Employee Engagement; A fad or here to stay?

Walk into most FTSE 500 companies and you will, at some point, hear someone talk about employee engagement. In some companies it is as evident as talk of gross margin and profit Yet, you will find little or no evidence of engagement being a factor in the day to day discussion in the offices of SMEs. So, what is employee engagement? Why is it so important to large companies and yet so absent in the thinking of smaller companies?

Mutual-gains relationship

The simple fact (supported by extensive research) is employees who share a mutual-gains relationship with their employers are likely to deliver better business outcomes than those who don’t. Large companies understand this and therefore value engaged employees; not only are they happier, healthier and more fulfilled than ‘disengaged’ employees, they are more likely to deliver higher customer satisfaction levels and productivity. In addition, they are less likely to take time off sick, have less accidents at work and stay longer with the company. In other words, increasing employee engagement contributes to the bottom line; it matters!

Blue-chip companies

Based upon this understanding, many blue-chip companies will employ the services of consulting and research companies such as Gallup and SRS to not only measure employee engagement but (and this is critical) identify ways in which employee engagement might be increased. You won’t fatten a calf by just weighing it.
Taking Gallup as a leading example, they measure engagement using a 12 item survey:

Where do these items come from? In essence, they are the items that when presented to top performing teams, those teams consistently and strongly agree to the statements when they think about their workplace. Even the item asking if they have a best friend at work! Of course, this is also indicates that these 12 factors are the key to (or predictors of) outstanding performance.
Take a look at any of the organisations conducting research into this area and you will very quickly understand that the person that makes the biggest difference to an employee’s engagement level is the manager; most research shows that people join companies but leave a manager. In fact, you could say that the factors measured by employee engagement surveys are simply the factors that naturally great managers focus on, and get right, consistently.

The challenge for all companies is that most people are not naturally great managers. Sadly, it is an enduring truth that most companies persist in promoting their top performers, not by expanding their responsibilities within their area of expertise but promote them away from it…into management. Not only does their performance suffer, but so does that of their team.
In reality, this is unlikely to change. But, if we accept that most people asked to manage people are not innately suited to that role, we can at least give them some training that will decrease the damage they might do. At the same time, we can measure their performance. In just the same way as we measure sales, profit etc.

So, why is it that you will rarely find evidence of SMEs focusing on employee engagement? Maybe it is sometimes a result of ignorance. This is unlikely to be the case for most; it is about the cost. To employ the services of a company such as Gallup will be prohibitively expensive; the starting point is probably around £5,000 per day. Of course, a significant part of this is paying for the years of research these large consultancies have access to. However, smaller consultancies are able to offer the experience of often having worked with the large consulting companies coupled with the ability to adapt the large consulting companies’ approach to the unique needs of SMEs.