Why employee engagement is the route to success

A meeting room illustrating employee engagement

Employee engagement is essential to any good business, so why do so many businesses treat it as an optional extra, asks author and chairman of Purple Cubed, Jane Sunley

Few would deny that the delivery of a successful business strategy is dependent on people. Or that providing a set of circumstances whereby people can do this willingly and well is a business imperative.

In fact, when asked, 100 per cent of business leaders state that having a clear people strategy which engages, enables and empowers their staff is critical (Purple Cubed, 2012). Further still,Deloitte’s latest Global Human Capital Trends report stated that engagement and culture have skyrocketed to the number-one global business issue.

Yet, despite their clarity of intent, the majority of business leaders fail to see their plans through. Eighty-six per cent of CEOs admitted they are not developing adequate strategies around engagement, despite seven in 10 agreeing it is key to productivity.

More than two-thirds don’t have an all-encompassing engagement strategy, instead implementing isolated solutions based on what they believe the definition of engagement to be. And engagement itself is seen as confusing, ambiguous and misunderstood.

So why, when it’s so apparent leaders understand the importance and benefits of a truly aligned and strategic approach to people strategy, are so few pushing engagement from the very top?

Employee engagement – the challenge

Step back 30 years and the scope of HR was limited to transactional activities such as recruitment, grievances and disciplinaries. Transformational activities including employee engagement, talent management and even culture and values were only found in the most forward-thinking of organisations.

Since then, as people have become more savvy and the industrial era of business style has started to dissolve, the responsibilities of personnel functions have evolved. Today’s world calls for a greater focus on the transformational side of HR – and the need for employee engagement

Yet confusion, complexity and ambiguity around transformational HR, combined with the rapid development of the function, though not the profession, has left a substantial gap between what’s required and what’s available.

The future of engagement: business-led strategy

Today the role of the people director and the attitudes towards people strategy need to be fundamentally different.

HR professionals need to be in the business, understand the business, talk business. They need to closely align with the CEO and CFO, who themselves must champion people and engagement across the organisation. HR must become the board’s confidant, trusted adviser, prioritising the people agenda in the boardroom.

They need to be strategists, marketers, big-picture thinkers and tactical planners, equipped with the information and know-how to argue compellingly for the resources to deliver what’s needed. And they need to deliver clear results so as to be able to keep things evolving as business demands. Today’s HR person has the potential to become the most influential person in the business.

In my opinion, the solution is threefold:

  1. All business leaders need to understand and accept accountability for employee engagement, enablement and empowerment – these items can no longer be an ‘HR’ issue. People strategy needs to be owned, led and delivered by the entire organisation.
  2. HR professionals must ‘conduct the orchestra rather than play in it’ – that means being influential, strategic, commercial.
  3. Simplify the people stuff – develop a blueprint for ‘how we do HR around here’.

We need to replace siloed sub-departments with a joined-up approach. Let’s stop delivering ‘initiatives’ in favour of a complete plan for employee engagement that is measured, reviewed and delivers to the bottom line. Let’s invest in the tools required to do and measure the job. Analytics are key and only by employing today’s technology will things really begin to move on. Millennials demand it, business needs it.

And if you think this is one for the ‘too difficult’ box, it is absolutely achievable and with incredible results. One company with 5,000-plus employees, 33 locations and £220m turnover did just this and added £3m to their bottom line within two years (increasing their subsequent sale price by £30m). Another went from being the bottom performer in-group to top within a year.

In their research, Deloitte called for a new ‘HR playbook’ that is more agile, forward-thinking and bolder in its solutions.

I wholeheartedly agree. There’s a vital need for simplicity, cohesion and innovation. If leaders want to dramatically improve the performance and profitability of their organisations then they need to accept that employee engagement isn’t just an HR game anymore – if the people strategy is left on the sidelines then employee engagement, and the business itself, will both be left there alongside it.

Download a free summary report of Purple Cubed’s ‘Engage, Enable, Empower’ research. Jane Sunley’s new book, The People Formula: 12 steps to productive profitable performing business is available now

About author

Jane Sunley

Jane Sunley

Jane Sunley is a best-selling business author and founder and chairman of employee engagement expertise and tech provider, Purple Cubed (www.purplecubed.com). She is a member of the IoD.

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