Employee engagement is a buzzword that has been around for a long time, but what does it actually mean, and what are the benefits to organisations? There are many ways an organisation can engage its employees. This article explores both the theory and practice, especially in relation to the social side of sustainability. I’ll highlight two best practice examples from this vast galaxy of programs, initiatives, and missions, one from either side of the Atlantic, one a niche NGO and the other a high profile brand.
Whilst there are hundreds of definitions of this field, a particularly well- rounded one comes from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Engagement is: “being positively present during the performance of work by willingly contributing intellectual effort, experiencing positive emotions and meaningful connections to other”. They make a useful distinction between emotional engagement (driven by a desire to do more for an organisation) and transactional engagement (drive to earn a living and progress).
An influential book in this field is Drive. The author Daniel H Pink looks at the science of motivation, and concludes that extrinsic 'carrot and stick' drivers are very 20th century. He encourages organisations to focus on three intrinsic motivators, or emotional engagement as defined by the CIPD, that can be summarised as autonomy, mastery and purpose. Employee engagement connected to sustainability is, of course, particularly useful for boosting purpose as a motivator, as is demonstrated in the two case studies following.
Whole books have been written on the benefits of engagement. To summarise, they are; employee satisfaction, productivity, retention and recruitment, innovation and profitability
There is some very robust data to back this up. For example, Gallup found companies with highly engaged workforces outperformed their peers by 147% in earnings per share, and had:
· 41% fewer quality defects
· 48% fewer safety incidents
· 37% less absenteeism
In the competition for talent, it is key to offer a competitive salary and ensure people can grow in their role, but there is clear evidence that pay performance and job satisfaction are not highly correlated. A meta-analysis of the literature in this area found only a 2% overlap between these two factors.
There is now also increasing evidence that sustainability can help employee engagement. The 2013 book, "Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line", found that initiatives created growth in overall employee engagement. Interestingly, a 'halo' effect was generated as a strong programme raised engagement rates also for those who did not take part. Furthermore, a global survey by Bain found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said sustainable business is extremely important to them.
There is still progress to make, though. In the Ceres report "Gaining Ground", they found that whilst more companies were utilising sustainability engagement, only 6% of companies were in what they termed 'Tier 1' for systematically embedding it.
Taproot – inspiring intentional thinking
For many, when we hear "pro-bono", we think of law firms donating staff time. In fact, this term can refer to the donation of any service, and the US- based Taproot Foundation is an exemplar in this broader field.
I recently had a conversation with Lindsay Firestone Gruber, their MD of Advisory Services, and was inspired by the work they are delivering to both provide social and commercial value and engage employees.
"We work with our clients, both the corporates and non-profits who benefit from the skills share, to build the biggest impact possible. Taproot helps source and vet the organisations to ensure they are really ready. It is very important to us to evaluate and better understand the impact we have on the NGO's and the communities they serve.”
“There is a recognition that experiential learning opportunities can be much more powerful than classroom-based simulated scenarios. The employees of our corporate clients get to use their existing expertise in an unusual setting with a new challenge and different people. This stretches them in a way that really helps to take their engagement to a new level, and is often explicitly incorporated into talent development programmes. Whether the pro-bono project is one day for exec development or three months for high potentials, this all enables the employees to think intentionally."
Taproot's programmes therefore not only support people's intrinsic desire for purpose, but also help them in their mastery of their personal skills sets, two of Pink’s drivers.
Warburtons – engaging communities and employees
The conversation with Michael McDermott, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Warburtons Bakers, was similarly stimulating. As a business, they started out in 1886 with a corner shop, and are now the second largest grocery brand in the UK after Coca-Cola, employing 4500 people.
Still owned by the Warburtons, it is clear the ethos of the family pervades the organisation.
Michael enthused, "People are always looking at ways for business to gain value beyond salary and live the values to match our strapline, 'From Our Family to Yours'."
Michael highlighted many areas where they are making excellent progress in sustainability, which could easily fill a whole article in itself. An area, which seems particularly relevant to employee engagement is their community investment strategy, 'Family Matters'. This is not just about passively giving money; it is a pro-active engagement with their communities, which has involvement of staff at its core. From their 'Community Service Volunteers' to how they involve employees in choosing their national charity partner, the company is always looking at ways of engaging their people.
Michael observed that everybody in the business, including the Warburtons family, were delighted when they were included recently in the Top 25 Best Companies to work for. In the area of 'Giving Something Back' they were rated particularly highly. It is possible that the company wouldn't have got into this prestigious list without the excellent work they have done in this area. It is evident, therefore, that this success is creating a virtuous loop which will keep building benefits both for staff, society and the business.
I hope this brief, hyper-speed journey through the galaxy of employee engagement has given a glimpse into how organisations can benefit from implementing programs, and that the couple of quick stops made for a quick overview inspires employers and employees alike to become active in participating in this vital area of working life.
In addition to helping clients communicate, connect and change, I love highlighting stories from the front line of inspiring sustainability.