Employee Engagement

People Analytics: Congratulations. You’re engaged.

Alex Borekull

The Pub. Warm sanctuary on a cold November evening and a near scared social institution for many Brits, myself included. I was there again this Sunday, enjoying the company of friends and an oversized lunch. An ideal way to spend a few hours, hiding from winter and the pile of bills at home.

Perhaps it is the thought of the approaching Monday morning but soon conversation turned to work. Many familiar complaints emerged. Some amusing stories about colleagues were shared. Should a qualified ethnographer have been present, they’d have material enough for a book.

It seemed that all the people around that table faced similar work challenges; leadership didn’t understand the issues, meetings were unfocussed and protracted, powerful fiefdoms were being created by clever political manoeuvrings. It was all a bit depressingly familiar.

To use the language of HR, these people were all ‘disengaged’. To use the language of everyone else, they didn’t want to go to work tomorrow. Whilst each of them answers the call of the alarm clock, they do so grudgingly. Dysfunctional corporate cultures had robbed them of their motivation.

An Information Paradox.

It seems strange that we share candid views of our employers socially but not in the workplace. What if the concerns we liberally shared around a pub dinner table, were instead discussed around a board table? For a start, I think most of us would prefer to find something more interesting to talk about (i.e., anything but work) with our friends… but not BREXIT, nobody wants to talk about BREXIT.

And what about your employers? Unlike your friends, they are probably desperate to hear your candid views about how the workplace can be improved. HR functions and senior leadership teams spend considerable time, effort and resources to improve company culture. Perhaps some better information and guidance on how to do so effectively would be very welcome?

And so here is the paradox. Your senior colleagues, those that can make changes to improve your working life, are blissfully unaware of the problems. Friends and family are powerless to help but are probably deeply familiar with the problems to the point of murderous boredom.

Engagement; panacea or placebo?

For our collective sanity we need to resolve this paradox. Indeed, this is what ‘Employee Engagement’ is intended to solve. For anyone unfamiliar with this idea, Engagement is a measure of what used to be called job satisfaction; it is a framework supported by a set of questions that are sent out as a survey to employees and the answers can be used to calculate an Engagement score.

Companies have been measuring ‘Employee Engagement’ for about twenty-five years. Many conduct annual surveys and benchmarking exercises to find out how to improve corporate cultures. Deloitte estimate the annual market for these surveys is $1bn in the US, so given the investment it is strange that so many companies struggle to understand drivers of ‘job satisfaction’. Why is this?

We have a theory. An increasing number of companies cannot correlate engagement with the behaviours of their employees. Engagement can be high but so can attrition, whilst productivity remains stubbornly low. There is increasingly strong evidence and a growing number of people that think engagement metrics can be improved upon (significantly) as a measure of organisation health.

That matters. If the measures we rely upon are providing a false signal, it will mislead us about whether we should act or not, the nature of issues and how to solve them. How can motivation, job satisfaction and commitment be improved if engagement isn’t an accurate measure?

So what’s the problem (and the solutions) with current approaches to measuring engagement? We believe there are three simple, principle challenges to engagement surveys and frameworks:

  • People don’t talk in ‘check-boxes’. We talkin sentences of carefully selected words. Language is a complex, sophisticated tool. It is the best tool available for understanding one another. So, let’s use it. Instead of simple ‘1 to 5’ rating systems or a basic ‘yes / no’ questions, use open text questions that provide rich, deep data about organisations.
  • Yes, we’re all individuals. Each of us has a unique cultural background and identity. Companies also think of themselves as having unique identities. So why do we use a single framework / organisational theory to benchmark multiple companies? We need more sophisticated analysis that creates measures of culture that are unique to each organisation.
  • Stay in touch, see you next year. Annual surveys are out of date by the time they are completed. In fast moving corporates, we cannot rely on data that is nearly eleven months old. Higher frequency surveys create more relevant data and time series data; both are essential. At a minimum, we should survey a representative sample every month.

The above are not just good conceptual ideas, they are achievable. We can train intelligent machines to develop concepts of language and can use that knowledge to analyse text data. Check boxes are out, open text and language analysis are in, and the quality of analysis improves significantly.

So, technology has progressed to the point whereby we can step out of the shadow of traditional surveying. The constraints (i.e., reliance on closed question surveying) that were in place when engagement frameworks were first developed no longer exist. In other words, companies can replace engagement surveys with something else… something, well, more engaging.

Cultural Change

There is another greater benefit to this approach. It creates a new future, one in which employers are better at listening to complaints and encouraging people to discuss ideas to improve workplaces using subtle, contextual language. It can replace check boxes with a real, human conversation.

And armed with this information, companies can create better working practices and culture.

And what is more, perhaps a few more of us might look forward to Monday mornings.

And even better, perhaps we’ll find something more interesting to discuss over Sunday lunch

It’s time to start the conversation

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