities such as mentoring and education were favored over those requiring high spend.

While every organization interviewed supports employee engagement, it takes different forms. Some have it embedded in every aspect of ‘how we do things around here’ i.e. ‘broadly speaking it is totally at the heart of the mission and values of our organization’, whereas others see it as one of several organizational objectives. Many believe a practical approach has far more benefit than an abstract or academic definition. While documented strategies may reside with HR, the responsibility for implementation is often at the business unit level.

Typically an internal survey provides a measure of employee engagement. These are variously called an engagement survey, a staff survey, a culture survey or HR surveying instrument. Interestingly, the report discovered, more than one organization notes the danger of focusing too closely on the measurement. There is concern that this focus can actually detract from the action to improve employee engagement.

The white paper also observed that some organizations have clearly linked specific activity to employee engagement. Other respondents felt they do not need to work on their employee engagement, having introduced improved communication systems, flexible working, extended holiday leave, preventative health checks and regular guest speakers.

One path to enhancing employee engagement is the ability to offer employees a clear career/development path. This was found to be an important factor across all economic sectors.

Geographic spread presents a challenge for organizations to tailor relevant activities to support employee engagement. A number of organizations noted that in addition to losing intimacy in understanding their people at diverse geographic locations, the triggers to engaging their people varied according to location and size of regional centers.

Most believed that the expected benefits of high employee engagement were clear and visible. However, a few organizations did not see the gains they were hoping for, and are now aiming at more granular data to tailor employee engagement more specifically at a local level. This did not, however, impact their belief in the value of employee engagement.

This paper originally set out to ask a relatively straightforward question; is employee engagement a luxury or necessity in turbulent times? However, researchers found something more fundamental taking place: The consensus of attitudes overwhelmingly points toward a wholesale shift in mentality that now embraces the concept of employee engagement as a permanent feature of the workplace landscape.

Far from being a luxury, employee engagement is seen as a key tool for navigating through the current economic turbulence.

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