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What is ‘sustainable’ employee engagement? And why it is so critical to organisations? Gloria Lombardi interviews Yves Duhaldeborde, Director in the Human Capital Talent and Reward at Towers Watson.

By Gloria Lombardi (@LOMBARDI_GLORIA)

YDLook beyond engagement, toward its sustainability,” says Willis Towers Watson‘s Yves Duhaldeborde (pictured right). The Director in the Human Capital Talent and Reward, spends countless hours on employee research. He designs the methodology, interprets the data, extracts the insights, and links them to business strategy. He also takes an intense interest in topics such as diversity, innovation and risk.

I wanted to talk with him to explore what engaging organisations are currently doing or not doing. Duhaldeborde shares his view on the impact of internal communication, the rise of flexible working practises, and the move away from the most traditional ways of measuring data. Plus, the role of management and leadership in making engagement “sustainable”.

Gloria Lombardi: Based on your research, what’s your definition of employee engagement? When we put it under the microscope, debates can emerge around the meaning of the term. But, controversy is a good thing, as long as it keeps the conversation open and challenges the thinking.

woman-690036_960_720Yves Duhaldeborde: Until recently, our company’s definition has considered a trio of elements.

First, is the pride and willingness to recommend the organisation to others. This is about employee advocacy and relates to the emotional attachment of the individual with the business.

The second is having the alignment with the organisational values and business objectives. It has to do with the rational part of engagement.

The third is going the extra mile. It is the behavioural aspect of engagement. The employee does a bit more of what the company is asking her for.

However, in the past five years, we added two more elements to the trio: enablement and energy.

GL: Tell me more. What do enablement and energy mean? And why are they so critical for organisations to consider?

park-bench-771653_960_720YD: From our research we started to see some companies having higher levels of engagement, but not sustainable all the time. For example, employees were suffering from burn out; they were unable to maintain their level of engagement. From that discovery we realised the need to add enablement and energy to the three elements. That addition would contribute to sustainable engagement, which is critical.

As an organisation grows or faces times of change, staff might begin to feel their health is at risk. They can become tired, be under pressure and less motivated. Or they may lack the resources to do their job effectively. Yet, employees have to have the energy to keep up with the work, especially in volatile times. Additionally, they must receive the necessary tools and management support to be able to give their best.

All together, these were the reasons why we started to recommend businesses look beyond engagement, toward its sustainability. The employers that not only generate but also sustain employee engagement are the ones that thrive.

GL: Some professionals in the field of employee engagement research are joining the school of thought that the traditional yearly staff survey is not effective any more. Or at least not as it was in the past. After all change happens quickly today. If the results come 12 months later, they might not reflect the current organisation’s and employees’ needs.

Additionally, the rise of new technology is offering the opportunity to have real-time feedback from staff. So, should we still wait the whole year?

human-810030_960_720YD: It is an important point. With new technology employee research can move much quicker. There is no doubt about that. If I think of when I started 15 years ago, it would take me up to five weeks to produce the results. Now, potentially within a week, everything is available. And, that process continues to move quicker and quicker. And, it is not just about data, but also the insights. You need to be able to see the trends and what companies need within very short periods of time.

Businesses overall don’t want to wait for 12 months before they have the new data to act on. Systems now allow to conduct always-on survey-based research and pulse checks. Predictive analyses and benchmark comparisons are available almost instantly upon survey close. Managers can see how things are evolving week over week.

Having real time tools is a great opportunity. Yet, organisations need to be mindful of what data they are collecting and how they are measuring it. It is easier to collect data. But companies have to be reflective and careful about what that information means. And how they should tell the end story to the business.

Two statistics professors of mine, Judith Singer and John Willett, used to say, “You can’t fix by analysis what you have bungled by design.”

GL: You have just made the important remark of narrating “the end story to the business.” We are entering internal communication here. Based on your research, what’s its link to sustainable engagement?

arrows-796134_960_720YD: We always see a link between high levels of engagement and great internal communication. Employees want to be kept well informed about what is going on in the business. They want to know why they are doing what they do. Communication is required to motivate people to have that sense of purpose and direction at work and to feel the connection with the organisation on an on-going basis.

Additionally, communication has to clarify the employee value proposition. It requires a real effort to explain the ‘deal’ to talent: What are staff receiving against giving their best efforts? Why should they stay with the organisation rather than looking somewhere else?

Today, there are many job opportunities for the smartest workers. And, individuals are becoming selective and picky when looking for work. Businesses have to be strong at communicating why it is different and special to be with them.

GL: Which companies are getting it right in terms of making engagement sustainable? Could you give me some examples?

YD: There is a group of companies that we define as ‘high performing’. These businesses display high levels of employee engagement over time. They also show great financial results.

These organisations make the most of measurement and real-time information. They are specific about what they want to survey and act on the findings effectively. They are also remarkably good at narrating the end story to employees, globally. They ensure that staff have the correct understanding of the information. And, they encourage openness and transparency, which leads to great conversations and on-going dialogue between managers and employees.

GL: Touching upon the manager-employee relationship, “employees leave managers not companies” has become a sort of mainstream statement. Is it actually the management who are the main cause of employee (dis)engagement?

YD: Surely, the manager has a very important role to play. But, they are not the only factor impacting on disengagement. Sometimes we see managers who are responsible for everything. They have so much to do that it would be unfair to say that it is all down to them.

I always talk about the ‘extended leadership team‘: it is about having the managers and the senior leaders, together. They have to be well glued. Even great managers will not be sufficiently effective if they lack the connection and communication with the senior leadership.

GL: Allowing flexibly such as working from home has become an important way to meet employees’ everyday needs. It is changing life at work. Based on your latest research, what’s its impact on employee engagement?

Gen YYD: Flexible working has a strong impact on engagement. That is particularly true with the young workforce. The Millennials demand flexibility and want to feel trusted in order to give their best efforts. But, the phenomenon is taking shape across the board too.

It is important to think that companies have a diverse workforce – from age group to gender, ethnic and cultural background. How can they get the best out of this diversity? Organisations need to be mindful and realistic. They need to challenge their perceptions and not to think that people are all falling in the same bucket. They have to involve employees in those discussions. We found that high performing companies engage in dialogue with staff. They discuss the different choices and possibilities. Ultimately, they end up with better solutions.

GL: Any final top tips on helping to make engagement sustainable at work?

YD: I will start from the end point: the customers. Without them there is no point in thinking of the business. But companies need engaged employees to serve customers exceptionally well. Organisations have to be clear when communicating with the staff about who these customers really are, how to delight them, and why this is important.

Secondly, recognition and rewards. It is about ensuring that employees are aware of receiving the best benefits for putting all their efforts into the daily work.

Additionally, developing management capabilities. Does the organisation have the right managers? Is the current management able to develop individuals here? I would insist on thinking seriously about it.

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