CIPD Podcast 37 - Employee engagement

Date: 30/11/09 Duration: 00:20:28

In this podcast Sarah Redshaw, HR Director for the Global Hair Business, Dean Royles, Director of Workforce Education at NHS North West, Perry Timms, Head of Organisational Development, Big Lottery Fund and Mark Adlestone, Managing Director of Beaverbrooks the Jewellers, all of whom were speakers at CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition at Manchester, discuss what employee engagement means to them, how far it has come in practice and what’s next.


Philippa Lamb : Welcome to our podcast on employment engagement. We’re here in Manchester at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition along with thousands of visitors taking part in the conference and bustling around the exhibition hall. Amid the whirlwind, we’ve managed to speak to the HR leaders from four organisations – the NHS, the BIG Lottery Fund, Beaverbrooks the jewellers and Unilever. 
Engagement is a constant quest for HR; having an engaged workforce is on every organisations’ agenda. It’s a challenge to achieve consistent high level engagement for sure but at least everyone knows what they’re looking for, or do they?

This recession has muddied the waters and it’s hard to spot real engagement in this climate. I asked Sarah Redshaw, HR Director for the global hair business at Unilever, what engagement means for her.

Sarah Redshaw: For me it’s around involvement as much as possible, so, how do you drive involvement in understanding your business performance? How do you give people the opportunity to contribute their thoughts, their feelings, their challenges? That’s the route we’ve gone. We’ve done nothing more sophisticated or sexy than that, it really is engagement through involving people in any opportunity that you can find.

PL: Dean Royles is the Director of Workforce and Education at NHS North West and Chair of the CIPD Board. 

Dean Royles: There’s plenty of research around this that we look at in the NHS but, for us, it’s the extent to which people are able to demonstrate some urgency in the work that they do, that they’ve got focus, the intensity, adaptability around what they’re doing and something about personal initiative as well. To me, staff engagement is having a look and saying are you tapping into all those sorts of qualities with people and if you are then you’re probably getting things right but I expect for a lot of us we know that there’s more that can be done there.

PL: Perry Timms is the Head of Organisational Development at the BIG Lottery Fund.

Perry Timms: I think you can communicate with people and they can understand a message but engagement is where people have really bought into the concept, they can see where they fit into the concept, they want to have some dialogue with you and they even want to influence what’s going on so that’s the difference for me. It’s about the connectivity, rather than just some passive messages that people think ‘Oh I kind of understand that’, this is, ‘What does this mean to me and what can I do to be a part of it?’ 

PL: But during a recession the definitions become blurred, it’s harder to really see true engagement, even in the public sector the recession is having an impact on staff. Here’s Dean Royles.

DR: Across the NHS we have something like 1.4 million staff. Those people engage within their communities, they have partners, friends and families that may have lost their jobs and all that sort of impacts upon their work. The other thing about staff engagement is that it can be seen as sort of soft and fluffy, for some people, so they think it’s a discretionary thing to do at a time of difficulty. We know from the research that we’ve got in the NHS that staff engagement does lead to productivity so people ((?)) about cuts or cutting back on training and development as a way of becoming more efficient but we know that if you’ve got high levels of staff engagement we get better patient outcomes. So, patients have a better experiences, they’re less likely to return to employment, mortality rates are better so this is actually core productivity stuff to get engagement right so this a case where the soft stuff is the hard stuff.

PL: I asked Dean what the NHS’ approach to engagement is now that a period of budgetary restraint is looming.

DR: The real squeeze for us will come in 2011 onwards – and I don’t think we’ve ever had such a heads up about a difficult time coming – so we know that that squeeze is going to be coming in terms of contraction of our public finances. There are things that we can be doing now, the sort of planning and recognising that. To me, this is the point at which you would really drive your engagement agenda with staff to enable you to better cope with that squeeze. There is something for me in which the engagement agenda is the productivity agenda. So, what public sector organisations are going to be looking at is, ‘How can we become more efficient and more productive and still provide great services to people?’ From our point of view ‘How can we continue to provide compassion to people at their time of greatest need, if there’s anxiety and uncertainty?’ Part of the answer to me on that is about engaging with staff that they understand what’s going on, that we can communicate more effectively with them, they understand the challenges ahead but also know the contribution that they can make.

