"One of the most significant changes that digital technologies have brought about is the way organisations approach employee communication and engagement."
M7: Describe Engage and what you’re experiencing in your industry.
AB: Our purpose as a firm is to create highly engaged and effectively led organisations.
We believe that a highly engaged organisation is one equipped to drive the change needed to achieve its goals.
We know that businesses succeed when leaders understand how to engage employees with their vision, strategy and values. Businesses perform when leaders and employees are fully engaged with the role they play in delivering these.
To achieve this, we work with leaders to define, communicate and connect employees with vision and strategy and to role-model the values and behaviours needed to achieve these.
We support managers by translating and localising vision and strategy for their teams, role-modelling the required values and behaviours, and embedding these as tools for performance assessment and improvement.
We also help organisations enable their employees to perform and deliver, drive change, represent and promote the organization, live the values and behaviours and stay and develop.
Our industry has evolved rapidly in the past five years. There has been huge consolidation among the larger players (HR consultancies and engagement survey houses) alongside the emergence of new entrants: ‘pure-play’ technology providers, and niche boutique research and consulting firms like ENGAGE which cater for more bespoke approaches for clients.
Obviously our experience over the past two months has changed dramatically. During the COVID-19 pandemic, clients still have a real demand for great leadership and engagement research and advice, but their focus has moved heavily. Now, their priorities are in three areas:
1. how to deal with the immediate crisis
2. how to recover from the operational challenges
3. how to thrive in the new world of work.
We’ve adapted the ways we work with our clients to ensure we can help them adjust, and we’re already seeing some interesting results that suggest how businesses are coping short term and strategising for the long term.
M7: Could you give our readers a sense of the demographic of Engage and tell us a little about your culture?
AB: We are still a relatively young company – it has been seven years since we conducted a management buy-out - but our people range from seasoned experts, with 25 years+ experience in HR consulting, to young Gen Z’s who bring new skills and energy in the form of coding expertise and people analytics.
Our client base spans industries, geographies, demographics and size. We work with organisations across media, insurance, fintech, public sector and retail, some of whom are global or pan-European, while others are primarily UK-based. Within these organisations, the teams we work with vary hugely – from senior, long-established leadership teams to new recruits and everyone in between.
Our own culture is a mix: we are challenging and supportive; analytical and creative; and serious about the impact our work has without taking ourselves too seriously. We are, after all, a people business and often dealing with sensitive business challenges or individual’s strengths and weakness. A core part of this is being able to engage on both professional and personal level to create a culture of trust and partnership.
M7: How does Engage cultivate an environment that encourages employees to seek guidance and support from leaders?
AB: The leaders at ENGAGE always try to frame questions for our people: what are we trying to solve here? What does the bigger picture tell us? How can we zoom out to add context? We hope this helps employees to seek guidance from us (but we’re not always giving them the answers!)
We try to make sure every employee has access to coaching, mentoring and learning in equal measure to help them feel supported. This may come from colleagues or from external help.
"Organisations need to treat their employees in exactly the same way as they do their customers."
M7: With many more people working from home, leaders are starting to experience a drop in people's motivation at work. In your opinion, how can smart managers effectively lead and motivate newly remote teams during COVID-19 pandemic?
AB: There is no single answer to this critical question. These are unprecedented times and there is no off-the-shelf-playbook for the leaders of any organisation. However, based on our conversations with our clients and other organisations, and based on the best practice we are seeing across multiple sectors and company sizes, we’ve seen some clear trends that may help.
Here are the common traits we believe will help drive smart, effective remote leadership:
Be visible and make yourself available. This includes some critical steps, including communicating your contingency plan; staying focused on what matters; establishing regular check ins; providing a range of communication channels; creating interaction and providing clarity about when you are available for questions.
Be open and honest.You may be asking people to do very different things or to do things very differently and transparency during this time will be even vital than under normal circumstance for leaders. This means being candid, being quick to communicate, and having complete clarity around your messaging.
Be supportive and reduce anxiety. Research has shown that leaders, in particular, have a special role in reducing employee anxiety during major crises. For example, many of the studies done around crisis communication after 9/11 showed that many employees felt it was hugely important to hear the voice of the leader, whether live or through email, phone messages, or social media.
Share good news.Being able to share snippets of positive news during a crisis can have a huge impact on morale and the sense of camaraderie within work teams, particularly when they are being forced to work remotely. Asking for these to be shared during tough times can be one way to alleviate the sense of tension in an organization, wherever people may physically be.
M7: What do you see as the most noticeable change right now happening in the workforce, encouraged by the rise of digital technologies?
