Let’s begin by playing a quick word association game. When you read the following words, take note of the first thing to pop into your head. So let’s start: Business. Corporation. Executive. Management. Development. Production.
If the first images that sprung to mind were pie charts, graphs, boardrooms, factory floors or machinery, suits, more graphs, and maybe even company logos emblazoned across jets or skyscrapers, don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. But the chances are that you’ve missed what actually joins these things together – people. You know, the ones who make business an actual real thing.
Unfortunately, it is normal for workers to sometimes disappear from the equation. For many years employees have simply been cast as cogs in a vast machine. Part of the legacy of the Industrial Revolution where the ends justifies the means. Where the worker works and business profits.
But things have changed, and changed utterly.
The worker still works, of course, and businesses still profit. It’s just that now, companies need to work for their employees too. Those that fail to do so run the serious risk of being left behind and becoming relics of a bygone era.
The 3 Ages of Management
The evolution of business is really the evolution of management.
In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, Professor Rita McGrath outlined three key “ages” of business management since the Industrial Revolution. They were:
- The Age of Execution: the manager organises resources (e.g. workers) for maximum production
- The Age of Expertise: managers fine-tunes the organisational machine (e.g. the labour force) using information and statistics
- The Age of Empathy: workers are valued not just for what they do, but for what they know and for their individual qualities and potential
For McGrath, business has just recently entered the “empathy” stage. This sees employees actively seeking organisations that create more meaningful experiences for them. In other words, aiming to join a company that values employees for their knowledge, empathises with their needs, and treats them as unique individuals with distinct goals and talents.
Exploitation vs Empowerment: A Tale of Two Approaches
But the change to the age of empathy in business is far from complete. For many, it’s still a case of “are we there yet?”
Case Study A: Sports Direct
One recent high-profile case is Sports Direct who came under fire for how it managed (or rather mismanaged) its workforce. Employees of the UK’s largest sporting goods retailer complained of unpaid overtime, zero-hour contracts, public shaming of underperformance, underpayment, and zero-tolerance policies against absenteeism and tardiness. In a report on the company, politicians compared working conditions to a Victorian workhouse, whereby staff were treated “as commodities rather than human beings”.
The worker works, then, same as before, but with one small difference: the business did not profit.
In fact shares in the business lost half their value in 2016 as investor interest waned as a result of repeated profit warnings, investigations and bad publicity.
Worse yet, the company began to haemorrhage its most valuable asset – its employees – as staff turnover rose to a staggering 22 per cent, almost three times the national average.
Case Study B: Campbell Soup
If this is a case of an organisation’s resistance to the age of empathy, then the story of Campbell Soup is one of embrace.
Back in 2001 the company’s sales had declined to the extent that a takeover seemed imminent. A Gallup survey around the time indicated exceptionally low employee engagement levels in the organisation (62% of workers surveyed did not feel actively engaged). Things looked grim, so Campbell began to focus on its employees, providing them with continuous feedback loops, promoting new leaders from within and developing a company culture that valued its employees.
Eight years later, 68 per cent of Campbell employees reported feeling actively engaged at work. The knock-on effect of this was a 32 per cent profit increase and 30 per cent investor return over the same period. In an industry in which stability is the norm, such figures drove Campbell Soup right to the top of the food chain, as it were.
It should be clear from the examples above that the old top-down organisational model is fast becoming obsolete. Companies that are slow to adapt to the changing business environment are bound to face significant staff retention problems.
And, given the evolving expectations of the next generation of workers, things are likely to be even tougher when it comes to acquiring the right employees further down the line.
What is an Employee Engagement Plan and Why Does it Matter?
To fully understand a employee engagement plan means first understanding employees.
That means changing your perspective to see employees as an essential part of the service or product you offer – they help develop it, promote it, improve it and deliver it to customers.
Empowerment therefore means giving employees all they need to allow them to continuously do this to the best of their ability.
Of course giving employees “all they need” means constantly adapting to what they need.
Much has been made of the needs of the estimated 75 million millennials now joining the workforce. Many may scoff at “needs” such as nap rooms, foosball tables, hand-roasted coffee and free gourmet food, but the things that are actually important to millennials are the things that enable them to feel engaged at work and perform better, namely:
- A flexible work environment
- A clear sense of purpose
- A more integrated and collaborative work culture
- A sense of autonomy, or self-direction
- A clear learning for learning, development and career advancement
Such expectations pose a challenge to traditional leadership styles, but the rewards of adaptation overshadow the costs as millennials bring a mixture of unique skills, creativity, tech savviness and – in spite of common assumptions – a high level of work commitment to the companies they join.
Employee engagement plan is therefore essential for companies looking to be competitive in attracting and retaining top talent – now and in the future. Put simply, empowerment enables higher engagement; engagement improves retention; and retention increases productivity and profit.
Empowerment Through Empathy
If we’re totally honest about it, we’d likely each admit that technology has drastically impacted the average work-life balance.
We check work emails at home, and browse our personal social media pages at work. There’s no point in denying it, the statistics are there to prove it.
But this blurring of the lines needn’t be negative. Part of what empowerment means in practice is seeing employees as people with distinct characteristics, needs, desires, fears, interests, habits and abilities.
Give employees more control
As we mentioned earlier, employees are more engaged when they are given a degree of flexibility to work in their own way, and on their own terms.
For many modern workplaces, employee autonomy is a well-established necessity, given that an increasing number of companies have international teams, mobile workers, and a mix of part- and full-timers.
Offering employees the tools and freedom to control their own workflow may seem counter-intuitive to traditional team leaders and managers, but it’s not about diminishing authority so much as showing faith in autonomy. Millennials don’t want to be managed; they want to be mentored.
This sense of autonomy and self-direction extends to personal development too.
The modern-day employee has constant access to a world of knowledge. Why shut that off when they step through the office door?
Given the opportunity and means, the vast majority of employees will identify their own areas of weakness. They’ll also understand what needs to be done in order to address them.
Related Article: Finding the Best Tool for Your Talent Development Program
Affording employees the freedom to take control over the direction and scope of their own development is equivalent to saying “I trust your work ethic, I trust your ability, and I trust your methods for getting the best results”. That, by anyone’s standards, is what empowerment should sound like.
Set up a feedback loop
One of the easiest ways you can empower employee is simply through offering them regular feedback.
This needn’t take the form of hour-long appraisals or performance reviews. Engaged employees want to know how they are doing and what they can do to improve their performance on an ongoing, quick-fire basis. This helps make growth fluid, not halting.
Create a collaborative environment
Engagement is driven as much by peers as it is by managers. A company culture that empowers its talent is more likely to find that enthusiasm becomes infectious.
The bright sparks in any organisation are always keen to connect with others to share their ideas, receive feedback, advice, support and hear the ideas of others. Facilitating this is the most effective way of allowing innovation to grow organically.
If connection, collaboration and open knowledge sharing are to be maximised (and time-wasting interruptions minimised), then it’s essential you put the right tools in place. Maybe even just one right tool!
Embrace open communication
Just as feedback is a vital element of an employee engagement plan, so too is communication.
Ensure you have a channel to clearly communicate your company’s mission, values and general updates. Having such a channel also allows employees to become involved in the conversation. This is what’s known as a “listening environment” in which all voices can be heard, and no idea goes to waste. It also creates a space where any organisational problems can be discussed and solutions can be offered.
In the age of empathy, companies must show a strong commitment to their employees before expecting commitment in return. After all, there is no more important investment than the one you make in the people that work for you.
The workplace must work, in other words, so that the worker can profit.
Find out how GoConqr can help your company empower its employees by getting in touch through the contact form below.