No Survey Required

I saw some discussion on Twitter recently about measuring employee engagement.

I can confirm that I was polite in my contribution.

Of course if measuring employee engagement is something you feel it is important to do, then there are the obvious solutions. Annual surveys and pulse surveys and temperature checks.  Surveys on paper surveys on apps.  Big fat long surveys and little ones too.  Hit a button as you leave the office emoticon style how are you feeling today type checks.

They are all there to choose from. To measure something for you.

Measurement. In inverted commas.

Because of course there is more to engagement than percentages. Filled in forms and one to five ratings and net promoter scores and do you have a best friend at work?

I’ll confess. About all of that I am so….. meh.

Data is useful. Important.

I get it. Evidence.  Proof.  Business cases and return on investment and a basis for decision making.

But there is more to how your employees feel than numbers. The day to day experience can’t easily be quantified.

Percentages are neat and tidy and precise. But people are not.

So here are my strictly unscientific, untidy, unquantifiable and entirely subjective ways to assess how your people really feel about working at your place. No survey required.

First up. Good noise. I always think that when people are happy at work, when there is some team spirit going, on you can not only feel it but hear it.  There will be laughter and chatting.  Good noises, team noises, having fun and working at the same type noises. Silence… tells you something else.

Next is absence and lateness. Something that you can actually put a percentage on if you choose.  I don’t mean the genuine stuck on the motorway serious illness sent home because they look terrible sort of absence and lateness.  Instead the I can’t be arsed type.  The dog ate my homework type.  Which really translates into I don’t really care all that much.  And you know you know the difference.

The state of the place. Disengaged employees don’t care about where they work. Sometimes, very low levels of engagement translate into deliberate damage to the environment. I once worked for an organisation in which casual damage and graffiti were rife.  If people like their jobs and like their colleagues they will be part of making it a nice place to be every day.

Collaboration. Especially when it comes to new stuff and change.  Engaged employees will pitch in, ask questions and take it on board.  People who are disengaged, won’t.  See next point.

Moaning. People who are unhappy at work, moan. Simple but true.  And if there isn’t anything to moan about they will moan about that.  From the big stuff to the minutiae.  Pity parties all round.

Ideas. Engaged employees have ideas and are willing to share them. You will get suggestions for improvements, sometimes without evening asking. They will speak up because they feel that they can and they want things to be better.

Grievances. Employees have a legal right to raise a grievance and have it dealt with in accordance with the ACAS code.  But when employees are engaged and have strong relationships with their managers you are much more likely to see people having conversations about their issues in an adult way rather than writing a formal letter.  Ditto discipline.

The extracurricular. Engaged employees come to learning events.  They take part in team activities.  They are part of the dress down day, the charity bake-off, the wellbeing month and the team lunch.  Because they want too.  When people are disengaged, for whatever reason that may be, they will put often put themselves outside anything that is strictly the day job.

Finally, and perhaps the most telling of all.  The language that people use.  How they speak to each other. Whether it is broadly positive or negative.  How much time is spent in criticism or in anger. Them or I.  The management or us.  They or we.

So by all means run your survey. Figure out a percentage and where you sit in comparison to other companies and set a target for next year.

But don’t forget to look and listen to what else your people are telling you about their level of engagement.

Even when they don’t even know it.

All this behavioural stuff #cipd14

Last week I spent two inspiring days at the CIPD annual conference. There was a whole range of content throughout in the neuroscience and behavioural science space. How the brain works stuff.

PC quote

I blogged from some of the sessions myself; you can find them here and here. Some of my fellow blog squaders also wrote about the sessions they attended.  Try these from Phil Wilcox, Helen Amery and Julie Drybrough.

The content that I saw for myself, and that which I caught online from blogs and tweets was fascinating. But I have a concern or two, all the same.

Firstly, let me say that I have a genuine interest in these topics. I am curious about everything to do with the brain and how it works.  Some of this interest springs from a professional place, and some from a more personal one.  Learning more about these subjects has helped me understand more about myself; decisions that I made in the past, why I did some of the things that I did and how I ended up in the space that I did.

