The debate: is engagement still HR’s holy grail?

13 February 2017

Author: Liana Cafolla


The debate: is engagement still HR’s holy grail?

From surveys to HR conferences, employee engagement is seen as the key measure of workplace effectiveness. But does it have real credibility?

It’s only one piece of the puzzle

We believe strong staff engagement is crucial to our success as a business, and it is a key area of accountability within the company. Leaders at Manulife are measured for their impact across three key areas – essentially, financial success, customer experience and employee engagement. The rationale behind this structure is that a high degree of employee engagement is crucial to deliver first-rate customer experience and, ultimately, financial results. In our view, engagement surveys offer a good, regular pulse check to the business leadership – but measuring engagement is not an HR strategy in its own right.

Engagement data is always vulnerable to a lack of candour from some team members; inevitably, some staff will vote with their feet instead. We monitor a range of metrics with that in mind – regular measures of staff attrition, promotion levels, development rates and the progress of identified high-potential staff are all valuable data points to take the temperature of a group. Ultimately, none of these measures can be taken in isolation; we consciously focus on ensuring that managers possess empathy and a good working knowledge of their teams.

We see consistently strong correlation between high levels of engagement and those teams, business units and geographies that are our best performers. But engagement is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Data, combined with experience, should drive insights and those insights should drive behavioural change – starting with the business leadership. Unless there is a genuine desire to act on engagement data, the collection exercise becomes moot.

David Thomas
Senior vice president and chief HR officer, Manulife Asia

What matters is how you treat people

Engagement is about discretionary effort. Employees contribute more not because they have to but because they want to. It’s about the total person being immersed in the job: the head, the heart and the gut. We can take it one step further by maximising employee effectiveness, to be more productive and creative.

With the drive for a lean workforce, higher productivity and innovation, it is important for organisations of all sizes to understand that, by treating their employees differently and by involving themselves more, the outcome is not only better financial results or expansion of the business but much happier employer-employee relationships.

How do we achieve employee effectiveness? By leaders and managers showing real interest in their subordinates, by coaching and mentoring them as individuals and championing their growth. This would kick-start the process of higher productivity and greater creativity, leading to innovation of products and services. Working on engagement is just one part of a process HR should be undertaking, which includes ensuring each employee has a value match and job fit in the organisation, providing enablers and monitoring delivery of results and reward in the most appropriate manner.

Dr Elizabeth Martin-Chua
HR consultant and adviser; author of Creating Winning SMEs

Engaged people means better business results

Engagement is the best medium to measure job satisfaction and commitment. An engaged employee can provide significantly more discretionary effort – ‘doing whatever it takes’ to complete tasks – and ultimately have a positive impact on business results.

Our extensive global research demonstrates the power of engagement to drive business performance. It suggests that, for individual organisations, a 5 per cent increase in engagement results in 3 per cent incremental revenue growth. Companies in the top quartile engagement range see a 4 per cent rise in incremental operating margin. Engagement measurement is paramount for any business, and higher engagement results in stronger performance.

Engagement analytics is a powerful tool that organisations use to quantify the value of engagement and improve their performance. Some key engagement-linked business parameters leveraged to drive better outcomes are customer satisfaction, financial results, market share, safety and employee turnover. The cost analysis of improving engagement driver scores enables companies to intervene in areas with the highest ROI.

With the onset of technology and social hyper-connectedness, some organisations are moving towards measuring and tracking employee experience continuously through their life cycle. Such ‘continuous listening’ approaches, hinging on robust technology, cater to frequent gathering of feedback through multiple channels and taking requisite action.

They typically include feedback from new employees, pulse surveys, performance discussions, exit surveys and more. But to garner maximum benefit from continuous listening strategies, leaders and practitioners need to listen to what staff are saying about the organisation and simultaneously act to have a positive impact on employee experience.

Gitansh Malik
Regional lead, Best Employers Asia, Aon Hewitt

Employees’ criticisms are more important than metrics

At HKBN, we see people and culture as our competitive advantages. It is our management philosophy to prioritise talent and engage our talented people through our unique culture. We consider it our LUCA (legal unfair competitive advantage). We care about how people fit into our culture and how committed they are to our values.

We want talented people to either love us or hate us. For those who love us, they will be truly engaged and committed to our culture and our values. For those who can’t quite fit into our culture, they hate us and leave – this is both good for those who leave and for the company.

We study talent effectiveness, which consists of both engagement and enablement. Enablement factors such as collaboration, training, authority and empowerment allow us to understand feedback on the work environment, which affects productivity and effectiveness.

We also pay attention to culture-specific factors to see whether our people can uphold our culture. For example, co-ownership and entrepreneurship are the key elements of our culture, so we look at the number of people who voluntarily join our co-ownership plan, which is a three-year share option scheme.

While we do conduct engagement surveys regularly, we see such exercises as an open channel for talents to share their feedback. What we value most are the insights generated from these surveys and the qualitative criticisms, rather than the actual score or rating.

Ivy Lau
Head of talent engagement and corporate social investment and co-owner, Hong Kong Broadband Network