PL: Another organisation whose core values offer care and help to others is the BIG Lottery Fund which allocates Lottery money to charitable causes. They launched a talent management programme in January 2008; a broad and inclusive pipeline of career development. It was an expensive commitment at the outset and budgets were tight but for Perry Timms that made it all the more important.

PT: It’s kind of bizarre really because BIG Lottery Fund was already bracing itself for a little bit of its own recession with the Olympics taking some of the money out of our pot so we knew we were launching a talent programme at a time when actually we were thinking, ‘This is a bit brave really because have we really got the funding to see this through?’ But, I think what we realised was this was too important for our development to not do and I think we’d kind of constructed the programme around the premise that if we didn’t do it, it would cause us even more financial hardship. So, we really had a vested interest in making it work in a monetary sense and I think the climate at the time was that people were probably thinking, ‘Well I’m not going to leave BIG Lottery Fund because I’ve got a really quite secure job’ but it just wasn’t enough and it wasn’t enough to drive up our performance levels.

PL: In a recession it’s more difficult to spot genuine engagement when it may, in fact, be job insecurity that’s binding people to the organisation. Real engagement is sustainable long-term but as Perry says, in this sort of job market people can appear engaged for other reasons. This pseudo-engagement brings only short-term benefits and could leave you vulnerable when market conditions improve and it’s an issue that the BIG Lottery Fund has wrestled with.

PT: I think we had the attitude that whilst there’s a recession and maybe in a sort of competitive environment we might be at the behest of an upturn meaning that people would then go and try their hand in another area but we almost wanted to do something that precursored that by saying “Well don’t, work with us for a while and see where this goes because this actually might be an outlet for your talent that you previously would have disengaged from and then thought you’d take your talent elsewhere’. We have got an enormous amount of talent within the organisation that very passionately believe in what they do.

PL: Do you think this is easier for you, because the BIG Lottery Fund by its nature is the place where people go to work and feel that they’re making a real social difference and a contribution, other organisations don’t have that they do they? Do you think it’s tougher for them? 

PT: I think that’s right and our engagement piece is almost driven by a very high level of expectation from our workforce because I think they’re in it because they’ve made a choice and they really value what they do in terms of making a difference, as you just described. I think we’re up against a higher expectation in terms of I have to have a say, I need to have some influence, I want to show what I can do. If anything, we’ve had to match that.

PL: As another public sector organisation the NHS may face similar competition with the private sector as the recovery begins. I put this to Dean Royles. 
If we do see this issue of the private sector recovering ahead of the public and the public sector still struggling for a considerable period after that, the temptation must be for those people to jump ship surely?

DR: Well, for some people they’ll take that choice. There’s always been turnover in the NHS, there’s always turnover in the private sector, for whatever reason. Sometimes people are going because they see the grass is greener, sometimes they’re leaving the organisation because they’re not engaged and I think if we can work on parts of the organisation about maintaining engagement for people then we have a better chance of securing the talent that we want to keep in the future, showing that we value them, investing in their training and development, empowering them to do the things that they want to do and often that’s about trying to show compassion at the time of peoples’ greatest needs. You might think you can get that in other organisations but I think that’s a unique selling point for the NHS.

PL: As we’ve heard, engagement can be affected by the external environment, but internal changes can create at least as big a challenge. Unilever has been through an enormous change over the last 18months; Sarah Redshaw explains.

SR: We went from being three separate business units and bringing them together under one brand new spanking roof, which is great. We transformed the business, so we fundamentally restructured to put the customer at the heart of our business and, in doing that, we unfortunately lost a third of the people (a third of the roles), but that was the transformation that was a big change for everyone, to move from their old heritage – if I’d always been with Walls I’d always been in Walton, if I’d been with Faberge I’d always been in Kingston – we closed those offices, moved to a brand new office, brought everyone together and restructured around the customer.

PL: So a really big shift from all sorts of very heartfelt territory for your employees. What have you done about maintaining and boosting engagement during that time?

SR: All sorts. Through the change, of course, we had all sorts of forums, we had consultation groups, clearly. We had project groups to get peoples’ involvement in designing the new office. That was critical that we really kept people informed right along the journey. We were constantly communicating with people and that continues.

PL: So on the ground, in your bit of Unilever, what does that mean? What do you do? 
SR: Every Tuesday it means we’re all in one room getting the business update from the Chairman or members of the Board. 

PL: How many people in your bit?

SR: In Leatherhead now there are 750 people.

PL: And you’re all in a room, every Tuesday?

SR: Every Tuesday, downstairs, in the cafeteria, listening to Dave (our Chairman) or a member of our Board, and it’s called ‘Weekly Business Update’. That engagement is really what we’ve tried to increase. ‘How do we become really passionate about our goals? How do we galvanise everyone’s energy to really understand what our objectives are and what we’re up for?’

PL: Beaverbrooks is a family run high street jewellery and winner of a plethora of awards. They took The Sunday Times Lifetime Achievement award in 2008, came first in the leadership category in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008 and this year they achieved number one position in The Sunday Time’s best companies to work for. Given that list, employment engagement is clearly one of their greatest strengths. I talked to the Managing Director of Beaverbrooks, Mark Adlestone, though he prefers not to use the word ‘engagement’.

Mark Adlestone: What do we call it? It’s about involving our people in our business, it’s about getting to know them, it’s about them getting to know us (or me), it’s about spending time with them, caring for them, listening to them so I guess it’s all of those things and the reason for that is to make them feel part of the organisation.

PL: Okay, so how do you set about building that spirit of feeling a togetherness about the company?

MA: Communication within our organisation is really key, and by communication I don’t just mean one way communication, I mean two way communication. Two way communication takes time and effort and we’re prepared to put that in.

PL: How do you do that?

MA: Well, on a personal level, I visit all 66 stores probably over a 16 month period and at each visit I will spend three to four hours. The first thing I do is talk to the team, individually, and spend a minimum of ten minutes with each person, so that’s one way of engaging. The other way is I have a series of focus groups which I’ve been running since 1996. I’ll split the country up into regions and I will select a representative, one person from each store, get them together in a training room for four and a half hours and we’re just chatting about stuff relating to the business, just me and nine or ten people. No secretaries, just me, I make my own notes.

PL: Do they trust you? Are they relaxed about being open with you?

MA: They are actually and that’s quite an interesting question because when I started this exercise in 1996 it was quite a gamble in a way. These focus groups, I believe, have played a very significant role in getting people to feel more connected to the company and actually valued as well.

PL: I know you have this phrase “consultative paternalism”, is this what you’re describing or is there more to it than that? 

MA: Yeah, well let me explain what I mean by “consultative paternalism”. Paternalism, we are a family business and I think we look after people in a caring way – that’s certainly one of our key values – and as a father would, what we try and do (and we try very hard to do this) is treat people on an adult to adult basis. We have moved through our coaching style (or we are moving) from a tell style of management to an adult to adult coaching style of management to get them to find their own answers. That’s been a big shift for us and I guess paternalism means, yes we’ll protect you as much as we can, but at the same time what sort of father figures are we? We want to expose you, as we would our own children, to the real world. We don’t want to wrap you up in cotton wool so I’d like to think the positive sides of family care wrapped up with a bit of professionalism as well. On the consultative side it is consultative as opposed to consensus. So, we will make decisions and at the same time we will talk to people to validate those decisions to hear what people think, test them. At the end of the day it’s not going to be based on consensus, so if we still feel, in spite of what people say, that it’s the right way to go that’s the way we will go and that’s important so that people have a voice and at the same time realise that we are there to make decisions.

PL: The spirit of consultation is also championed at Big Lottery Fund but if you’re going to consult you need to demonstrate its impact.

