Engagement Principles

Saturday, September 1, 2007 - 11:24

Keeping your workforce engaged and fulfilled is about people skills and implementing innovative plans to develop business wellbeing. By Jocelyn Biddle

It goes without saying that with jobless rates at around 4.2 per cent, employers must increasingly foster strategies aimed at retaining staff. Based on simple supply and demand principles, employees currently find themselves in the driver’s seat. This has left employers needing to implement lasting, viable strategies aimed at attracting and keeping staff.

Encouragingly, strategies aimed at ensuring an engaged workforce can also positively affect the bottom line. This has certainly been the experience of companies that have proactively sought to create workplace cultures promoting leadership, professional development and an emphasis on treating employees as individuals, rather than as part of a group.

What people want

From a recruitment perspective, Michael Gribble, National Director with Michael Page International, says that employees don’t have the upper hand right across the board anyway; rather, it’s a situation favouring the best candidates in the marketplace.

“Typically, there are many applicants for a single position; the current difficulty is finding qualified, experienced and culturally aligned applicants,” says Gribble. “The population demographics and the global nature of career paths has meant that Australian employers must be at the top of their game in offering career prospects.”

Gribble says that employees are generally looking for career development with an exciting path beyond the current role. “Organisations that invest in training, development and their people are sought out by employees. Candidates want an organisation where they see themselves valued, where there’s an investment in them, where there’s a diverse and interesting career path, where they will be trained and developed, where there’s a strategic direction and where promotion is based on merit rather than length of service.” David Brown, Managing Director of Hewitt Associates – who are an international provider of HR outsourcing and consulting services – helps clients develop long-term strategies to attract, engage, retain and reward talent.

“If two-thirds of an organisation’s workforce has a high level of motivation, an emotional and intellectual connectedness and an intense desire to stay with their company, then typically that company won’t have a problem with attraction or retention.”

People-focused leaders

Brown says there are a number of factors companies need to consider to create a stable workforce.

“It is imperative for an organisation to have great leadership, where management genuinely believes in the value of human capital. At least 50 per cent of a CEO’s time needs to be focused around people issues. Successful organisations spend a huge amount of time connecting with their people.

“Organisations with high levels of engagement also tend to be very clear in communicating their value proposition to existing and potential employees.”

Brown also emphasises how it is important for companies to recognise that blanket policies designed to apply to all staff do not work. “People need to be led as individuals, not groups. For some employees, money will be the key driver; for others, it will be professional development.”

Hewitt Associates recently conducted its annual 2006/07 Best employers in Australia and New Zealand study, providing insights into how companies can achieve a real competitive advantage through their people, and exploring what distinguishes them as outstanding places to work. Vodafone was one such company recognised.

Wendy Lenton, Director People & Brand with Vodafone, considers that the silver bullet for retaining staff is having the right leaders within the business, and a meaningful dialogue with employees.

“We believe that effective leadership leads to confident, appreciated and inspired employees. On this basis, we allocate 50 per cent of each manager’s bonus based on his or her leadership ability. We have a number of ways of measuring this, including staff turnover and sick leave rates. We also have 360-degree feedback loops in place.”

Lenton emphasises the importance of treating employees with dignity and respect, by facilitating quality conversations to find out their motivations.

“Individuals need to be treated as such. Work/life balance tends to be a swings-and-roundabouts issue and an employer should provide flexibility wherever they can. The amount of goodwill that you get back from your employees is huge.”

Mounties, the Mount Pritchard and District Community Club in Sydney’s southwest was recognised with the award for innovation in recruitment and retention in the Australian 2006 Human Resources Awards. Jodi Dickson is Mounties’ Employment Relations Manager, and she says that one aspect that sets them apart is the flexibility they offer staff.

“We don’t practise HR management, but rather workplace relations. It is all based on finding the optimum partnership for us and our employees so that we keep them engaged and satisfied. For example, permanent rotating rosters provide our staff with predictability in jobs that are ordinarily slave to a roster.

“We also give a great amount of emphasis to training. We believe that lifelong learning is important, as people who learn are more open to change.”

Mounties has 600 staff and over half work in food, beverage or gaming. The remainder are in admin, management, security, trade and fitness roles.

Each staff member does an average of 200 hours training each year, compared to the industry average of 60 hours. Dickson says that this has positively affected the culture as people are more informed, more empowered and more capable of making decisions.
The bulk of this training needs to be work related. About 25 per cent of the training can be non-job related provided that it benefits either the employee, the organisation or the local community. For example, Mounties has supported staff studying for a social work diploma, a medical degree, and a yoga course.

Changing work culture

How to engage with your people? Michael Collins, Director of Talent Solutions, which offers organisations tailored solutions aimed at identifying and developing the capabilities needed for high performance, says there is no quick fix for organisations wanting to engage their workforce.

“It is hard work to change the leadership culture within an organisation. Importantly, however, the leadership needs to be dispersed throughout the organisation, not just at the top. If you’ve got that, you’re less likely to lose people.

“The effectiveness of the leadership is directly related to organisational culture and creating an environment that facilitates committed employees producing innovative ideas and working to their maximum capacity. In turn, this affects organisational performance as happy, engaged employees leads to increased profitability and efficiencies.”

Another dynamic to throw into the mix is issues surrounding generation Y. Collins says that this group has different expectations from the work contract.

“They tend to be more risk taking; they pick and choose and have no qualms about walking away. Length of tenure isn’t as valuable to this generation; they’re more concerned about challenge, growth, a cultural fit and relationships with colleagues.

“This has meant that recruiters and employers need to get their heads around CVs that show employees having worked within organisations for much lesser periods of time. The three-month probation period is now as much about the employee seeing whether they want to work for the employer.”

Hewitt Associates’s David Brown says that the demand for labour is only making the expectations surrounding members of generation Y more acute.

“Really, it’s just a phase of life: generation Ys become generation Xs and then become baby boomers. At these various phases, employees have different drivers. As a leader, you need to be cognisant that each generation needs to be managed differently, but not necessarily for the long term.”

Collins says that the dynamics around the interview process have also changed. “To attract a candidate, interviewers need to be the sales person for the company and demonstrate the same values that the organisation espouses. There needs to be a match between the marketing brand, which people see in the marketplace, and the internal culture within the organisation.”

Wendy Lenton from Vodafone agrees. “Don’t sell one thing in the interview just to get the candidate in through the door and then not deliver on this when they start the job. No one wins if there’s a big difference; people stay longer when there is a match.”

In essence, the silver bullet for companies wanting to engage their valuable staff is hard work and commitment. With no effective quick fix, organisations, and particularly HR departments, are faced with a situation where comprehensive strategies need to be developed and implemented.

If you don’t, rest assured your competitors will be, as the quest for attracting and retaining valuable employees continues in earnest.

The sexy stuff

Fortune magazine in the US recently released a listing of the 100 best companies to work for in 2007. As part of this survey, a list of “best benefits” included fully paid healthcare premiums, on-site childcare facilities, work/life balance, telecommuting or work from home, and fully paid sabbaticals.

Michael Collins of Talent Solutions describes these types of benefits as “bells and whistles”. “We have found that organisations that are confident with their strategy tend not to worry so much about these types of benefits, as they’ve got the fundamentals right,” he says. “Throwing money into these types of initiatives doesn’t necessarily fix the important issues required to engage your valuable employees.”
David Brown of Hewitt Associates agrees: “It is not the answer to focus on the sexy stuff. The basics come first and this incremental stuff can come later.”