Employee Engagement has for over a decade been a figurehead for HR. Promoted initially by survey firms – most notably Gallup – it’s developed into a concept with close to universal acceptance, though with some critics.
To understand the current and future of Employee Engagement I spoke to Peter Wilde, the former head of engagement at UBS and Unilever and is the founder and CEO of employee-research.com.
I started by asking him how we got to our current position.
Employee satisfaction work stretches back to the middle of the last century. Engagement’ as a concept grew from the desire to go beyond that blunt measurement – 60% of your people are satisfied, so what? What does ‘satisfied’ even mean?
There are as many definitions of Engagement as there are flavours of ice cream, but I’d say there’s about 85% overlap in what people are saying. There’s some work going on in the UK (MacLeod) to unify the theory and project that as the definitive answer. We’ll see if that takes hold.
Where are most organizations now?
Where they were 15 years ago – scrambling with definitions, trying to get this on the board agenda, working out where it should sit and talking rather than acting.
But is the board really interested in engagement? Is it lip service or do you feel they actually care and are prepared to do something about it?
There is a huge variation – I’ve seen CEOs put the findings away to gather dust and I’ve sat with CEOs who want to squeeze out every insight to drive their business strategy! They’re in the minority though.
What’s changed in the last five years is that an average leader’s response to the concept of engagement then was ‘what is that’ whereas now they’re actually aware of it and feel the need to do something about it. What that is varies across companies.
At OrganizationView we’ve seen an interest in firms moving away from big survey providers and to want to own and run their survey activities. What are your views on this?
As with many industries, technology has been a game-changer here. When I started running employee surveys in the late 90s, the amount of effort involved in processing responses meant that vast ‘data processing factories’ were required, with dozens of people involved in each research project.
That’s all changed. My son has an online survey on his Facebook page – technology has made insight available to all. Organizations serious about gaining insight from their employees, but conscious of costs are increasingly shunning expensive agencies who continue to charge for technology and engineers to run what are, essentially, simple tasks.
However, just because anyone now can do it doesn’t mean anyone should. Anyone can run a survey – not everyone can turn that data into insight and action.
Of course, the thing that you find more difficult running them in house is benchmarking. How important is external benchmarking?
They are important, but only because Senior Managers like seeing them! Large research houses have extensive benchmarks, but they’re rarely specific enough to be of much use, There’s a great Kenexa omnibus survey which shows that 20% of variation in engagement can be explained by which country you’re in.
Bearing that in mind, what use is a global norm score? If, say, you’re looking at engagement in an investment bank, you’ll get a ‘finance’ norm, which will be made up of bank clerks – very different from your average equity trader.
Internal benchmarking and a longitudinal study will provide much better reference points.
Customer experience teams measure on a daily or weekly basis yet we in engagement tend to still use full-company annual surveys. Why is that?
An annual survey just seems to work. Employees know it’s coming, management know it’s coming. Waves are far enough apart to avoid ‘death by questionnaire’, but regular enough to provide input into performance management, annual strategic planning, company handbook, etc. etc. They also allow a reasonable amount of time to implement action planning.
So let’s consider where this is going. What is your vision for employee research?
As mentioned earlier, there needs to be commonality of Engagement as a concept. Smarter tools, smarter reporting, better analysis. I think we’ll see companies using consultants at the design and analysis stage and use their own technology to do the nuts and bolts.
One thing we both have in common is experience with implementing lifecycle research – perceptions at all points of the employee experience.
Yes, I see this as a huge advantage of doing survey’s in-house. Being able to link survey data with event data or employee information to drill explore potential reasons for behaviours. You can only really do this if you have access to the data at an individual-level.
Your high potentials are leaving? Use their survey data to find out why. Put interventions in place to stop them leaving. Be creative with the data and with your actions!
Is there a role for technology?
Sure. We need better online survey tools (3G/half-smart phones in Africa, iPad in developed nations, something that actually works on all browsers for everyone else!), better reporting – real time results, auto feedback mechanisms, apps, editable reports, visualizations worthy of a CEOs time.
I’m seeing some firms sniff around the edges of these, but it’s going to take a couple of years for them to be as good as they should be.
When I talked to Douglas Hubbard he discussed marketing as too reliant on surveys. Are we as an industry too tied up to the survey?
Asking people their opinions goes back to the Greeks. Surveys – only if done correctly! – are a worthwhile exercise and can be a huge benefit to individuals, managers and to the business. Many, many people have heralded ‘the death of the employee survey’, but they’re still the most cost effective and useful way of getting insight from your people. They may well adapt (see Tescos new ‘Listen and Fix’ scheme) but, like cockroaches, they’ll still be around after a nuclear war.
Lots of talk is about employee engagement – are we missing other important topics? Is the big expensive survey draining budget and attention from other needed work?
There is such a huge focus on engagement because the links are proven between that and the bottom line. It’s natural for management to focus on that. You can make small actions that have a large effect on people – driving how hard they work, the attention they give to their jobs and their intent to stay.
Surveys can now be run without spending too much money and (once again, if done well) can pay for themselves many, many times over. If you make a change as a result of what your people are telling you and that change stops one person from leaving, you’ve paid for the survey already.
A well run, smart project should not drain attention from other processes – it should compliment what managers are doing.
Is employee research too important to sit in HR?
The reality is that employee engagement inevitably sits in HR. That makes sense to a lot of people as we’re talking about managerial behaviours, performance management, training, personal development, recruitment, etc. That’s fine as long as when we’re communicating to employees (or to Senior Management) that the work we are doing is seen as being an enabler of the business and not just an HR process.
Trying to increase how happy employees are and boosting the business are the two by-products of an effective research project. It’s a win-win, which is why I love doing it!
Andrew is the Founder of OrganizationView.