4 female business leaders share their employee engagement nuggets of wisdom

Done correctly, employee engagement should motivate employees to perform consistently at their best.

All employees want to feel valued and seek meaningful connections from their companies. Without these things, they are bound to seek opportunities elsewhere. This is why executives around the world agree that enhancing employee engagement is one of their top global business strategies. Not only does this have a positive impact on employee retention, productivity and loyalty, it is also a key link to customer satisfaction, company reputation and overall stakeholder value. Increasingly, organisations are turning to HR to deliver a competitive advantage by setting the agenda for employee engagement and commitment.

If done correctly, employee engagement should motivate employees by making them feel like their views are valued and that the company cares about their wellbeing. Also, when employees feel that they are an integral part of a bigger purpose, they are bound to remain focused on the organisation’s goals.

Speaking at the inaugural HR Indaba, leadership coach Nosipho Damasane said that employee engagement is HR’s ‘after-sales service’, which most organisations execute poorly. She believes that most employee-related problems occur because HR tends to drop the ball after bringing people into the organisation.

“Research has shown that, in the US alone, the cost of disengagement is $300 billion per annum. It is a huge number but people are not alarmed by it because it is money that falls through the cracks of unhappiness,” said Nosipho, adding that failure to engage continuously with employees prevents organisations from identifying the things that cause unhappiness and disenchantment, which ultimately results in reduced productivity.

“When you buy a car, you expect someone to call you afterwards to ask you ‘how does it feel? Are you happy with the way it drives? Do you know all the details around your maintenance plan.’ After three years, you have someone that calls again to say, ‘are you aware that you can get a great deal if you trade in your car for an upgrade at this point?’ But, in some of your companies, HR engages with candidates during the appointment process and then doesn’t hear from them again until they resign or there is a disciplinary issue."

Engagement without action is pointless

 Ultimately, if you want to know what your employees feel at work, ask them. That’s what engagement is about. And, while many companies do engagement surveys and have managers that claim to have 'open-door' policies, Oracle HR director Queen Mokonoto says it is often the case that those same companies do very little to act on the outcomes of such initiatives. But there is no point in listening to concerns and consulting employees on a particular issue, and then not doing anything to deal effectively with the concerns that are raised.

Says Queen: The purpose of any grievance mechanism is to draw management's attention to employees' grievances and to settle them in the most effective way. But there is a tendency to view employees as the root of all the problems within the business, forgetting that there are managers who are creating those problems. If an organisation has a culture in which employee grievances are perceived as negative or putting management in a bad light, employees will either further resent the company, lose the confidence to express their grievances in the future, or even lose faith in management to actually attempt to solve their grievances.”

No one size fits all

Cell C’s Juliet Mhango says some of the things that improve engagement and productivity include social cohesion, feeling supported by one's supervisor, information sharing, common goals and vision, communication, and trust. Because, at the end of the day, employees want to feel valued and respected. They want to know that their work is meaningful and their ideas are heard. Retention risk assessments must also be conducted with all employees, especially those with high potential and those in critical positions. That way, if you know what risk you have of losing them, you can take measure to reduce it.

"We had culture sessions, where we first decided what we wanted to see as the executive team. Once we knew what it was that we wanted the organisation to feel like and the way we wanted our employees to think and approach their work, we then spent time exploring avenues through which we could achieve those objectives," says Juliet.

"As an example, we decided that teamwork and collaboration would have to be key pillars of our culture because people needed to pull together towards a common vision. So that was an area that we dealt with.  We also decided that we want the company to be more customer-centric, so 'putting to the consumer first' became of our values.'"

Once the desired values and culture of the organisation were fleshed out, they were defined as the “Cell C Way”. There was a big employee engagement drive to bring the Cell C Way to life.

However, because you are dealing with people who, by virtue of being people, are different, the effectiveness of engagement will vary from person to person and from company to company.  As an HR leader, you might have the pressure to do what others are doing, borrowing employee engagement ideas from what is perceived to be trendy. But that is a recipe for failure. Some companies will have a gaming station or pool table in the office as a means of creating an environment for employees to engage with one another. But, while that might work in, say, a tech company, it might not necessarily be a good idea in an auditing firm.

The best approach, Juliet says, is to simply ask your employees. Because, ultimately, employee engagement is about identifying and finding solutions to problems in the workplace. It’s about figuring out the loopholes in your work process that only the employees can tell you. Just like a customer is the best person to provide feedback for a service or product, your employees are the best people to provide feedback on your workplace

ESOPs are a great way to boost engagement

One option that is sure to boost engagement, regardless of the industry you’re in, is an employee share ownership plan (ESOP). Clicks group HR director Bertina Engelbrecht says her involvement in the ESOP is one of the things she has been most proud of in her 12 years at the company.  

The programme was introduced in 2011, and the labour turnover rate has decreased significantly since then, allowing the company to keep critical talent much longer than they had been able to do before the ESOP.

The point of departure was to find a way to advance the transformation agenda of the organisation while also supporting the attraction and retention of scarce and critical skills. They also wanted to find a way to reward the loyalty of people who had been involved in building the company over an extended period of time. The share scheme was the answer. 

“Without taking employees' wellbeing to heart, an organisation’s culture can quickly deteriorate into one of treating employees as commodities, which only costs organisations more in the long run because, when that is the case, the only way to attract and retain the best talent is to pay them more money that they would be able to earn elsewhere.”

The traditional role of HR – primary functions that are limited to recruitment, training, salary payments, employee relations, and labour law requirements – has evolved to one that requires ongoing engagement and involvement in the business. This is because the long-term impact of having unsatisfied employees is that their energy trickles down throughout the organisation until, eventually, it is transferred onto customers.