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Bye, Bye Disengagement?

At a time when we are all reading about the latest global study to highlight the ever-present “critical need” to improve employee engagement and with the eye-catching data that tells us that just 13% of people are engaged within organisations around the World, one approach is starting to deliver some quite remarkable, stand-out results that will be of interest to most HR professionals and senior business leaders. What’s all the fuss about? Well, get ready to take note, the era of employee experience continues to change the very nature of organisations.

We all know that the debate about the future focus of HR continues, and now being dragged enthusiastically into the conversation is this loved or loathed concept of employee engagement. Some colleagues think it’s done already. It’s quite an intriguing area for businesses. It sometimes gets lumped into HR (oops, I meant strategically placed), or in some cases it serves as a separate function to drive engagement across the business whilst being disconnected from everything that surrounds it and without the luxury of a solid mandate for change. With the constant barrage of negative press about how disengaged our economies are, maybe, just maybe, there is an issue here.

It is still actually quite puzzling for interested onlookers in that people like to run around championing engagement whilst at the same time not possessing the full permission from the business to upgrade attraction, recruitment, performance and other key HR processes let alone digital, physical infrastructure, communications, and everything else that directly affects the level that a member of staff is willing to engage with the business, and for that matter, the customer.

Investment in engagement roles and programmes has been taking place for many years in order to secure that extra commitment, that marginal above-and-beyond extra performance and productivity through teams. Perhaps all this time people have been missing a key point about the very idea of what engagement means in practice and just whose responsibility it really is, as Marshall Goldsmith makes a great case for. He reckons it is also the responsibility of employees to actively engage with their work. I couldn’t agree more yet we continue to see employers introducing fads and the like to attempt to make staff happy without actually considering the changing nature of the employment relationship. It’s becoming a partnership and I like that. I like that very much.

What does this mean in practice? Well that’s the great part. It translates into a shared experience of the workplace between staff and leaders, or as a great CEO would say: us. All of us. In it together. Idealist, perhaps, but every employer has a real opportunity to create a fully connected employee experience, and employees are there to make the most of it within their performance. Easy, right? Not so. It’s never that easy until the need for change is there. If it’s there, then big things can happen. Quickly.

Your customers. Your staff. That’s your business. We know, instinctively, that everything within a business is connected, and everything you do and develop has the opportunity to take you closer or further away from your customers, and staff. Now that’s meaningful, but what does employee experience really look like in practice? Let’s take a look.

For starters, a solid employee experience demands a solid vision and the connected values and behaviours that bring the vision to life daily. What becomes crystal clear within strong employee experiences is that what you see, hear and experience are companies that live their values- a core part of successful employee experience approaches. The core values matter, mean something and sit at the heart of connected employee experiences. The values are not beautiful slogans hanging somewhere. There is a real sense that organisations actually care about them and to demonstrate that they will more than likely be measuring their employees and people managers on how well they live them in practice. The values run through everything the company does within the employee experience and they are the line in the sand, for everyone.

Employee experience-led companies are obsessed with providing full transparency within their whole team about all that it can legally share with employees. This is about transferring power to the people with key data on the company and its progress so that staff can get stuff done and align their work to the vision of the company. This is easier said than done, but transparency is no longer a luxury within business.

In some employee experiences, everyone has exactly the same benefits; the same number of annual leave days from the tea lady to senior leadership; same desk; same chair; same lockers for stuff; same rules for everyone. There may well not be any special privileges for being a manager either. This isn’t about paying the same money as differentiation in pay will likely take place based on talent, performance and contribution although even that is being massively challenged within some organisations such as Gravity Payments where the basic salary is set at $70,000, for everyone. The CEO, Dan Price, who took a whopping $930,000 pay cut to provide that to his staff, says that he wants everybody that he’s “partnered with at Gravity to really live the fullest, best life that they can.”

“We never really had trouble attracting talent because we’re very purpose-oriented. We never really had trouble retaining talent because the most important thing we provide our team isn’t money, but an opportunity—an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to grow.” Dan Price

Feedback is shared like crazy within employee experience companies as managers will have regular sessions with their employees to share feedback, set expectations and help grow the employees. Insights are also shared frequently through town hall meetings, social media or blogs to hear directly from senior leadership. In some organisations, the CEO or a member of the management team will greet new staff at induction too and set the tone for their experience. In fact, feedback is built into the culture, into the employee experience ‘norm’, not exception, which in practice means that yearly engagement surveys are just one element to connect ideas, views and suggestions across the business.

Connecting the experience is the role of the entire business, and the number one facilitator is the manager so you can expect quarterly leadership surveys to make sure managers know how they are perceived by their employees. This may not be common yet, but it’s on the way once we really get data-informed around the difference high quality managers make and their impact on performance; the transformation of managers into facilitators and coaches. One aspect of the employee experience that shifts the focus of ‘being engaged’ back to the employee is a frequent and open discussion on an employee’s future potential with a focus on how they can keep growing within (and aligned to) the business. Employee experience is not just an employer-led thing. It’s so much more than that.

The important conversations within a strong employee experience focus on growth, not just promotions. There is a real drive to ensure a lean structure where position and status doesn’t mean much with the clear aim of creating a culture where people don’t care about titles but rather skills, attitude and making a difference (HR translation: adding value) instead of making a big fuss about seniority, loyalty and length of service. For years’ organisational culture has been viewed by some as fluffy, soft and vague talk. Not so with the employee experience in full flow. This really is the hard stuff connected with creating winning businesses and in this regard, and as organsations flatten their structures, the distance between top management and everyone else is now as short as possible.

Learn anytime, anywhere, is a philosophy that is taking hold across sectors as new apps and micro-learning take L&D to a new place as part of the employee experience. Great companies thrive on connecting staff with great minds, knowledge and stories to inspire, provoke and challenge people to think differently and produce stunning contributions to the mission.

Talk about digitizing HR, the tech-savvy companies have made a big shift recently; all of the HR tools on the cloud, as standard, from the HR system to the learning management system. In that way the employees can have access to everything from home, the coffee shop, or wherever they are. Digitizing all processes in all areas. So much so that you will rarely see paper on the desks anywhere; paperless wherever legally possible. This is the future workplace, right now.

In taking an employee experience approach, it’s about making the right choices and connecting things up across the business in a way which is right for the context of operation, not simply just to make people happy or satisfied, but to deliver the right conditions for staff to thrive, consistently. Now, this is not an easy journey, but you can start making incremental changes from where you are and with what you’ve got.

Are you ready to drive your business forward through employee experience? If so, the time and moment to start was several years ago, but don’t worry, the next best time is right now.

Ben Whitter, Director of Organisational Development, The University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Monir Azzouzi, People and Organisation, Maxis Berhad


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