In the book of business buzz-phrases, ‘employee engagement’ occupies a pretty sizeable chapter. And, over the past decade, it’s a chapter that’s become incredibly well-thumbed. But are its virtues translating to the workplace? Perhaps not. In 2013, a Gallup study of the global workplace found that just 13% of employees felt ‘engaged’ with their work. More recently, a Virgin Pulse study revealed that around 70% of the American workforce is disengaged, pointing out that less-engaged employees are four times more likely to quit their job. The cost of replacing disengaged employees is, of course, high - but retaining them is expensive too; the Hay Group reports that ‘employee disengagement’ costs UK business around £340 billion in lost productivity every year. It’s a similar story all over the world - and it highlights an uncomfortable truth: despite the sustained hyperbole of employee engagement, something - quite literally - isn’t working.
The core principles of employee engagement are unquestionable. Building and maintaining an engaged workforce is key to productivity, customer experience and business growth. Attracting talent is futile if you cannot retain it for long enough to make a meaningful difference. Moreover, in markets where the clichéd war for talent is intense, keeping hold of the cream-of-the-crop is a critical business imperative. This is certainly the case in the competitive world of medical affairs. Earlier this year, the medical affairs market was valued at an estimated £6 billion a year in the UK alone - with around 50% of work outsourced to medical communications agencies and consultancies. However, although the market is growing exponentially, the talent pool across the sector remains relatively small. Agencies are forever competing to attract - and, crucially, retain - the best people. As demand for services grows and the market economy makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate on price, agencies know that their best source of competitive advantage is their people. The challenge is to find them and keep them - but the question is: how? It’s generally accepted that employee engagement is part of the solution. But to deliver it effectively, organisations must move beyond buzzwords and put the human into human resources.
Employee engagement is a global rebrand of what was once called ‘hygiene factors’, focusing on the drivers of motivation and satisfaction in the workplace. The new branding, which became the HR zeitgeist of the Noughties, has stuck. But so too have the challenges that created the need for it in the first place. That’s no surprise; the complexities of human behaviour are such that workplace motivation and job satisfaction will always remain an enduring challenge. There are, however, common patterns that can inform organisational approaches. In 2009, the UK’s now-defunct Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) published the MacLeod Report, a paper outlining best practice in employee engagement based on a review of successful, high-performing UK businesses. The report, Engaging for Success, identified four common enablers of engagement; Strategic Narrative, Engaging Managers, Employee Voice and Integrity. These enablers remain resonant today - not least in the competitive medical communications environment.
The MacLeod Report argues that in the most successful companies, leadership provides a strong, authentic and consistent strategic narrative about where an organisation is going and the values it advocates to take it there. The Report quotes Dianne Thompson, former CEO of UK lottery operator Camelot, who said: ‘Understanding the journey that a company is on is critical to keeping employees engaged.’ But understanding the journey is just the starting point. The key to engagement is ensuring that everyone can see how their role is aligned with the strategic story.
“There are lots of elements to employee motivation, but fundamentally one of the most important is having a sense of purpose. That’s what keeps people engaged,” says Dennis O’Brien, CEO, Lucid Group. “The best companies ensure that all their employees are aligned with a common and clearly defined organisational vision - and that their contribution to achieving its goals are acknowledged and rewarded. Undeniably, we operate in a commercial world where success is crudely measured in pounds and pence, fuelling environments that fixate on ‘tasks’ and hard metrics. However, the most motivating environments are often where the focus isn’t on the project or the profit - it’s on the people and the purpose. I’m convinced that every agency has great people. But the most successful agencies are those that harness that talent by aligning it to a purpose, empowering them to make a contribution and recognising their achievements. The marriage of great people and great purpose is extremely powerful.”
