Friday, 30 September 2011

Small and Medium Enterprises and Employee Engagement

Irrelevant, or something to really care about?

Employee Engagement is something most people working for larger organisations will be familiar with, as at some stage during their working lives they will have been told by their management that it is something they (management that is) care about. And a highly visual expression of this will have come through the annual (or bi-annual, 6 monthly, quarterly even) Employee Engagement Survey.

Yet, people working in Smaller and Medium Enterprises (SME’s), may be forgiven for thinking that as far as they are concerned, the concept of Employee Engagement is a bit like Loch Ness Monster: you’ve heard about it, but seriously question whether it actually exists. And that is perfectly understandable, as in most organisations, the mechanics used to measure, report, and act on employee engagement are such that there is absolutely no chance that a company with, say, 10 employees, can execute these.
But that is not to say that for that reason employee engagement doesn’t matter. If anything, the smaller the organisation, the more important it is that employees have fully bought into what the company is doing, feel proud of its achievements, and want to go the extra mile. Indeed: feel engaged.

So what can smaller companies do to ensure they look after their employees’ engagement? Organising a large, cumbersome, time-consuming and costly employee engagement survey would be a bad move for anyone employing 50 people or less, and even within the 50 – 100 employee band an organisation should ask itself whether an exercise mainly focussing on numbers is a good use of time, money and resources. Instead, they may wish to focus on one or more of the following alternatives:
  • Study the data you already have – every organisation has data. Staff turnover figures, disciplinary, sickness and absence stats and customer feedback and complaints are just some data points most organisations have access to, but most will already have much more. By carefully studying trends in these, and discussing such trends with your people, you should get some insight in whether as an organisation you are properly looking after your people and keeping them engaged. 
  •  Focus groups– run regular focus groups with groups of employees, allowing them to fully express themselves in terms of how they are currently experiencing their jobs, the company, their colleagues and company management. Ideally, such focus groups should be fully anonymous and therefore conducted with the help of an independent external facilitator, but if a lack of financial resources prevent this, and the company has a fairly open culture, what you could consider is to have some trusted internal facilitators run such events. 
  •  Staff meetings and Away days – get all your employees together once every so often (i.e. once a year), and create a programme in which the organisation can communicate with its people, people with the company, and with one another. By building in various interactive exercises (i.e. sub group break outs with discussions about relevant topics, Q&A sessions), employees get an improved sense of involvement – which is always beneficial when building an engaged workforce - and management gets a much better understanding of the general mood of their workforce. Also, such sessions allow management to showcase their views on the future, interact with their people in a low key and informal way, demonstrate their pride in the company, celebrate successes, and listen. All of these have been demonstrated many times to be key building blocks of engagement. 
  •  A company fun day or a night out in the pub – without suggesting for even one nano second to make this your organisation’s ONLY engagement related action, it should not be underestimated how important the odd moment of pure fun and relaxation can be for the ‘emotional wellbeing’ of your organisation. Being together informally, ideally with any organisational hierarchies firmly parked in the background, can help break barriers, offer opportunities for gauging insights normally well hidden from sight, and simply allow your people to be together and interact as ‘normal’ human beings.
Where the above is just a sample of ‘interventions’ any organisation employing more than one person can undertake, what they all have in common is that they bring people together, make them share, and ensure they listen to one another. It may not provide you with a large and detailed report, but that in itself may not be such a bad thing. What would be a bad thing is for your organisation to do nothing!


Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner Think the Unthinkable

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Shooting from the Hip

I recently caught up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for some time. When I asked how he was doing, his  response was ‘I am just so ridiculously busy. Priorities change almost hourly, there are just not enough hours in the day.’ You wonder where he works? For a relief agency dealing with famine in Africa maybe? A fire fighter dealing with massive forest fires? Or News International’s PR agency? Had he worked for any of these, we’d probably all understand his predicament.

But no, the friend concerned works for a multinational, as a senior member of staff in a corporate department. No fires to fight, no immediate issues around malnutrition to solve, or indeed any reputation issues to salvage. In fact, the situation couldn’t be more steady. And yet, ‘priorities change almost hourly’.

Having heard his predicament, I couldn’t resist a tongue in cheek response: 'But surely, the company has defined its vision and values, has a strategy, and priorities are simply aligned with these?’. He looked at me as if I had spoken in a foreign language….

Sadly though, many of you will recognise this situation, and I suspect most of you also work for companies where the ‘Vision and Values to Strategy to Policy’ principle ought to be working. So why doesn’t it? Why do organisations often show such poor discipline when it comes to their day-to-day activities, leading to overworked, frustrated and confused employees, and, dare I say it, huge inefficiencies and wasting of resources.

As always, there isn’t one simple answer. But in general terms, it is often a matter of people, usually very senior ones, being allowed to put into practice ideas (I purposely refrain from calling them policies or strategies) as they see fit. Often abandoning work in progress with the click of a mouse, and / or following fads not because these fit with what the company has set out to do, but just because they want to. Or because they identify a problem they believe needs immediate attention, and rather than analysing it properly and looking for a sustainable solution, they stick a short term plaster, meaning that in the not too distant future, the issue will probably be a priority again.

I have seen this in action many times, for example when reporting Engagement Survey Findings to Senior Boards. Their response to a reported area for attention would often include comments such as ‘well let’s set up an action track to deal with that’ or ‘let’s get a focus group together to see how we can best tackle this.’ Shooting from the hip, when clearly, they ought to know better.

So next time your organisation faces a serious issue, try and take a step back, and properly analyse what the problem is. My bet is that the vast majority can be aligned with the path your organisation has already set out to go. Align your challenges with this strategy, and empower people to deal with these at the right levels. And one day you may even find yourself having some spare time. Spare time you can use to think about the real issues. Or go home on time for once!

Ruud Jansen Venneboer, Managing Partner Think the Unthinkable