Pot plants, bagels and a day at the races; will the Government’s drive for austerity kill off employee engagement?

The Audit Commission has been roundly criticised by the new Coalition Government for ‘a regime of extravagance’ that includes office pot plants, hiring a conference venue and supplying lunch time bagels at meetings they have hosted to train other public sector bodies. The overall cost of these items was £52,000, which in itself seems a large sum, but when put into context seems a lot more reasonable. For example, the £40,000 spent on pot plants actually works out at about £20 per week for each of its 37 offices.

Such expenditure brought to mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the requirement to meet physiological and safety needs before we can even begin to motivate employees to reach self-actualisation by aligning employee’s own objectives to the organisation’s goals. Pot plants, newspapers, tea and coffee making facilities and the like contribute to a pleasant working environment and form a basic building block that should be in place before any thoughts of ‘engagement’ can really be considered. Consider the message: “Please go the extra mile for us, but by the way, we won’t help make the environment you spend most of your week in a pleasant one”. Not a particularly engaging message is it? No amount of engagement plans overlaid onto this will make a difference, the die is cast. 

Perhaps your organisation reflects the old school view that in times of austerity the promise of a job is enough of a motivator and ‘frivolous’ costs should be cut? Absolutely, all costs should be continually reviewed to ensure they are driving ROI, but how do you measure well being and the impact this has on people’s performance? They may look like an expendable cost, but remember to keep a fair balance. It’s vital to keep people on board in readiness for when the economic cycle begins to turn. To a large extent Incentives can be switched on and off to generate a short-term result, but engagement can’t. And of course, an incentive implemented within a disengaged workforce will clearly not be as effective as with engaged employees. Effective engagement is an evolving process where the organisation slowly builds an emotional bond with the employee through all the different interactions and touch points. Eventually, ‘going the extra mile’ doesn’t need to be incentivised, it just needs to be recognised, which will have a major impact on budgets as the average cost per head for a recognition programme is significantly lower than for an incentive.

And finally, consider this, historic estimates show that high rates of staff turnover could cost UK businesses £63 billion in the next year. As we come out of recession employees, who up to now have played it safe and remained in their current positions, will look for alternatives. A few pot plants on their own won’t change their mind, but in terms of what it says about your organisation, can you afford to take the chance?

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