Manage the managers
Staff attrition in organisations is often a good barometer of its culture. Typically, a strong record of staff retention goes hand-in-hand with good management. According to the MacLeod Report, 80% of variation in engagement levels is linked directly to the line manager. “There’s an old saying,” says Dennis O’Brien: “People don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. That’s undoubtedly true. Employees will often find another job because they don’t feel they’re being recognised, supported or valued - and that’s typically down to poor management. It’s quite a paradox; organisations work hard to attract the best talent, only to shoot themselves in the foot by giving new recruits weak managers. It doesn’t matter how strong a company’s strategic vision is, if you give talented people a poor line manager, they’ll inevitably leave. Most managers are obsessed by ‘task’ and projects. It’s wrong. We train ours to think differently.”
The Beatles probably weren’t talking about employee engagement in 1963, but they almost had it right. Do you want to know the secret? Listen. According to MacLeod, the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For found that ‘feeling listened to’ is a key determinant in how employees value their organisations. What’s more, the best companies nurture a culture that allows an ‘employee voice’ to cascade across their organisation, ‘reinforcing and challenging views, between functions’. This ability to speak and be heard remains crucial today. “Company culture is vitally important - and the best cultures are based on a virtuous cycle of feedback,” says Deborah Braud, senior talent manager, Blue Latitude Health. “Evidence increasingly proves that organisations that have an open and collaborative culture tend to have better levels of employee engagement. This can manifest itself through activities such as internal workshops, company, team or one-to-one meetings, personal mentoring or annual engagement surveys. Whatever the method, it’s important to create an environment that not only encourages feedback but that also has mechanisms in place that show you act on the things that you hear. A healthy culture is collaborative, inclusive and supportive - it gives everyone a voice, right across the employee life cycle.”
Company culture is, of course, a broad church that touches every aspect of an organisation. But it’s a significant driver of employee motivation and satisfaction. “Employee engagement is all about the culture,” says Georgia Bartropp, specialist healthcare communications recruiter, Star. “Ultimately, we spend huge amounts of time at work with our colleagues, so a welcoming culture is a fundamental requirement. At its most effective, employment is a partnership between employer and employee and works best when there is open dialogue and a feeling that you’re in it together. Real progress is being made in this regard. Healthcare communications agencies have responded to the changing dynamics of modern society and are increasingly addressing the challenge of work/life balance with the introduction of flexible and remote working. Cultural initiatives such as these are all part of an ongoing transition from the traditional, autocratic approach to a more human relationship between employer and employee. And they’re an important factor in us deciding where we work.”
The only way is ethics
Finally, employee engagement is driven by organisational integrity - or as the IPA put it when describing the MacLeod Report in 2009, the notion that ‘the values on the wall are reflected in day-to-day behaviours’. Talking the talk and assuring the authenticity of your corporate brand is a key determinant of employee engagement.
“Integrity, and indeed engagement, starts at the recruitment phase,” says Georgia Bartropp. “The promise of career progression is another important factor in choosing where we work - and, happily, healthcare communications agencies are increasingly introducing academies or structured training programmes that give employees tremendous development opportunities. However, there are still examples of candidates who are sold the dream of career progression at interview, only for it not to materialise - or who have been inspired by the vision of the MD who interviews them, but later found the view at ground level does not reflect it. It’s important for employers to be honest and transparent. Anything less than that will damage corporate integrity and breed employee disengagement.”
Oprah Winfrey says that ‘real integrity is doing the right thing’. That same principle lies at the heart of talent management. “Fundamentally, it’s about doing what’s right,” says Deborah Braud. “Employers of choice recognise the importance of maintaining a positive corporate image and treating people as humans, not numbers. That approach should not only underscore the entire employee life cycle, it should pre- and post-date it - beginning at the recruitment phase and extending beyond the time an individual may have left a company. Human Resources is, by definition, a human endeavour. The most successful organisations never lose sight of that and put their people at the heart of all they do. That’s the very essence of integrity. The companies that get this right reap the ultimate rewards of engaged, productive and motivated teams. Maintaining that human focus is the key to attracting, developing and retaining talent. In the competitive world of healthcare communications, where career mobility is rife and talent is in high demand, it’s the only way to go.”
Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry.