Employee branding

Within the competitive world of management ideas, employee engagement is emerging as the master key that unlocks performance

Successive research exercises over the past five or six years, including a large amount of work sponsored by the CIPD, have shown that without engagement, all the clever HR policies in the world, let alone investment in technology, marketing and innovation, will fail to deliver sustained competitive advantage.

But what exactly is employee engagement and how do you bring it about? While there are many definitions, few would disagree that engaged employees are those that go the extra mile to do a great job, who show a “passion for work” and whose grasp of their role goes beyond mere “satisfaction”. Research shows that in some successful organisations, 70 per cent or more of the workforce record these attitudes, although the UK norm seems to be around 30 to 50 per cent.

The importance of employee engagement is now acknowledged by the government. More than half a million people across the civil service are currently taking part in Britain’s largest-ever employee engagement survey. This comes hot on the heels of the publication in July of Engaging for Success, an in-depth report looking at the potential benefits of engagement commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

Over the next few pages, the report’s authors, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, describe their findings; and the CIPD and two employers give their thoughts on engagement. There’s also an exclusive report on new research looking into the characteristics of engaging line managers.


The MacLeod review

The publication of our review of employee engagement was the culmination of eight months of work, examining academic and workplace evidence, gathering views from practitioners and others around the country, including more than 500 written submissions, and listening to employers and employees who are enthusiasts for engagement.

We are delighted that the government has accepted our recommendations in full. The Department for Business, under the chairmanship of employment minister Lord Young, is already putting plans in place for the national awareness-raising campaign that is our central recommendation, and is considering how the extensive government resources supporting employment practice can better reflect engagement approaches.

Building on the ideas of David Guest, professor in organisational psychology and HRM at King’s College, London, our view of engagement – as a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success and able to enhance their own sense of well-being – seems to have struck a chord.

We did not set out to write a “how to” guide – that would have been presumptuous and premature. But there are plenty of ideas in the report, which includes more than 50 case studies highlighting different aspects of engagement. We look at some of the challenges in implementing engagement in small- and medium-sized organisations (SMEs) and at the crucial role it can play in delivering improvements in public services, if the knowledge and experience of staff are listened to in delivering change.

The report highlights the importance of employee voice and involvement as a key component of engagement, and looks at the important role trade union and workplace representatives can play. It also makes a strong case for employers aligning their industrial relations strategies with their wider workforce approaches.

The report deals with common barriers to engagement, including lack of awareness and managers’ reluctance to open up to feedback. It also looks in depth at some key enablers. We highlight the need for real and sustained understanding and buy-in from senior echelons, for managers at all levels to receive effective training in engagement and people skills, for employees’ voices to be sought and listened to and for trust and authenticity, where the espoused values of an organisation are lived for real.

We listened closely to the input from colleagues in the CIPD, among others, about how some of these key challenges could be met by professionals. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. But we must collate and spread best practice to enable learning across the economy. We also need to guard against a simplistic view of engagement centering on an employee survey and on “tea and toilets” issues, rather than a strategy that places employees’ abilities and commitment at the heart of the organisation.

That is why our core recommendation to government was for a concerted effort involving all the stakeholders in the employment field to raise the profile of the topic, so more people “get it”. We are delighted that a high-level sponsor group of leaders from the public and private sectors, including the CBI, TUC and CIPD, will be spearheading this effort.

Respondents to the review were keen to see more and better quality support for those who want to develop engagement, particularly in SMEs. Among requests were opportunities to visit workplaces achieving high levels of engagement, access to evidence of the success of engagement, the drivers behind it and coaching from those who have done it, as well as learning from others’ journeys and networking opportunities. Many practitioners and thought leaders have agreed to join in this work and the aim is to have these resources up and running by next spring.

During our eight months’ work, we saw many organisations across the economy, in the private, public and third sectors, where productivity and profitability had been transformed by engagement. We met many employees whose working lives had been transformed. And we read sufficient studies and saw conclusive evidence to demonstrate a correlation between engagement and performance – most importantly, between improving engagement and improving performance.

Employee engagement, going to the heart of the workplace relationship between employer and employee, can be a key to unlocking productivity and transforming the working lives of many people for whom Monday morning is an especially low part of the week. It could play a significant role in boosting economic recovery. We hope that our report will play a part in making these opportunities a reality and we hope the widest range of people possible will play their part in taking this work forward.

David MacLeod led the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills review. A former chief executive, he has a portfolio career in both the public and private sectors. Co-author Nita Clarke is director of the Involvement and Participation Association

Creating engagement

The CIPD view

Many employers need little persuading that an engaged workforce is crucial to business success. What organisation would not want people working effectively, showing enthusiasm for their job and giving it their best shot? But for those who have not yet got the message, the MacLeod report contains impressive evidence of the link between engagement and business performance.

It is the ability to measure the attitudes and behaviours of an engaged workforce that distinguishes employee engagement from people management in general. But engagement is more than simply measurement. MacLeod suggests that “Engaged organisations have strong and authentic values, with clear evidence of trust and fairness based on mutual respect…”

The report identifies leadership, line management, employee voice and integrity as four key enablers. In short, employee engagement places the way people are managed at centre stage for organisations. In the same way the report pushes people management on to the political agenda.

As business secretary Lord Mandelson says in his foreword, “Only organisations that truly engage and inspire their employees produce world-class levels of innovation, productivity and performance”. That statement represents an historic leap for a UK government that has previously focused its rhetoric on workplace issues largely around training and “partnership”.

As a business issue, employee engagement is not the exclusive preserve of the HR profession. However, the report recognises that HR has a major role to play in implementing it and the CIPD believes the report represents a significant opportunity for the profession.

So how can more employers be helped to “get it”? MacLeod recommends raising the profile of engagement with leaders in all sectors of the economy. The institute is keen to play its full part in this process and chief executive Jackie Orme is on the high-level sponsor group that will help to follow up the report. There could be no better framework for addressing the ongoing challenge of improving national productivity.

Mike Emmott, CIPD public policy adviser, is a member of the Employee Engagement Specialist Forum that was established following the MacLeod report

Case study

Engagement at Sainsbury’s

I think most companies would recognise that in order to improve performance you need motivated people. But you need to define what “engagement” means for your organisation.

For us, colleague engagement doesn’t start and finish at the checkout. We have 150,000 people working with us, and we will only achieve our goal if everyone pulls together.

In 2005, we developed a sales-led recovery programme, Making Sainsbury’s Great Again, that refocused on the core elements of our brand: great food at fair prices delivered by great colleagues. A cornerstone of this was the creation of a new goal and values. We also wanted to give colleagues back a voice through listening to their opinions and ideas and demonstrating that we believed their contribution made a difference.

Colleague Councils exist in every Sainsbury’s location, giving people a chance to voice their opinions on everything from facilities to charity fundraising. In August 2004 we launched our “Tell Justin” scheme. This has received over 27,000 suggestions from colleagues, many of which have been adopted. We also organised “The Big Pitch” which encouraged colleagues to put forward ideas to improve the business. Nearly 600 took part, with 12 selected to present their ideas to a judging panel led by chief executive Justin King.

The results of our opinion surveys clearly show the impact engagement has in relation to business performance. Our 10 highest performing stores on engagement outperform on sales, service, availability and absence, while those with the lowest engagement scores remain below target on the same measures.

Increasingly, we are learning that it’s not only what we do internally that influences engagement. Over the past two years we have focused on community initiatives and found these also made a difference.

Imelda Walsh is HR director for Sainsbury’s


Research on managers

Since the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) started researching employee engagement in 2003, we have noticed a consistent finding: the line manager relationship is crucial. Consequently, we embarked on a new project, “The engaging manager”, to understand how managers who inspire and engage their teams to perform well behave in their dealings with people.

Seven organisations – the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Centrica, Corus, HM Revenue and Customs, London Borough of Merton, Rolls-Royce, and Sainsbury’s – took part in the research, published this week. They identified 25 “engaging managers” and we interviewed them, their own managers, and their teams. We focused on engaging behaviours, rather than personality, as these can be learnt.

Our 25 managers had little in common except their ability to engage their teams via very similar behaviours. Their jobs and roles varied, their spans of control ranged from four people to over 5,000, and they were very different in terms of personality, background and training.

But all our managers said that an important way to learn about management was to observe others. As one said: “I think my style is more looking at managers I’ve worked with and for, and stealing the bits that work for me and losing the bits that don’t.” A very strong theme was the belief that they should be clear about goals and expectations, summed up by the comment: “I try to encourage people to think of the wider objectives… and how they fit in.”

The managers in our research were put forward by their organisations because their teams had high engagement scores. Yet it soon became apparent they were also high-performing managers with high-performing teams. It was also noticeable that our managers were good at the difficult stuff – tackling poor performance quickly and effectively, and breaking bad news. The consensus was that honesty and openness was essential, along with empathy and a demonstration that the manager had an understanding of the possible impact on staff.

As our engaging managers were mostly in middling or senior posts, their own line managers were almost all seniors. Most had seen changes in the engaging manager’s style – an important finding, because it shows that managers can acquire new behaviours and become more engaging. Several described their engaging managers as gaining increased self-awareness, often alongside modified behaviour. Senior managers valued their engaging managers’ ability to communicate and to motivate and involve the team, enabling people to give their best. They also felt their engaging managers had a good approach to managing performance, with a focus on clarity of expectations.

There was a feeling among engaged teams that they were happy and enjoyed their work, and that there was a good atmosphere compared with other teams. An important feature was teams’ openness and ability to discuss a wide range of topics. Comments included: “You can almost see a visual difference between the teams” and “There’s an openness... it doesn’t happen elsewhere.”

As well as describing engaging behaviours, respondents were asked to describe disengaging managerial behaviours. Lastly, team members were asked to draw a picture that represented how they saw their manager. Several themes emerged. The most popular picture of all, however, was of a sun or a smiling face.

Dilys Robinson is principal research fellow at IES

Case study

The law firm: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Employee engagement is fundamental to Freshfields’ approach to retaining and developing people. As a way to ensure we continue to improve in this area we launched an associate engagement group (AEG) in our London office in 2007.

Currently made up of 11 associates and five partners, the AEG is aimed at facilitating changes to help associates become more engaged in the business and in the way the London office operates. We see this as an important step towards giving associates more involvement in decisions that affect them and more opportunities to play a wider role in the firm.

It means our associates examine working practices in detail and challenge them, addressing an enormous range of issues from revamping our London office reception to evaluating their career path.

The AEG gathers feedback from the roughly 600 London associates through a survey and face-to-face meetings, identifying key issues and forming the year’s agenda, culminating in a one-day forum at which all associates can meet and talk to partners.

Topics usually include appraisals, feedback and mentoring, careers and prospects, and communications. One associate describes it as a “great chance to discuss the London-wide issues that have been identified as the most important to us, and to have partner input into how we can make improvements”.

AEG working groups make recommendations to management and the forum. The issues they tackle are categorised as “quick fixes”, “rapid focus” or “longer term”. Quick fixes can be as simple as replacing paper cups with china mugs, while rapid focus groups concentrate on areas of substantive concern, such as associate involvement in business development. The work of the longer-term groups, covering issues such as career path and planning, is ongoing.

Sarah Parkes and Adrian Maguire are partners at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer