How to keep employees motivated in the rapidly evolving world of work

Globalisation, economic change, increasing digitalisation and rapidly evolving workforce demographics, continue to make us think very differently about the world of work. So now more than ever it is important to keep loyal workforces motivated and engaged, not to mention attracting happy and dedicated new talent. But experts suggests this is one area where employers are still making mistakes. At Oracle’s Modern HCM Experience conference in London last week, professionals gathered to dispel some of the myths around engagement.

Make it personal
“Employee engagement has historically been seen as something a company ‘does’ to the workforce, but companies on the ‘Great Place to Work’ list have organisational souls,” said Mervyn Dinnen, talent acquisition analyst. “That is what people are attracted to: authentic engagement, something that resonates with them.”

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, highlighted the growth of ‘Gen P’, the generation that expects personalisation and for their opinions to be heard. “HR and leaders have to be aware of, and adapt to, the shift from collectivism to individualism,” he said.

In his opening keynote, Sir David Brailsford, British cycling coach, described his method of “marginal gains” to get the best performance out of his colleagues:

“We encourage progression, not perfection. Marginal gains through small achievable progress,” he said. “We have a cognitive bias to focus on where we are now, rather than where we can be. But if you put people in control of what they’re doing, they’ll feel empowered and motivated and their performance will improve”

Engagement isn’t age specific
When a panel of experts were asked what motivated them to work, Will Kerr, copywriter, and the only Gen Y representative on the panel, said: “The psychology aspect of Gen Y is overstated. We came into a [turbulent] jobs market so we value any role or employment. All we ask is closeness to people we work with and a sense of shared values. My long term plan is to maintain those values and I would move jobs if that opportunity wasn’t given to me.”

Nita Clarke, director of IPA, added: “The 21st century workforce – no matter what age – is resilient, adaptable, collaborative and engaged, so any initiative should work towards appealing to that.”

For example, from day one at John Lewis Partnership, employees or ‘partners’ are sponsored and offered support and investment. “That’s not just attractive to Gen Y,” said Helen Seale, head of self-service and support at the John Lewis Partnership (JLP).

HR doesn’t need to own engagement
Ann Howard, director of business transformation at Banco Santander, said working for a Spanish employer had highlighted the different approach to and acceptance of employee engagement: “It is important to have total buy-in from board level on employee engagement, and we very much have that at Santander. Employee health and happiness is seen as a strategic imperative.”

“Engagement shouldn’t be owned by HR,” said David D’Souza, head of CIPD London. “That’s when it lacks traction. We all know that it often takes a new leader to come in who has a real interest in engagement for it to start being taken seriously in the organisation. I would encourage people to challenge leaders and ask them: ‘How do you want to be remembered? What legacy do you want to have?’”

Engagement is not just another initiative
JLP’s Seale said: “We don’t have ‘initiatives’ per se, but our employee engagement costs us money so it is recognised on the balance sheet. Employee councils help to map that from the ground up.”

“Managers have to understand what a happy team looks like,” Dinnen added, so someone flying in because they have a track record of “leading” won’t always understand the dynamics of the team. Hire to behaviour and get them amongst the workforce, he added.

For Clarke, an engaging manager is one that: “Enables people, treats them as individuals and stretches them to perform at their best.”

And a ‘moany’ employee doesn’t always indicate a disengaged employee, said Seale: “Complaining or spotting areas that need fixing doesn’t mean colleagues aren’t engaged. They care enough to want to change the organisation. It’s the quiet ones you need to reach out to.”

Wellbeing and engagement are linked
“Productivity is a huge challenge, especially in the public sector at the moment,” explained Clarke. “People are working harder but not smarter which is ultimately leading to burnout. There is an intrinsic link between wellbeing and engagement and employers should consider the two in tandem whenever reaching out to the workforce.”

Brailsford had his own tip for managers: “Watch people carefully and acknowledge their inner ‘chimps’ [their instinctive, emotional nature]. People ultimately want praise, reward and thanks, and if you’re not providing that, their ‘chimp’ is reacting.”