The slow death of employee engagement


A bit like fluffy little kittens, helping old people across a busy road or the end of Victoria Beckham’s pop career, employee engagement has become universally recognised as a good thing. You’ve never met anybody who dares speak ill of employee engagement or bitch at a dinner party about how much they hate being engaged at work. Clearly I instantly tell audiences it’s brilliant, I’ve bought the economic argument and wherever I’ve worked I’ve chased it down like a fabled pot of corporate gold at the end of the business rainbow. The UK Government allegedly wants more of it too. In fact, do you know that Anthony Jenkins, CEO of Barclays, is a patron for the Government’s Employee Engagement Task Force, bringing best practice to businesses all over the UK. Last week, Anthony wanted some 16,000 less engaged people working at Barclays soon. In HR, it was the emergent value proposition to take us from the dirge of transactional policies and processes. “If we made them happy from the survey, we can claim our work is done” is uttered in the CEO boardroom by the grateful HRD.

But as we have been sitting like the proverbial frog in a pot of ever-increasingly hot water, around us our legacy constructs are slowly changing & dying but have we noticed ? You see the problem with employee engagement 1.0, since brylecreamed men entered the mill, is that it’s based on the prevailing need of the employer to make people stick. You work, we pay, you never leave unless we say so. We are in need of a rebrand and some clear conscious reframing for the following reasons :

The employee engagement strategies that existed were for simpler, less complicated times. They are now increasingly a busted flush.

Having tied people to a workplace environment we set out to engage and have them stick with us. Communications strategies reflected top-down missives when employees increasingly want meaningful content and the ability to debate in communities and connect with authentic leaders. Performance Appraisals and Employee Surveys are predicated on a one-off annual cycle of employee-employer intervention. Employees increasingly want this on a daily basis and feedback has to be realtime and relevant, and certainly not punitive like the stacked ranking systems are. Pensions, the cornerstone of the baby boomer generation of work engagement, became an unaffordable commodity and slowly but surely big organisations shut down the old gold-plated schemes for a glorified savings account that increasingly fails to tackle the issue of our typical view of retirement. Flexible working (brought begrudgingly and inauthentically on the back of legislative change and estate dispersals), has failed to stem the loss of female talent from the workforce by the absence of a reasonable cushion against extortionate childcare. Trade unions are dying and with it the chance of a reasonable balance to employer flexibility. With HR taking a more enterprise leaning, great responsibility follows the professions’ accountability in this area. And finally, we moved increasingly away from a homogenous full-time workforce to a casualization of the workforce. Zero hours contracts for example, whilst lauded by some, has produced a clear problem of underemployment in this country in the name of employer flexibility. This means that our traditional, full-time organisation with a warm wraparound of employee engagement could be on the wane. We would live in more uncertain employment conditions with a smaller core and a greater use of casual labour around the edges – driven at the top by the needs of the knowledge workers (or talent as some in HR will call it) but used sparingly and casually with the lower skilled workforces whose idea of engagement is a decent chance of paying the rent without state subsidy. The march of the self-employed, some by desire and some by necessity, is on the increase year in and year out.

Mature organisations find it hard to connect with those 21st century organisations’ attempting to create exciting workplaces.

In the ever-increasingly regulated environment, HR, tied to its legacy, too often produced rules around old-fashioned HR strategies and watched for the obvious evil that people will do to the enterprise if they go unchecked. Whilst this fat, balding version of employee engagement still chugs along the slow lane for many, images of a sexier, younger model from California with its unlimited holidays, 20% free time and m&ms on every corner rage every so often on Youtube from 21st century organisations planning to build and grow a truly new model of organisation and relationship with its employees. Based on creating an all encompassing environment that is exciting and fulfilling and always keeping this in mind with analytics and a deeper understanding of its employee base, is too often dismissed by adherents of the 20th century model as irrelevant to their legacy, heritage and scale. There is a contentment with being organisationally overweight and unsexy if everyone wants to ignore the problem it seems. This is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

The future is so uncertain, moving at enormous pace and overwhelmingly difficult to keep up with.

Ahead of us is the ongoing drive of technological advancement, demographic tsunamis and a fragmentation of what was historically a simple definition of how we organised ourselves at work and the subsequent employment relationship. Taylorism is dying but employee engagement strategies are still wrapped up in that context without questioning from some HR professionals. Worryingly, many of the people subject to engagement today still claim a huge level of fear and disenchantment, and we know fairly accurately are going to have their jobs hollowed out (IT, secretarial, call centre, etc) and sent to the low cost world soon. Are we preparing our country for the deskilling required for this seismic shift ? As the core workforce will become blurred and subject to many of those on the edge providing ‘work’ to a variety of organisations at the same time. Will they get their rocks off by the sound of the organisational purpose or just a simple buy : sell relationship ? Are HR functions and businesses thinking consciously about this as loyalty is replaced by experience and interesting assignments for those at the top ?

How will the myriad of stakeholders in the People space accommodate this uncertainty, especially as they go through their own disruptive journeys shaped by the same spectres of technology, globalisation and demographic change.

I guess the answer lies somewhere in a continuous and conscious effort to remain relevant and be brave with the working environment we need to shape for the future. People now want more from work than those in the last 100 years did and accommodating this complexity is not going to go away. Victoria Beckham went away, adapted accordingly, no longer bursting our eardrums with her whining voice and has become a successful businesswoman instead. Anthony Jenkins, in between advising the government on employee engagement, is grappling with the enormity of the changing banking world with answers of contraction at one end and magically turning bonus into allowances at the other end. In that disrupted world the search for the bankers working paradise is some way off. He is not alone with that quest and it makes for interesting and exciting times for those who wish to embrace the opportunity in the people space.

Until next time, challenge the legacy engagement strategies HR, be inquisitive and stay constantly relevant. Anything else, whilst seemingly comfortable to you inside the corporate walls, and you are ultimately failing your organisation.





4 thoughts on “The slow death of employee engagement

  1. Pingback: The slow death of employee engagement | Communi...

  2. Pingback: Big business can and should play a vital role in the UK’s innovation ecosystem; but we’re getting that role all wrong at the moment | House

  3. Interesting article in many ways. Maybe too much information? Gallup monitor engagement levels in the USA and certainly, since the year 2000, at a national level they remain unchanged. They are where they started. In hindsight it was an ill conceived notion, doomed from the start. Despite all the obvious benefits just because it looked good, didn’t make it so.

    T failed because it didn’t take into account the human factors, and relied solely on logic. What it has shown is that people are what they are, and probably won’t change. We have a social mirror that suggests we are all “normal, rational people”. I don’t know what that phrase means. There has never been such a human being in all of history.

    If we are normal and rational, then Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize, for his work, is a delusional fantasist. His model of our behavior is simply the opposite. So, what’s it to be? Either he’s potty or we are. We all know he’s right, but can’t accept it. If you had a choice to follow a business guru, you could pick – Richard Branson and Warren Buffet. What’s it to be? Apart from anything else, one of these two is only around because when he committed multiple tax fraud, she was able to remortgage her home to keep him from jail. The same one leaves a trail of broken promises behind him. And that isn’t the half of it. Clue: it wasn’t Warren.

    In any case, business has moved on,

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