AB: One of the most significant changes that digital technologies have brought about is the way organisations approach employee communication and engagement. It’s easy to assume that all employees in the workplace will happily engage with their teams and managers through digital-only methods, since as consumers they engage readily through these channels.
For us, this is a dangerous, assumption. A recent client survey we conducted revealed that, around 20% of their workforce could be classified as reluctant adopters of new technology – which means 1 in every 5 employees could miss out on vital communications if digital-only engagement is used.
Of course, at the other end of the spectrum around 20% of employees are tech ‘addicts’, with remaining percentage somewhere in the middle. These groups are probably more likely to engage easily with digital channels – but even then, engaging for workplace communications may be a very different proposition than engaging socially, and must never just be assumed.
It’s critical, then, that employers don’t implement digital communication or engagement tools without first understanding the varying needs of their entire employee population. To do this, they need to treat their employees in exactly the same way as they do their customers – segmenting them according to needs and preferences, and then honing down the best and most appropriate ways to communicate with different groups.
It’s also important to have a very clear objective, or set of objectives, about what any new tool is aiming to achieve, rather than jumping on the bandwagon of the latest and greatest messaging app.
How the tool is going to be used, what employee groups are going to gain, and how the organisation as a whole is going to benefit, will all affect the choice of engagement mechanism. Even when a best-fit selection is made, work is needed to ensure all employees are trained to get the most out of the new tool – and critically that they understand why it’s being used and how it will help them.
The final – and now more prominent piece of the jigsaw – is data protection and privacy. Employers will need to have clear messaging and processes that outline the ways in which any information shared via digital tools will be used. While individuals are often happy to share the minutiae of their daily lives from a social perspective, their professional boundaries may be very different. This requires careful, objective consideration.
"Companies need to align their customer and employee propositions and ensure they are driving the right behaviors and business outcomes."
M7: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work - what day to day processes have you had to re-tool to be able to pull them off remotely? What does your remote tech stack look like?
AB: We have continued to work in our two primary areas for clients: leadership effectiveness and employee engagement. And, thankfully, our business model and finances have remained robust throughout the pandemic to date.
However, the focus of our work and the way we deliver it has had to shift significantly. For example, whereas much of our leadership coaching work used to be delivered in-person at clients’ offices, we are now doing all of our coaching remotely (via Zoom, Teams, WebEx, BlueJeans etc.). This has been a seamless transition – both for us and for our clients – which opens up new opportunities for the future, even when we return to some form of normal.
Our own internal teamwork has shifted solely onto Microsoft Teams – we have short, 30-minute meetings each morning (“What’s coming up / who needs help?”) and evening (“How’s today been/ how are people feeling?”)
Luckily, the availability of so many collaboration tools, and the agility of both our own team and those of our clients to adopt these, has made the situation much more manageable than we could have predicted.
M7: To achieve engagement, what should executives, line managers and HR professionals be concentrating on, regardless of the tool?In what waysare the Leadership Effectiveness Programmes at Engage helping organizations meet their strategic goals?
AB: Perhaps the single biggest thing that senior leaders, managers and HR teams should focus on is purpose. We often talk about the purpose of our lives at a personal level, but businesses are increasingly questioning the purpose of their organisation at a strategic level and how well it aligns with the personal purpose of their employees and customers.
Having a clear, well communicated purpose and meaning helps keep employees aligned during times of broad industry disruption and change, as well as driving business success in ‘good’ times.
Achieving this, however, takes effort. It requires alignment between our work and our core values and goals.
Our own approach to leadership and engagement with clients follows this exactly: we must fully understand the goals of individuals and organisations before we work with them to establish and embed their own purpose.
Aligning employee experience with corporate brand, establishing solid corporate mindsets and leadership behaviours, and the importance of balancing agility with stability, are all critical contributors to establishing successful, long-term business purpose in today’s ever-changing world.
There are three critical points that we as HR practitioners must never forget when it comes to truly understanding and communicating business purpose:
1. Companies need to align their customer and employee propositions and ensure they are driving the right behaviors and business outcomes. Doing so results in excellent employee and business outcomes – from reduced attrition and increased engagement to higher share prices.
2. To ensure purpose is understood and lived by all employees, it needs to be clearly communicated from the top. It also needs to be measured regularly to ensure continued success – and adapted quickly if things aren’t working.
3. All listening initiatives (360, engagement surveys, pulse surveys), must be aligned to your organisational purpose and values. This not only ensures they’re maintained as the business grows, but also provides essential navigation in times of change.
M7: If I were to say to a bunch of people who know you, ‘Give me three adjectives that best describe you,’ what would I hear?
AB: If people are describing me, they’re likely to say I’m focused, fast-paced and funny.
About ENGAGE, I think we’d be considered smart, value-adding and fun to work with.