I recognise how  improving understanding of behaviour and neuroscience within HR, applying it to that people stuff that we do, could influence and change our thinking and our approach. And its not just about us HR folk, it has the power to help all leaders in the roles that they hold.  It has the potential to challenge much of that stuff that we accept as best practice, the way we have always done things both in organisations in general and in HR specifically.  It can help us break through the perceived wisdoms.  Take Drive by Daniel Pink.  An evidence based book that told us many of the ways that most organisations traditionally do reward focuses on entirely the wrong things.  These are fundamental challenges.

But there’s the thing. I’ve blogged before about the HR profession’s propensity for jumping on a bandwagon and I don’t want this to be the next one.  That thing that we think is the answer, that thing that will change how the profession is seen, that thing that will the next big thing.

When reflecting on the conference, the thought that occurred was this. Is neuroscience the new employee engagement?  I’ve blogged before, in the employee engagement rant series, about how I feel we jumped on the engagement bandwagon as we were desperate for some sort of proof.  And the so-called proof (noting the lack of actual, you know, evidence) that engagement would lead to improved financial performance gave us something that we could use to prove that the people stuff had a ROI.  That it was our ticket to the often fabled seat at the table. I don’t want behavioural science to go the same way. I don’t want it to be the next employee engagement.  Embraced and then tired of.

I think that we should be developing behavioural science as a key part of HR and leadership practice. But I don’t want to see someone trying to explain cognitive dissonance in an infographic.  I don’t want to read ’10 ways you can get employees to use more than 10% of their brain’ on LinkedIn Pulse.  Behavioural science is not the place for platitudes or fragmented clichés. It is a serious subject and we must treat it as such, rather than devalue it. I’d like to see formal qualifications.  I’d like to see it be taught as part of HR education.

And here’s the next thing. We need to think carefully about how we bring this stuff into our organisations.  I’ve been there and talked to leaders.  About mindfulness, positive psychology, emotional intelligence, resilience.  I’ve been on the receiving end of the ‘what is this fluffy stuff is she on about now?’ look.  And this is anything but.

To take this forward in a constructive way, avoid the bandwagon and aid understanding, we need some common language.  We need to help HR professionals understand this stuff and then how to apply it, how to start the conversation, at their place. Going back to the Daniel Pink example for a moment.  I reckon there are plenty of HR folk who have read his book.  But how many have actually gone back to their place, and changed how they do their reward stuff?  Started to challenge the way its always been done?  It isn’t easy to know where to start.  Conference sessions that raise awareness give us a great start.  Now we need to decide what comes next.

But whatever we do, no infographics.  Pretty please.


Image from @IIPTweets

Even more thoughts on employee engagement

A look through my blog will tell you I’m something of an employee engagement cynic. Not a cynic about the notion of trying to improve work, trying to improve the people stuff, but the concept. Its presentation, its bland, blind acceptance.

The idea of employee engagement is not new, but the language was. The concept went from innovative, to bandwagon, to conventional wisdom quicker than you can say discretionary effort. If you work in HR, and you haven’t read Rob Briner’s excellent deconstruction of employee engagement hyperbole and its evidence base (or lack thereof), then you really should. You can find the link here.

Employee engagement was seen as the answer. On its journey to accepted best practice, somehow it got presented as something that it is not. An absolute. A fact. Some sort of guarantee. That if we do these things that the consultants tell us, that the conferences and the speakers tell us, then we will see it in the numbers. We will see our profitability increase. We took case studies to be causation.

Engagement was presented as the HR holy grail. By consultancies with money to make. By government backed organisations*. By us.

And now we know that it isn’t so certain, after all. That even the report that claims to show the evidence, does anything but. More and more practitioners are realising it wasn’t all that new, after all. Because as I have blogged before, in HR this is what we have always done, always known.

The employee engagement scales are now falling from our eager eyes, and we have realised that the Emperor was naked, after all.

There are two questions left for me, on employee engagement.

The first is this. Why did we buy into the concept so completely and unquestioningly?

I think that part of it lies in that problem. You know the one. Our very own HR version of imposter syndrome. The seat at the table malarkey. No longer did we have to justify the people stuff. We had proof. We had evidence. We had numbers. Now we were serious. Maybe I am being harsh on us. Maybe it just summed up those things that we already believed, in a neat phrase. But I feel that we must look hard at ourselves in the mirror, all the same.

My second question is simply this. Now what?

We know what engagement isn’t. There are no neat numbers or percentages. No easy ROI. Off the shelf solutions. People are messy, complicated, challenging. We know that engagement surveys often don’t deliver what we hoped they would. We know that it can’t be a HR led programme. So where do we go from here?

I’ve said this before, too. I believe that for all the amazing new opportunities that new technology and the future of work stuff that we see coming towards us, it is time to go back to basics at the same time. Focus on doing the people stuff well, and training managers to do the same. We don’t need any new theories. Let’s just get the Herzberg back out. It might be pushing 50, but I don’t discriminate on the grounds of age. If you’ve got problems in your hygiene space, start there. Focus on those things that disengage and demotivate. The theory isn’t perfect, I know that. Its been criticised for its failure to take into account the impact of personality types for starters. Well ditto employee engagement. I am still not entirely convinced how much you can actually change engagement at an individual level. How much of someone’s attitude to work is part of their bedrock personality. Maybe that is a blog for another day. But you take away the stuff that pisses people off.

It is a good thing that employee engagement is being subject to scrutiny and criticism. Not because it is worthless or unnecessary, but because we should always apply a critical mind and think carefully about those things that we strive for or choose to champion in our own organisations.

As well as my call for a little back to basics, there is also no need to throw the baby out with the bath water**. Seeking to do those things that make people like coming to work, connect with their organisation, have a better experience, is still core to what we do. I call it doing good people stuff. The CIPD say it is all about better work and better working lives. Call it engagement if that works for you.

But whatever you choose to call it, carry on doing good people stuff, at your place. Just don’t promise that it can deliver something that maybe it cannot.

*Ever wondered if this had anything to do with keeping trade union membership down? Just a thought.
** There are lot of clichés and metaphors in this blog post. Sorry about that.

Engaged but Disengaged

S Cat

I met a man recently, whom I would describe, in true Schrodinger’s cat style, as both engaged and disengaged.

Engaged with his job, his colleagues, his day to day. His job has meaning for him. He has friends there. The hours suit him fine and the pay isn’t too bad. The working environment makes the grade. He knows what is expected of him, he has all of the right tools and equipment, the opportunity to do his best every day. Willing to do the discretionary effort thing, when it’s needed. Proud of a job well done. He even has a best friend at work.

Many of the Gallup measures ticked off, right there.

Although he wouldn’t fill in any kind of survey, if you asked him.

The last time he was sent one, he said that They could stick it right up Their arse.

When he told me this story, he mimed it too. Screwed up an imaginary piece of paper into a ball, tossed it into an imaginary waste paper basket. And followed the imaginary trajectory with a not at all imaginary two fingered salute.

They don’t understand what it’s like on the shop floor.
They don’t know what it’s like outside of the nine till five.
They sit in their ivory bloody towers in the head office.
They send out surveys and they take no bloody notice of what you say anyway and they put a number on it so they can trace it back to me if they want to so I’m saying nothing.
They gave us these stupid values. What a joke. As if anyone has got any time for all that when there is a job to be done and anyway, They don’t follow them. I know They don’t.
They change everything every five minutes.
They makes us go on all these training courses just to tick a bloody box.

Engaged but disengaged. Engaged with the job but not engaged with the company, the management, the leadership, Them.

Meaningful work, made.
Discretionary effort, done.
Performance, reviewed and approved.
Objectives, fully achieved.

So where exactly does this fit into the neat little employee engagement box?

And then it dawned on me. That the They that he talks about, is me.
Not me personally maybe, but someone just like me. Sitting in an office, crafting policies. Sending out surveys. Launching initiatives. Making people plans.

And all the time, he is seen, but unseen.

Engaged but disengaged.

Dream on, dreamer?

Does anyone remember the ‘Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’? If you don’t, it was a 1970s TV series that chronicled the frustrations of work and life felt by Reggie, who eventually, tired of corporate life, faked his own death, only to miss the life he had lead and come back to it by pretending to be someone else.

There is a section in one episode in which, talking to his cat, Reggie chronicles his day; a day that is the same as every other day. It went a little like this (made a little more modern, of course).

