Jon Ingham on Creating a Culture of Employee Engagement

Engaged employees are happy employees /
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Approx. 8 min. read
Last updated: September 6, 2018

How can you create value and grow your business if your workforce is not engaged? According to experts, high employee engagement leads to a lower turnover, a higher productivity, and a greater customer satisfaction.

Even though employee engagement is one of the top priorities for CEOs and business owners, organisations struggle to define and implement an effective employee engagement strategy: 87% of employees globally are not engaged to the workplace. Jon Ingham, HR Strategist and author of The Social Organization: How to develop employee connections and relationships for improved business performance shares his thoughts on engagement in the workplace and tips for building a culture of employee engagement.

Jon Ingham HR Strategist on Employee Engagement

Hi Jon, the latest Gallup poll shows that companies with a highly engaged workforce outperform their peers by 147% in earning per share - How do you explain that engaged employees have higher performances at work?

Gallup’s findings are really just a tautology. Gallup defines engagement as positive responses to 12 questions (Q12) they have found correlate with business performance, so it’s no surprise that their results confirm this relationship.

But other survey firms which define engagement as something about an individual and measure it through the person's overall satisfaction, advocacy, propensity for retention and similar metrics, see similar impacts too.

These are real and important findings, however, they still shouldn’t be surprising. Clearly, if someone is not happy at work, or supportive of their employer, then their performance is not going to be as good as someone's who is more ‘engaged’. Effective performance depends upon whether people have the right ability but also the right degree of motivation (as well as various other factors such as people’s relatedness to each other, and how well they are supported).

“Effective performance depends upon whether people have the right ability but also the right degree of motivation.”

According to you, who is responsible for employee engagement: HR teams, managers, team leaders, the business owners, everyone?

Most people would say the line manager, which is based on one of Gallup’s suggestions, which is now a common adage, that people join organisations but leave managers.

In truth, the situation is more nuanced than this. For example whilst it may be true in a manufacturing environment or a call centre, most knowledge workers are often more influenced by senior leaders than by their own line manager. The rise of self-managed teams is further reducing the importance of the line manager.

Therefore I would suggest that whilst line managers may often still be accountable for their people’s engagement, it’s the individual himself who is mainly responsible. Many firms are responding to this fact by seeking to recruit upbeat, optimistic people who see a glass as half full rather than half empty, and also fit into the culture of the firm, so that they will be more likely to be engaged.

I would also suggest that HR has a key role in ensuring engagement and that whilst managers may be accountable for the motivation of people within their own teams, HR can, and should, be accountable for levels of engagement, abilities and other qualities, across the organisation as a whole.

Based on your own experience, what are the common mistakes to absolutely avoid when it comes to employee motivation and engagement?

It’s difficult to identify common mistakes as these depend on the maturity/people-centricity of the organisation. If managers do not pay their people any attention or even bully them, then they need to stop doing that! (And there are far too many organisations like this around.)

Once organisations treat their people with some respect, then they are presented with a different set of challenges. One big problem for many organisations is how they can personalise their employees’ experience, which is now much more feasible than it used to be because of digital technology.

“One big problem for many organisations is how they can personalise their employees’ experience.”

This is also very important to do - everyone has similar motivators but the priority we give these shifts from individual to individual. These small differences in what we are after can also lead to significant differences in our responses to working in similar environments.

Therefore unless organisations at least try to engage their people differently, depending upon their individual motivators, then they are never going to be able to engage everyone to the full extent possible. I believe this is one of the major reasons why engagement survey results (including Gallup’s) have remained largely flat over the last few decades.

Employee motivation leads to increased employee engagement

Company culture has a direct impact on the business success overall, what is your advice for creating a culture of engagement in the workplace?

A culture of engagement starts with putting people at the top of the business agenda, alongside customers and financial results. If employees are seen as less important than other stakeholders, particularly investors, then their engagement is never going to be that strong. The business strategy, therefore, needs to focus on the engagement of people alongside the achievement of other business results.

