In David Lean’s 1942 film “In Which We Serve”, Noel Coward is the captain of a warship about to enter the Battle of the North Atlantic. During his first address to his new crew he asks two former subordinates to describe the culture he liked to create onboard; ” A happy ship, Captain” and “An efficient ship, Captain” came the replies. The fundamentals of engagement alive and well during WWII.
Employee engagement is perceived as a relatively new phenomenon and while the term may be, the benefits of a happy workforce have been understood since man began to organize others to achieve goals that he alone could not.
Without exception our clients want to learn how they can increase productivity with the assets that they have. Once you have ticked the boxes marked process, technology and procurement there remains that most elastic of resources; your workforce. How do you capture more of their discretionary effort?
Every day new ideas arrive on improving “engagement” and each it would appear, able to be taken from its box, unwrapped and plugged straight into the architecture of your organization. Few address the context in which they should be deployed.
Employee engagement is a question of degree not “on” or “off”. Is there more you can do – Yes always. It’s like coaching a sports team – they will never be perfect. Engagement is not visible or tangible but exists in attitude and commitment and loyalty. Manage to achieve these and employees will direct extra effort to their work. You might imagine that to the typical CEO and Finance Director this resembles some new age snake oil but that’s not the case – good leaders intuitively get it and always have – Noel Coward certainly did.
Employee commitment fluctuates in response to both internal and external change. Some things will need addressing others will pass. As a leader you need to be alert to this and other indicators that tell when intervention may be required.
Develop your dashboard
You likely have intuitive methods of detecting when the discussion around the water cooler is turning negative but as the boss, you’ll be the last to know so by the time you do get to hear, it’s likely worse than you think.
Because employee commitment is intangible we need tangible proxies to measure how it is changing. For example higher absenteeism or turnover could be predictors of reduced productivity. Are they above the norm or higher than your competitors or higher than you want to see? Negative trending signals that all is not well but not the cause.
Creative ideas for improving process that stem from employees can be an important source of productivity improvement. Employees need to feel that their environment is conducive to new ideas before they feel free to share. Do your employees feel able to contribute in this way?
If you feel that you can’t tell the state of engagement in your workforce perhaps because it is too large, or you can’t tell the cause of discontent then surveying employees may be necessary.
Even the largest organizations become distracted and sometimes overlook maintenance of activities that contribute to the involvement and commitment of their people. We get preoccupied with new customers, projects and mergers causing employee systems to breakdown or become misaligned sending the wrong signals, directions or incentives.
Responding to the information provided
Taking steps to correct or even establish engagement programs needs to be in context. Despite what you may read there are no plug and play solutions – initiatives need to be consistent and align with the culture and values that you aspire to.
Some will be simple and obvious. For example have there been internal or external events occurring that may have affected employee outlook, caused people to be nervous or made the environment less pleasant to work in. If it’s not immediately obvious have an objective third party review it for you; communication and its channels, incentives, performance feedback processes and working conditions should all be examined. Usually steps can be taken quickly and with great effect.
Survey data will need to be analyzed carefully to truly understand root and more complex causes but again while being very insightful but may require interpretive help. Care must be taken to avoid creating expectation or surveying the obvious which may have a negative effect.
Measuring the impact of change
Your “dashboard” will indicate where overall performance or productivity is not where it should be. Once you have taken steps to modify, improve or replace employee processes measure the impact on your dashboard or undertake a further survey to assess progress.
Having created some baseline measures add a periodic engagement review to your regular schedule. With more data comes more insight. Tweaking employee commitment can become very sophisticated but to start should be very simple. Remember a happy ship is an efficient ship!
Ask us how we can help undertake an initial revue, identify misalignment and suggest remedial action.