PT: I think what we need to probably do a little bit more of is give people a greater understanding that they give us some comments and we as an organisation (perhaps as a management team, whatever) are acting on it. Sometimes they don’t see the product that comes out the other end which has their influence so we need to be a little bit more explicit about that, almost like “You said, we did” and we started to talk about that kind of language. The talent programme’s a good example because when we went out and originally pitched the proposals and we had the elitism feel and all that kind of stuff and how are you going to select people and so on we didn’t go out and did a “You said, we did” but we took absolutely everything onboard and we shaped it very much on what they’d given us.

PL: Of course, talent programmes like BIG Lottery Fund’s “Aspire” and “Ascend” throw up their own engagement challenges. I picked this up with Perry.

PT: There as an issue about inclusivity and exclusivity with this programme. We couldn’t offer it to everybody and why would we want to because we’d just have people falling all over each other to get into promotion positions but we said if you are on the talent programme then yes you’ll have a certain degree of focus but if you’re not there’s definitely something for you to plot your own path through because they told us that they didn’t want any elitism and they wanted the opportunity to influence their development in their way.

PL: But by its very nature any talent programme is essentially elitist isn’t it?

PT: Yeah it is and we’ve kind of battled long and hard with that feel insofar as those people get an enormous amount of attention from people like me in HR and OD so they’ve got the benefit of having me as a sounding board and opportunities are arising for things like project work and experiential work and so. We gave a commitment to people who applied and weren’t selected that we’d do a similar thing for them so we did, we provided some support. It was fairly light touch but it kind of nudged them in that right direction so we went from a pool of 30+ to a bigger pool of 50+ and we said to the rest of the organisation you’ve got talent, just because you’re not on this programme doesn’t mean you’re not talented and we’ve opened up the whole range of training courses and coaching opportunities and mentoring assignments to anybody.

PL: At Beaverbrooks they’re also keen to give people opportunities but there’s a limit to how far you can climb. As a family business only family members can become directors so has that presented problems so far?

MA: It’s fascinating actually, people seem to accept that as it stands at the moment, as a family business, the directors are actually members of the family. Now, as far as the rest of the company’s concerned there’s lots of opportunities to go into senior management or very senior management within the organisation.

PL: But there is a ceiling to how far they can rise at the moment.

MA: Yeah, there’s a ceiling.

PL: And you don’t find that that de-motivates your best people.

MA: No they actually get comfort from it because one of the things about our business is that we are, if you like, the antidote to the Chief Executive who comes into an organisation, stays there for four years and says (I’m amazed when people say this, consistently) ‘I’ve done everything I can do’. How can you have done, in four or fives years, everything you have to do? The very fact that we are a consistent presence I think gives a tremendous amount of comfort and security to our people.

PL: So we’ve heard about engagement in different settings, the importance of values, the challenges of issues of talent management and succession planning and we’ve touched on the issues of pseudo-engagement that can be misread for real engagement during a recession. So what then can we conclude are the true drivers of engagement? Sarah Redshaw from Unilever.

SR: This is still that golden nugget we’re all searching for. I think our temptation is to over complicate it. My experience over the past 18 months is what drives engagement are a number of things. One is I understand where my business is going and what it’s shooting for, I therefore understand what my role and my contribution is to that and I’m excited by that. There is the I’m involved, I think, I feel you’re listening to me, I feel as if you seek out my opinions, I feel as if you’re going to act on those. 

PL: So, even in this climate, you do feel it’s still much more about that sort of less tangible stuff than it is about reward?

SR: I think it is. Yeah, we’ve had zero pay increase. We have had a pay freeze for 18 months now so people haven’t had pay increases, unless they’ve been promoted. I think when you take that lever away what are you left with? I think we know that reward is such a short-term blunt tool – ‘Great, you’ve given me a pay increase. Great, I’ll feel happy for a month’ but actually then if fundamentally I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, fundamentally I’m not being led well by my leadership, fundamentally I don’t really connect with or understand what on earth we’re trying to achieve then I think they are more important.

PL: Given commitment and good communication it’s possible to create that real sense of shared purpose even in tough times like these. Of course, a rosier economy wouldn’t go amiss and next month we’ll be looking to the year head and what’s in store for the economy, for organisation and for HR. Join us then. 


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