Is employee engagement simply a fad?

Is employee engagement simply a fad?

December 18, 2014

Days of traditional town hall and annual engagement surveys could be numbered as we welcome a new kind of internal communication conversation.

A discussion on the future of engagement at July’s Engage for Success (EFS) event From the Future of Engagement to Engagement in the Future highlights how important it is for internal communicators to rethink how we’re supporting employee engagement in today’s multi-faceted, multimedia workplace.

With so much noise around the subject, savvy colleagues are likely to spot an obvious engagement attempt a mile off (free doughnut Friday, anyone?) but a more subtle approach, potentially driven by employees themselves, could lead engagement in a new direction – and without any fuss at all.

Because engagement is shifting from something we do, to something that is.

A thought leadership paper written by members of the EFS Special Interest Group explores the future of engagement from the perspective of HR practice, consultancy and research.

In it Paul Sparrow, Director of the Centre for Performance-led HR and Professor of International Human Resource Management at Lancaster University Management School, argues that now is time to grapple with some hard questions about engagement.

He says: “People need to feel they are being treated fairly and that their work has meaning – implying that engagement is not only beneficial to the bottom line, but is the right thing to do.

“One over-arching, future direction for engagement they will expect HR to address is the ‘engage me because you should, and not because you must’ argument.”

The paper argues that social and economic changes and challenges have altered the context of engagement in recent years, something Chief Executive at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Peter Cheese, backs up.

“Understanding how to engage and motivate employees has become ever more challenging,” he says.

So, how can we as internal communications professionals support engagement in action? Today’s workplace is better connected than ever, with a younger generation of employees – by 2025 Generation Y will make up the majority of the workforce – and an increased demand for honesty, transparency and feedback.

For most internal communications professionals, one of the first things that springs to mind when people talk about the future of internal communication in helping to drive employee engagement is digital – specifically social media.

We know from personal use that social networks connect people across time and space, and in an age of flexible working and virtual teams it offers the ideal collaboration and knowledge sharing solution. Used in the right way, enterprise social networks give a voice to employees – a platform where they can interact with their peers and senior management, without boundaries, time or location being an obstacle.

They can ask questions, raise concerns and share feedback.

In Osney HR’s e-book The Future of Employee Engagement, Muriel Pineau, Head of Global Internal Communications and External Social Media, APM Terminals, says she started to use social media as part of a brand awareness and engagement campaign, growing engagement at a rate of 2,000 per cent in two years.

She says: “My belief is that employee engagement will be driven by global knowledge sharing… top down leadership communication will take a step back and will move towards a more lateral approach, fostered by the passion people have in their expertise.

“With social media channels, knowledge sharing can be a driving force led not by the management but by mid-management and their employees. The good news is that many companies are ready to support this trend – they all recognise a need for cultural change.”

A digital approach also supports Edelman’s view that employee engagement will become “dynamic and decentralised”, with internal comms content becoming shorter and increasingly reliant on images, infographics and video.

It will be easier to create, allowing it to be published faster, by more people.

In fact, Edelman believes future employee engagement programmes will move from a centralised model of a corporate department creating the content to one where employees are heavily involved in creating and publishing content for their fellow employees. This could mean the role of internal communications changing from messenger to moderator. If so, how can you ensure crucial messages cut through the noise?

Carol Muldoon, Vice President of Partner Resources EMEA, Starbucks, writes in The Future of Employee Engagement that it is not a “one size fits all approach”.

She says: “Clearly digital opportunities present us with one platform that can be used in very different ways to reach different audiences across the world. The important trick is to not use any single medium in isolation and never allow it to take the place of pure face-to-face engagement.

“Line managers need to continue to take accountability for engagement, with us supporting them along the way. Other channels should enhance this experience but never replace it.”

One fact remains however; engagement will be top of the board’s agenda going forward. Focused efforts to drive operational performance and culture will be prioritised, while more structure will be placed around targeting specific groups so communications reach those who truly need it.

According to Edelman, employees who are closest to the customer and front line will get the most attention due to their role in delivering brand and customer experiences.

Meanwhile, the experts agree that engaging more with line managers is crucial to connecting with employees and driving change.

As Peter Cheese says: “Even though managers and leaders cannot directly control the engagement of others, how they behave, the work environment they create, the support and encouragement they give to their teams, and the trust they engender are clearly all critical.”

Whatever the way forward, engagement should not be seen as something that organisations do to employees, but rather as something colleagues give each other.

Our role as internal communicators will surely evolve as engagement does but with new technologies, board-level buy-in and targeted communications, we can make a success of it.