After five years of recession and almost zero growth, staff have little confidence or reason for optimism. Tight financial policies, with minimal staff numbers, long hours and virtually no pay rises are now the norm. Nobody yet believes they can see ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’, so why should staff continue to be patient?
When staff are under greater pressure at work while at the same time seeing the cost of living rise but not their salary, building and maintaining staff morale is more challenging than ever. That’s where ‘employee engagement’ comes in. But what is this newfangled term and why must it remain high on the business agenda to ride out the storm of the recession?
What does ‘Employee Engagement’ mean?
Employee engagement has become a popular management term used to describe how organisations have approached the issue of morale and motivation amongst staff. From the incentive, motivation and sales industry media, through to the HR, PR and internal communications sectors, everyone has their own angle on it and it is widely used when discussing issues such as staff motivation, loyalty, retention, rewards and recognition.
Employee engagement was introduced to summarise when an organisation encourages employees to buy-in to their goals, ambitions and corporate ethos in a way that will inspire them to want to drive the business forward proactively and generate success. Its aim is to emphasise to the individual that they are an integral part of the organisation and that their efforts will directly contribute towards achieving success. The engaged employee will feel personally rewarded by the opportunities and successes that are created through their hard work, as well as the recognition that they will receive from their employer for driving the business forward. An engaged employee is motivated and loyal, and a motivated and loyal employee can be a highly productive one.
The concept really came to the fore as the recession hit. While workforces witnessed redundancies and salary-freezes, the challenge to keep staff motivated and engaged became far greater. This was often complicated further as the staff that were retained would often be required to take on extra responsibilities and work longer hours in order to cover the deficit created by downsizing. With all of these additional strains placed on working culture, organisations needed to find new ways of retaining their best performers to help see them through the difficult times and ‘employee engagement’ was coined as the all-encompassing answer to this conundrum.
How to engage employees in three steps…
Step one: Communication, Recognition and Reward
For all organisations that have already, or are about to, face up to the need to implement an employee engagement programme, first, the organisation’s overall strategic objectives must be communicated to the workforce at every level, explaining the goals that, collectively, the organisation wishes to achieve. Then, on an individual basis, each employee must understand how they contribute to the bigger picture.
But that alone is not enough. Most staff will not take up the challenge of achieving these aims and objectives without being offered a positive reason that suits them personally. They need to be offered aspirational rewards as incentives that appeal to them. A ‘one-size fits all’ approach to employee engagement simply isn’t an option. The objectives and criteria for earning the rewards, must be SMART –
- Time bound
– and the appeal of the rewards must be communicated effectively and regularly throughout the duration of the scheme to keep them top of mind. This is easily neglected and important to the momentum of the scheme.
From the launch onwards every online – email, intranet, social platform – and offline medium – team briefings, posters, desk drop leaflets etc. – should be used to convey the message, and this should continue regularly and frequently. Wherever possible, communications must be personalised, not standardised, and must be fun, creative and engaging.
Stage Two: Boosting Spending Power
Within the selection of incentive rewards typically offered to staff, the emphasis is often on either specific prizes or vouchers and giftcards that allow each staff member to treat themselves and buy something they want, such as clothes or a weekend break, or a family trip to the cinema. These have continued to be effective incentives and rewards during this recession.
However, pay restraints and rising prices have prompted many employers to focus their efforts on benefits that help their staff stretch their salary further, boosting morale in the process. They have done this by offering flexible and voluntary benefits that give cashback or discount on everyday shopping.
The success of these cashback and discount schemes has been an important feature of engagement programmes over recent years and is now so well–entrenched that, where they are in place, they are a powerful factor in staff retention.
Step Three: Employee Re-Engagement
Some organisations will have adopted an employee engagement programme, increased productivity and achieved their objectives – congratulations if you are one of them. But this is where many experienced managers find themselves facing an unfamiliar issue. Many of us have run motivation and engagement programmes for up to about two years in more buoyant periods, during which time there were also pay rises and career opportunities to add to the momentum and boost morale. As this downturn has, at best, flat lined for a much longer time, a new issue has arisen – how do we sustain engagement for longer?
Some employees may have been engaged over the course of the first year or two, but then started to face new difficulties and frustrations that have since caused their drive and commitment to dwindle. Or perhaps others were never fully engaged in the first place.
The long–term nature of the economic issues has created the need for ‘employee re-engagement’ programmes.
Continual re-engagement is required in order to keep employees tuned into changing company objectives. I believe that a re-engagement programme, tailored to individual needs, attitudes and status, offering new attractive incentives and more creative communications, is vital to rekindle the fire among staff.
CIPD figures suggest that over a third of workers intend to seek new employment as soon as the recession has subsided.
If they are not continually re-engaged and their efforts rewarded with enviable incentives, staff will quickly lose their enthusiasm and set their sights on leaving once the recession has subsided. Meanwhile, the organisation is not profiting from an employee working to the best of their abilities. Re-engagement is therefore not only important to the individual, but also the employer in order to sustain and improve productivity levels.
Employee engagement is a long term challenge for any organisation wanting to succeed when times are tough. It is a concept that is here to stay and one that can help companies large or small to get the very best out of staff.
John is responsible for the motivation division of p&mm ltd and a Director on the board of the IPM. Specialising in developing, implementing and directing many large scale staff motivation, recognition and employee communications programmes.
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