Get up
Go to toilet
Check twitter feed
Check emails
Clean teeth
Take a shower
Get dressed
Eat breakfast
Drink coffee
Get in the car
Drive to work
Park in the car park
Walk into the office
Power up the laptop and insert the password
Make a cup of coffee
Do emails
Go to meetings
Do more emails
Check twitter feed
Have another cup of coffee
Do conference calls
Eat lunch
More calls, and emails, and meetings, and emails, and calls, and meetings
Have a cup of coffee
Get to 5pm.
Turn off laptop
Get in car
Drive home
Get out of car
Check emails that have arrived since I left the office
And so on.

I read an article recently that talked about making work enjoyable. It argued that one of the key ways in which work is made meaningful is that it is also enjoyable.

We talk all the time, in HR, about employee engagement. It is holiest of grails. Meaningful work, enjoyable work, engaging work.

But do you know what? Some people hate work.

For some people the working day is just something to be borne. Get up, go to work, get through the day, get paid. And I don’t just mean people that haven’t found the right niche. People who haven’t got the right leadership. People who haven’t got a voice. People who the company haven’t reached yet.

Some jobs are bloody tough.
Some jobs are bloody boring.
Some jobs don’t allow for people to make their own decisions or determine how their day goes, or even when they go to the toilet.
Some jobs are done in unpleasant working environments.
Some jobs are really badly rewarded.
Some jobs are so far from meaningful, engaging, autonomous, enjoyable as to make meaningful, enjoyable work a largely irrelevant concept.

Where are these people in the debate, today? We can talk about changing, disrupting, evolving, challenging work and working environments all we like. But it is a much easier debate in some areas, industries, companies, job types, than others. So much of what I read or hear discussed about improving work, is exciting, interesting, shiny. But it is sometimes so far away from the reality of the day to day for many people and organisations.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the question that I am posing. Maybe the answer is to do everything we can do engage those people, to make all work as meaningful and enjoyable and engaging as possible. To make work better, for everyone, wherever they are, or whatever they do.

But there is just a little bit of me, that wonders. Are we dreaming?


Musings on Engagement No.1

I will be saying a word or two at the forthcoming CIPD employee engagement conference. So in advance, some thoughts from me on the subject.

Are you engaged?

I’m not sure I am.

Because I’m not sure I know what it means, anymore, to be honest.

Discretionary effort, going the extra mile, going above and beyond, happy, positive, enthusiastic, satisfied. Take your pick.

Engagement is another word at risk of losing its meaning due to overuse. It has also suffered from the Bandwagon Effect. I’m not suggesting that employee engagement isn’t important, isn’t something worth striving for, but I am suggesting that, just maybe, we need to think again. Step back a little from the current perceived wisdom.

I do know this.

Engagement is not a number, or a percentage.
Engagement is not an annual survey, and an annual survey is not your employee voice.
Engagement is not a programme, or a workstream, or an activity.
Engagement is not the sole responsibility of the HR function.
Engagement doesn’t have a precise ROI for your finance team, no matter what the statistics might say.
Engagement doesn’t have a neat, universal definition.
Engagement means different things, at different places. Engagement is contextual.
Engagement should not be pursued in its own right.
Engagement is the result of doing good people stuff.

I also know that I’m not prepared to write a formal business case for employee engagement, despite the evidence that is available to show correlations between engaged employees and business performance. Because if I have to explain the anyone why treating people well, fairly, doing good people stuff, is the right thing to do to anyone in my organisation, then I will get my coat.

I heard Dean Royles speak recently, at #CIPDSocial13. He said one thing that stuck in my mind. He said that he knows what an engaged employee looks like in the NHS. He can walk into a hospital and tell. I get this. Because engagement is different at my place, to your place. I once worked somewhere that high levels of engagement meant employees weren’t writing rude words about their managers on the toilet walls. I can’t say it is what I am striving for, today. But my engaged employee isn’t yours.

Forget striving for engagement as a ‘thing’. Just focus on doing all your people stuff well, and developing your managers to do the same. From recruitment to exit, the entire employee life cycle. Good people stuff plus good management practices leads to engagement, in whatever way you want to define it.

It’s time to go back to basics.