Putting people at the heart of business

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

TeroVesalainen on Pixabay (Creative Commons)
TeroVesalainen on Pixabay (Creative Commons)

The Engage for Success ‘People at the Heart of Business’ conference at the QEII Centre in London last week lived up to the billing. It was packed with people stories that illustrate the power of engagement to lift productivity and well-being. As Engage for Success founder, Nita Clarke said, it’s not often that something delivers a double whammy, but employee engagement does; it is good for business and good for employees.

Nearly ten years on from the foundation of the Engage for Success movement in the UK, continued interest in engagement is testament to the longevity of a concept that was first mooted in early 1990s by William Kahn. A passing fad it most certainly is not.

Four themes emerged from the conference presentations:

  • Purpose
  • Caring for people
  • Listening
  • Productivity

Anna Malmhake played the most memorable video of the day – an ad made for Absolut Vodka that featured naked employees. All in the best possible taste of course to underline the brand message of ‘Vodka with nothing to hide’.

But the real story behind the case study was the underlying philosophy about open-mindedness that was established by the founder in 1879. This was a classic illustration of the way that stories about the way organisations have been set up can resonate long into the evolution of the business.

The ‘why’ about organisations was stressed by several speakers, including Paula Vennells, CEO of the Post Office who has overseen a remarkable turnaround leading the business to make a profit last year for the first time in 16 years. Purpose here was all about understanding the customer and re-framing a victim culture to an ambitious and confident culture.

Chieu Cao from Perkbox went as far as to claim that millennials expect purpose to be the start of the conversation about any organisation.

Sir Eric Peacock seemed to have a hatful of stories to illustrate his simple message about managers taking time to care for employees. He provides new employees with a bottle of champagne rather than 20 pages of legal documents when they join his company. As he said, when people join an organisation it is a big decision and he wanted them to celebrate the move. And, what’s more, he said that this has cut the no-show rate of new joiners by 70 percent.

Francis Goss from AHC highlighted issues around the financial well-being of employees, stating that a pension is the benefit that employees value most, but it is the one that is the most difficult of all benefits to understand and the costliest for organisations to provide. Vodafone and LV were cited as examples of how organisations are creating fun and interactive tools to help employees better understand their pension.

The most passionate presentation of the day by far was delivered by Katie McSweeney from Mumsnet. She argued forcefully and effectively that organisations need to improve flexible working provision and sign-up to family friendly policies. She claimed that middle managers still simply struggle to understand and implement flexibility.

Employee voice

Many examples of employee voice were mentioned throughout the day. Sir Eric Peacock uses a seven-postcard approach where employees can send in suggestions about what they could do differently, what their team could do differently and what the organisation should do differently. This has delivered a 2 percent productivity enhancement per year.

Peter Clark from Qlearsite talked about ‘listening at scale’ and the use of predictive AI. As he said, ‘better insight equals better action’. He also emphasised the importance of asking the right questions in employee surveys. For example, he suggested changing the well-known (and criticised) Gallup 12 question ‘I have a best friend at work’ to ‘Work is the kind of place where I can make friends’. This subtle difference in terminology can make a significant difference to the subsequent analysis and action taken on results.

Caroline Anderson’s presentation provided some great examples of digital voice at HM Land Registry. This is based on regular pulse surveys and open dialogue on a well-regarded weekly blog which has full senior management buy-in (and regular contributions from senior managers). This has led to the organisation’s highest ever engagement score in 2017, up 12 percent from 2014. Impressive stuff.

The B word

Productivity was a central theme of the panel session with Neil Carberry from CBI, Tony Danker from the Productivity Leadership Group and Dame Carol Black from Newnham College Cambridge.

Although the ‘B’ word was carefully avoided in the discussion, the point was made that the world will not wait for Britain and the need to focus more on people was raised as a big culture change for UK organisations.

Perhaps the issue for UK plc is not so much what will happen after Brexit but how it can address low levels of productivity.

Mathew Taylor, CEO at the RSA, continued this theme in his presentation. His call out was for organisations to finally move on from a master-servant mindset that persists in some places. A new focus on reporting on ‘quality of work’ was cited as a turning point and the idea of ‘good work’ is resonating at the moment. But, and it is quite a big but, this requires organisations to sign up to a single ‘National Employability Framework’ focused on capabilities such as problem solving and creativity and not continue with a ‘narcissism of small differences’ on how this is interpreted.

So, to summarise, if the evidence from this conference is representative of wider thinking then the Engage for Success movement is in rude health.

Employee engagement is not going away any time soon. Indeed it might well be more important today than ever before if productivity is to be relied on for future economic prosperity. But the challenges remain as daunting as ever. The four enablers identified in the Engaging for Success Report in 2009 (strategic narrative, employee voice, engaging managers and integrity) have stood the test of time well enough, even if (from my perspective) internal communication could be given more dedicated attention.

The real question is how can the understanding of engagement be accelerated to make UK plc more productive and to improve employee well-being?