In the last ten years, employee engagement has moved from an HR-owned ‘nice to have’ to a C-suite driver of sustained business success.

In fact, it’s now so important we’ve even started to see more enlightened investors go beyond the balance sheet to include employee sentiment as a measure in their investment decisions.

But while new business models and disruptive technologies are reshaping the world of work, the approach to engagement doesn’t seem to have kept pace. Dominated by the tried and tested annual survey, the engagement activities we see today are often focused more on coming up with a long list of metrics (and an even longer list of problems) than on finding valuable insights or practical ideas to create a great place to work.

So we decided to bring together a group of senior stakeholders over breakfast to explore whether it’s time for a new approach. As we shared our thoughts and opinions on what engagement 2.0 looks like over coffee and croissants, four key themes emerged.

1. Let’s focus on what we can control.

“How can anybody own engagement? Surely the only person that can own engagement is the employee and that’s not something we can control.”

When it comes to feeling engaged at work, many factors come into play. These are unique to the individual employee and often connected to life beyond work. So rather than spending time focusing on something we can’t control, like engagement, why don’t we focus our energy on something we can?

For the most part, organizations can shape the day-to-day experience they create for their people – both the physical and emotional. We can reinforce a compelling and consistent story; we can create HR processes and workspaces that support our culture; we can embed employee-friendly technology. These all have a positive and meaningful impact on people’s working lives. So focusing on getting the experience right is a smarter way to sustainable engagement.

It’s a philosophy most famously embraced by Airbnb. They appointed a Global Head of Employee Experience to manage the ecosystem of elements that affect their employees, like HR, IT, communications and facilities. In doing so, they’ve been able to build everyday employee experiences that truly reflects the Airbnb culture and brings their purpose to life.

2. Let’s thaw out the frozen middle.

“Your most common touchpoint in your day-to-day experience is your manager and your team. The manager has a critical role to play in building a productive and positive work environment where people can be their best. But how many get properly trained or coached in how to do it?"

Think of what creates the day-to-day experience for employees. It’s the physical environment they work in, the emails that pile into their inbox, the conversations they have with peers –sometimes even the quality of the coffee. But the most significant factor is the atmosphere within teams and people’s relationship with their manager.

Squeezed in between senior leadership and team leaders are the often forgotten or ‘frozen’ middle managers. Giving them the confidence, capabilities and commitment to shape an authentic employee experience that reflects the purpose and values of the organization is the key to sustainable engagement.

This doesn’t just need time and investment in learning and development targeting this group, but also a willingness for HR, communications, brand, IT and facilities to work together to give them the tools they need.

3. Let’s treat employees like customers.

“We need to treat our employees like our customers and this needs much greater convergence between the skillsets of HR and marketing. They may not realise it, but it’s a perfect match.”

Thinking about your employees in the same way you think about your customers brings a powerful perspective shift. It acknowledges the pivotal role people play in your business success. It reinforces that attracting, retaining and inspiring the best talent can only happen with a blend of the latest HR thinking and systems, a ‘marketing mindset’ and a suite of tools for understanding what the employee experience is – and how it could be improved.

Take journey mapping – a technique common to the world of customer attraction, but one that few organizations have fully embraced for their employees. Understanding the ‘moments of truth’, from first recruitment ad through to exit interview and beyond, is essential in making sure you create an experience that reflects the type of company you want to be. And the type your employees signed up to join.

4. Let’s move from annual metrics to real time insights.

“Our internal engagement tools and measurement and analysis tools just aren’t there yet. I don’t think they’ve evolved much in the last five years. We’ve got to move more quickly from insight to action”

So many companies are stuck in a pattern of annual engagement surveys. Ones that capture sentiment at a single time of the year and usually take months to analyse and act on. So by the time anything happens as a result, the world has moved on.

It seems ludicrous that in the age of instant communication and social sharing, we’re still asking employees to answer multiple choice questions once a year. We need to find better ways of tapping into employee sentiment. We should be monitoring daily, not yearly. And we should be moving beyond a one-way question and answer session to peer reviews and more nimble, open rating platforms like Glassdoor.

Assessing experience ‘live’ with tools that people like using is the way to understand the most important issues. It’s only once we’ve tapped into the collective intelligence of the organization that we can work together to make real improvements.

This also plays into the expectations of millennials who want more open, genuine conversations around things like diversity, purpose and gender equality. We should be using communication platforms like Slack to encourage these conversations and tap into the power of collective intelligence to define the actions we can take.

Final thoughts

Employee engagement has arguably overcome its toughest hurdle; it’s now recognised by business leaders as a critical driver of commercial performance. But how it’s done is often short-term, disconnected and ineffective.

We think it needs a fresh approach. After all, consider this: your customers stay or leave based on the experience they have. Why should your people be any different?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash