Mind the (engagement strategy) gap

Mind the gapDo you have an employee engagement strategy?

If the answer is “no”, you have some serious thinking to do.

When we first ask HRDs, Heads of Engagement or Internal Communications Directors within organisations that question, the most common answer is, indeed, “no”. Or, at best, “well not really…”.

Yet, most companies are full of engagement activity and plans. And there’s the irony: most organisations are beavering away at a set of actions but with no basic strategic framework to ensure what’s being done will deliver for the business.

We, on the other hand, are big believers in having a robust, business-focused engagement strategy. Here are four good reasons why:

  1. You need to be aligned
    • In the same way any broad marketing, brand or people strategy needs to be aligned with the overarching strategic objectives of the business, so does your engagement strategy. To get started, begin with two simple questions:
    1. What do we need to engage our people with? As a business, are you trying to engage your people with your growth, with raising profitability, with improving customer focus or with you as an employer? The answer should be driven by your corporate objectives and the overall focus of the business. Depending which connection you are trying to drive, this should then impact on the engagement activities with which you underpin your strategy.
    2. What do we want to engage our people for? You also need to be very clear about what business outcomes you are trying to deliver by engaging your people. Is the aim to reduce labour turnover generally or improve specific retention of high potential talent? Are you trying to improve customer satisfaction or longer-term loyalty? Are you trying to reduce absenteeism or improve productivity? Again, the answers should align directly to your broader HR or People strategy.
    • The BBC, for example, has been focusing hard recently on creating an explicit engagement strategy to ensure its own people are aligned with operating effectively in an increasingly competitive digital market while maintaining creativity at its heart. This will be vital as they emerge from one of the broadcaster’s biggest ever organisational crises.
    • Another tip is to frame your strategy around three key segments: the business outcomes you are trying to drive; what engagement needs to look like in your company to achieve this; and the drivers of engagement which will enable those outcomes to be achieved.
  2. Activity doesn’t always mean focus
    • We see a lot of engagement plans. Most of them consist of a long list of engagement “stuff” that’s being done in the business. But the plans rarely contain a bigger picture overview of why these activities are being focused on and how those activities group together to achieve specific ends.
    • A good engagement strategy should centre around three or four core areas of focus, each of which is designed to achieve specific business outcomes. For example, activities around creating dialogue might be focused around generating better innovation, knowledge-sharing or collaboration in the business in order to enhance the product development pipeline. Activities around improving leadership effectiveness might be focused around enhancing strategic alignment in the business and, therefore, improving business performance.
    • It’s all about grouping your thinking into a framework which will focus your engagement actions on driving specific and measureable outcomes for the firm.
    • Sainsbury’s, for example, has focused its engagement strategy for the last few years around driving customer-focus and growth through having colleagues who are aligned with the company’s strategy, vision and values. The CEO, Justin King’s overt belief in the service-profit chain has heavily underpinned the retailer’s 33 quarters of consecutive growth and improving market share.
  3. You need to sell engagement to the business
    • It’s sometimes hard to get leaders and managers interested in and focused around employee engagement. Both populations have long “to-do” lists and it’s always easier for them to focus on the numbers or the immediate operational challenges than on the rationale for engaging front-line colleagues.
    • My work over the past 25 years in this field suggests that having a clear and explicit engagement strategy is the key to overcoming this resistance.
    • For example, one of the large insurance clients we work with has managed to convert line managers who were cynical and antagonistic to the idea of “engaging” people into a group of engagement evangelists by having a strategy which is:
    1. Clearly connected to delivering on core business KPIs (of talent attraction/retention; productivity and return-on-equity)
    2. Simple in terms of its core areas of focus: developing engaging leaders and managers; moving communication from broadcast to dialogue; and creating clearer career paths
    3. Regularly tested for its effectiveness through the use of smart analytics which show the causal link between engagement and the hard KPIs targeted
  4. Hold yourself accountable
    • HR activities generally, and engagement in particular, are still often seen as “soft” within the business. Having a strong engagement strategy with measurable outcomes is a great way to hold yourself accountable to the business on delivery of hard outcomes.
    • To do so, the strategy needs to both:
    1. Highlight explicit KPIs against which its success will be measured from the start
    2. Be underpinned by a strong measurement and analytics strategy which can help connect engagement activity to “big” people and organisational metrics
    • For example, the engagement functions at organisations such as O2 and Centrica have been exemplary in holding themselves to account by having a strong metrics-focused approach to engagement
    • KPIs need to be measured in a balanced way, using a range of sources: hard people outcome data (talent, productivity, etc.), softer people metrics (from surveys, panels and 360 assessments), customer data and hard financial metrics
    • By doing this, accountability around sticking to and delivering on your engagement strategy will be raised for both you, the HR function and for the business