Engaging matters, by David MacLeod & Nita Clarke

15 Apr 10
Improving employee relations is even more important during the economic downturn

Improving employee relations is even more important during the economic downturn

The mantra of ‘more for less’ is being voiced increasingly loudly across the public sector. In such circumstances, where organisations of all shapes and sizes are trying to carry out their remits with fewer resources, leaders should be focusing more than ever on unlocking the potential of their people. That’s why improving relations with staff and ensuring they are involved in decisions have to be priorities. We call this ‘employee engagement’.

Put simply, this is the oil in the wheels of any organisation: it’s how an employer builds a productive relationship with employees. It is about ensuring that every employee feels part of the organisation, that everyone is working towards the same goals and giving their best. Done effectively, it can inspire employees to give extra commitment and effort to the organisation, increasing productivity and performance as a result.

There is no question that employee engagement makes a difference. Last year, we co-wrote Engaging for success, an independent report to government exploring the role that employee engagement can play in increasing performance.

During our research, we met many public sector organisations that showed us how effective employee involvement had helped them improve the quality and efficiency of their services. These included councils, government departments, NHS trusts and colleges.

Wychavon District Council is a very good example. It went from patchy customer service and departmentalism to being named best council to work for by The Times in 2008. It is the only district council to score top marks in use of resources and value-for-money audit assessments for four years running.

Jack Hegarty, the council’s managing director, says: ‘Our strong performance is down to the engagement of our people; we simply couldn’t deliver the great deal residents expect from us without the motivated team we now have.’

We also collated a range of studies and metrics that confirmed the case for employee engagement. For example, a study from Towers Watson found 78% of highly involved employees in the UK public sector felt they could make an impact on public service provision or customer service. That’s compared with just 29% of the ‘disengaged’. Other studies highlighted significant benefits in areas such as innovation, productivity, employee advocacy and absence rates.

The case for engagement is clear, but these are challenging times. Recent research has suggested that public sector staff are even more concerned than those in the private sector about the economic climate. With pressure growing, and speculation over the scale of potential spending cuts, public sector organisations might well be unsure of how to involve their employees in a sustainable and enduring way.

Our research tells us there are four vital areas or ‘enablers’ that shape effective engagement – and these are arguably more important in difficult times than they are in benign conditions.

First, there is leadership that explains where the organisation is going, why and how employees can contribute.

Secondly, managers need to motivate, challenge and support employees, treating them as individuals and seeking and responding to their views.

Thirdly, an effective employee voice is needed, which ensures employees in all areas feel informed, listened to and involved in decision-making.

Finally, there is integrity, to ensure there is no gap between what leaders in the organisation say and what they do.

We identified these in Engaging for success. Following our report, we have been working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and a range of business and public sector leaders, employers and employee engagement practitioners to develop practical guidance to help employers turn principles into practice.

We hope this material will help public sector organisations, as well as businesses across the country, to make employee involvement a reality.

Organisations that rise to the challenge and make this a priority will be able to call on their people to help navigate them through challenging times. Organisations that don’t might find the year is even more challenging than they currently anticipate.

David MacLeod and Nita Clarke are former government advisers. The guidance is available at www.businesslink.gov.uk/employeeengagement

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