Six steps to building an engaged workforce and reaping the benefits of engaged employees (part 1)

Employee engagement is an essential ingredient of great customer service and business success. However, 'engagement' does not mean a trendy office with a ping-pong table, a meditation pod and free fruit on the reception desk. These may be symptoms of a company that engages its employees but they are not the route to engagement. Engagement is based on principles and best practice.

In its January 2019 report on "The state of customer satisfaction in the UK" the Institute of Customer Service highlighted six actions that companies need to implement to build effective employee engagement:

  • Bringing vision and values to life in a way that can be understood by everyone in the organisation
  • Equipping managers with the skills to engage effectively with employees
  • Authentic, regular, relevant communications with employees
  • Giving employees clear opportunities to voice opinions
  • Ensuring every employee has appropriate training and a personal development plan
  • Recognising excellent customer service performance

Let’s consider these in turn.

Bringing vision and values to life

In previous articles, we have emphasised the vital role that a brand purpose and set of values plays in the overall customer experience. When a brand has a clear sense of what it stands for and what its values are so do all its employees. There exists a common understanding across the organisation of the behaviours that are expected and of the experience that customers should have when they encounter the brand. The purpose and values will shape the kind of products that are developed, the way the company markets itself, the type of people it recruits and, crucially, the customer experience it delivers. All the company’s strategies will be consistently aligned with the purpose and values.

In its 2016 report on Human Capital Deloitte suggested that 84% of the HR and business leaders it interviewed believed that "culture is a potential competitive advantage". But too often culture programmes focus on how executives like to see themselves (innovative, dynamic) rather than the reality of the company (staid, inward-looking) or the characteristics that customers want (reliable, trustworthy). Anyone can dream up a snappy little acronym of five or so buzz words but it's only by acting true to their brand story in everything they do that the likes of First Direct or John Lewis deliver a differentiated customer experience.

Successful companies are those that have a clearly articulated vision of what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Typically this is a vision that has been created by a strong and visible leader – think Steve Jobs at Apple (design), Jeff Bezos at Amazon (customer obsession), James Dyson (engineering excellence) – and has been cascaded down through the organisation, influencing everything the brand does.

Equipping managers with the skills to engage effectively with employees

The Harvard Business report on the Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance highlighted the gulf between senior and middle management on perceptions of employee engagement. While 40% of senior management (in their sample of 550 companies) believed that 60% or more of employees were 'highly engaged' this view was shared by only 26% of middle management. If senior management carries this false perception it’s unlikely they are giving their colleagues the tools to do the job.

ACAS publish guidance on how to be an effective manager which suggests good managers are:

  • Good communicators – communicating with all members of their team on a regular basis and recognising strong performance
  • Good listeners – identifying development needs and using the invaluable feedback of individuals to improve team performance
  • Good project managers – ensuring colleagues are not overwhelmed by deadlines
  • Good strategists – setting clear objectives for each team member
  • Trusting – giving colleagues the freedom to deliver team objectives with an individual twist.

Authentic, regular, relevant communications with employees

From the outset, any company should make sure that staff understand what is expected of them. All employees should know and be reminded regularly of why they come to work. Not at the level of answering the phone or processing forms but the core purpose of their role. On a visit to NASA in the mid-1960's President Kennedy met a man in overalls and asked him "What do you do here?" to which the man replied, "Earn a living". JFK met a second man in overalls and asked him the same question. "I'm clearing the garbage". The President met a third man busily sweeping the floor and asked him what he did. With a smile on his face, the man replied, "I’m helping to put a man on the Moon Mr President." This level of understanding of core purpose is essential to deep employee engagement and should be reflected in constant communication throughout the organisation.

But communication at a more prosaic level is also needed. On a regular and frequent basis tell your staff: how well they are doing; how well the team is doing; how well the company is doing in delivering its financial targets and moving towards its core purpose. Equally, recognise the value in your staff’s 'grass-roots' understanding of what your customers want and how your customers think your business is performing. Ask your people what are the big three issues their customers are talking about (and feed the information back into process improvement); ask them how they feel about working for your company; make sure you acknowledge their feedback and let them know what you will do as a result. Regular dialogue is the lifeblood of employee engagement.

In our next article we’ll consider three more essential ingredients of employee engagement:

  • Giving employees clear opportunities to voice opinions
  • Ensuring every employee has appropriate training and a personal development plan
  • Recognising excellent customer service performance

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