TowerStone recently completed focus group research for a client interrogating factory operators’ attitudes to quality.  One of the main findings was that operators wanted to be more engaged on quality issues because they felt that they had answers to many of the quality challenges.

A related insight was that when not engaged on solving problems, employees cease to feel ownership for quality and they resort to just doing their shift – getting it over with and going home.

How often do we hear management say that employees are not interested, that they just do their time with no sense of ownership for what they do, how they do it, and for customer satisfaction?

What the research emphasised was that this negative, ever-adversarial relationship with employees is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The way to counter it is through proper employee engagement.

Employee engagement is more than just communication, although it starts with keeping employees informed.  They need to know what the organisational intent is and they need to be led to an understanding of their role in it.  There is only one way to know if this message has landed: ask them.

That is the difference between communication and engagement: recognising that engagement is a two-way process.

It is not surprising that when employees are asked to rate engagement tactics, the tactic that invariably gets the highest rating is face-to-face engagement with leaders.  Part of the reason for this is that it is a demonstration of care. Another important aspect is that it gives employees the opportunity to ask questions and even make suggestions.

It is not always possible for leaders to regularly meet with employees although the hierarchy of leadership usually does make this possible.  Where face-to-face engagement is not possible, feedback mechanisms must be provided.  Most executives and senior managers are wary of SMS messaging because they are inundated by marketers making unsolicited mailings to them, but employees, especially blue-collar employees, rate SMS messaging as a preferred tactic.  One reason is that it is personal and quick and easy to access, but the main reason is that it gives them the option to respond.

The feedback that TowerStone receives with regards to ranking employee engagement tactics is consistent: those tactics that invite and allow a response are rated highly, while those that are a one-way tactic are rated low i.e. e-mails are rated higher than posters; and intranet scores over values booklets, especially if the intranet includes a discussion blog.  This does not mean that communication media such as posters or newsletters should not be used – it just means that they should be used in conjunction with employee engagement platforms that truly engage by creating the opportunity for talk-back.

Organisations invest many resources to get their brand promise out to external stakeholders, but often neglect their internal stakeholders – their employees – who are responsible for delivering on the promises being made.  A simple definition for employee engagement is that it helps organisations live up to their promises.  Only through living up to promises is trust earned, and trust is the basis on which brands are built.

If an organisation is not engaging its employees and inspiring them to live the promises that the organisation makes, it is running a serious risk of over-promising and under-delivering.  Given that consumer cynicism and connectivity are at an all-time high, resulting in militant consumerism, this is not a risk worth running.

Leaders need to understand that employee engagement is simply an essential link in their value chain – arguably the most important link.  It is as important as recruiting the right people and developing their talents.  It is relatively easy to do and it is very rewarding, both for the business and for the leaders themselves.

It is only relatively easy if it is properly planned though, just like any other communications plan.  In fact, it is best if employee engagement is included in annual communication plans, treating employees as a prioritised audience, demonstrating how employee engagement serves business objectives, and putting measures in place to manage effectiveness.  In addition to business alignment and measurement, the employee engagement plan must cover:

·  Establishment and maintenance of employee engagement platforms (e.g. a database – it is astounding how often the only available database of employees is with payroll).
·  Development of content that supports business objectives providing key messages for the whole of the organisation and specific audience segments within the employee body.
·  Tactics that are scheduled to ensure that there is regular contact.
·  Provision of feedback loops so that engagement is promoted and understanding is monitored.

Often the biggest hurdles to employee engagement are that the executive and management do not feel able to communicate, or they fear feedback.  On the first point, the ability and willingness to communicate, the answer is training.  Communicating with purpose does not come naturally to many leaders who are proficient in other areas, but leaders can be trained and motivated to engage with purpose.

As far as the second point is concerned, fear of feedback, the simple answer is that it is happening irrespective of whether or not leaders want to hear it. Ultimately, and this is the worst case scenario, the feedback will be received as customer complaints when the feedback is too late and trust is already lost.

Employee engagement is the essential first link in an organisation’s value chain, essential to it delivering on its promises.  Leaders need to ensure that they appreciate this, understand it, know how they themselves should engage and ensure that, like everything else important in the organisation, it is properly planned and its implementation is monitored and measured.