“A culture of engagement starts with putting people at the top of the business agenda, alongside customers and financial results.”

The “people”-objectives in the strategy then need to be cascaded through the organisation and its HR and management processes.

One key enabler is the organisation design. Many employers are organised as functions or divisions, and increasingly as horizontal teams. However, all of these models focus on the work being done, not on the people.

Organisations which really want to engage their people will also incorporate communities and networks which give people an opportunity to focus on the work they themselves consider important and want to do, rather than just playing a role in the organisational machine.

“Organisations which really want to engage their people will also incorporate communities and networks which give people an opportunity to focus on the work they want to do.”

Another increasingly important element of an organisation and therefore of a firm’s culture is the physical workplace. The company can support engagement by reinforcing the importance of the role the workplace itself has to its employees. This is about having an amount of personal space in areas designed for humanity rather than efficiency, and including additional benefits such as in-house restaurants serving healthy food so that people do not have to go out for sandwiches and eat them by their desks.

In The Social Organization: How to develop employee connections and relationships for improved business performance, you explain that enabling connections, networks and relationships between employees is crucial in order to create value, can you tell us a bit more about this approach?

Social connection is an important human need (represented by love in Maslow’s hierarchy, or by having a best friend at work in Gallup’s Q12). This is why relatedness is an important factor for engagement. But the importance of connection is broader than this too.

As we have developed more knowledge about different disciplines, people have increasingly needed to specialise to add value to their firms. But very often, the challenges these firms face require interdisciplinary solutions. This means that people now increasingly need to work within teams and other groups.

Whereas ten years ago many of us spent a lot of each day working on our own, today most of our time is spent working with other people - answering the phone, responding to emails, participating in meetings etc. This means that whereas once firms competed on the qualities of their individual employees - their abilities and motivation and so forth -, these days the way people work together is even more important. This is about having the right connections with the right people, the right quality of relationships with these connections, and effective conversations (not just talking over each other) based on these relationships. It means that nowadays firms compete based on the way people work together in teams, communities and networks, and based on how these groups are integrated with each other as well.

“Firms compete based on the way people work together in teams, communities and networks, and based on how these groups are integrated with each other as well.”

Employees working together in teams

In your opinion, what are the best practices for encouraging knowledge sharing across departments in the workplace?

Given the importance of social connections, if knowledge workers are not sharing knowledge with each other, they are not doing their jobs properly.

Much of this knowledge sharing takes place through intranets and similar systems, though these days these systems are more social too. This means that they are based upon connecting with other people, and then sharing knowledge through these connections (which people love doing), rather than just interfacing with Knowledge Direct (which most people hate - or at least tend not to do).

“If knowledge workers are not sharing knowledge with each other, they are not doing their jobs properly.”

Knowledge sharing can also be direct, face-to-face, and firms are incorporating approaches such as "unconferences" and "knowledge cafes" to give their people more opportunities to talk together.

Other simpler and smaller scale techniques include approaches such as randomised coffee trials where people are matched up with others they don’t know for networking (a bit like speed dating!). This is also another reason why in-house restaurants are so useful. Not only do they contribute towards a culture of engagement but these are great for forming new connections, relationships, and conversations too.

Related: Andrea Edwards: Knowledge Sharing at Work & Employee Advocacy

About Jon Ingham: Jon is an independent HR consultant, trainer, author and keynote speaker. Specialized in talent management, organisation development, and strategic HR, he helps companies creating engaging workplaces and generating competitive advantage through their people. Jon is featured in the A-Z list of HR experts designed by CakeHR (2017 Human Resource’s Gurus: Picking HR’s Ultimate A-Z Team), recognized by Sage as one of the top business influencers to follow (The Top 100 Global Business Influencers for 2017) and named in the Top 30 HR Influencers list compiled by Perkbox. In The Social Organization: How to develop employee connections and relationships for improved business performance, Jon demonstrates how people come together to create value and how companies can improve their management practices to become more social.

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