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Employee participation attracts brightest minds

"It is time to shift the focus back from engagement to participation, involving employees in all kinds of activities and joint action, whether work-related or not." 


Jonathon Hogg
Financial Times, page 3 (Executive Appointments)
13 January 2011

Jonathon Hogg is head of the people and operations practice at PA Consulting Group

Why is ‘employee engagement’ so important?

Because it is closely linked to productivity and profitability. Disengaged workers are likely to be unconcerned with customer satisfaction and product quality and are likely to leave. This is costly at any time, but particularly damaging during a recession and its aftermath.

How easy is it to achieve?

It is always challenging, given that everyone is motivated differently and few people respond to top-down corporate initiatives. The problem is more acute now that recourse to fund incentives, such as bonuses and pay rises, can be reduced. Another problem is that it is not something companies can directly control.

So what can businesses do?

It is time to shift the focus back from engagement to participation, involving employees in all kinds of activities and joint action, whether work-related or not. This idea was popular in the 1990s, and has been less so since.

Why will it work now?

It is relevant today for two reasons. First, because participation fits the theme of "the big society" [an idea promoted by the UK government]. By encouraging employee participation in community activities, companies can meet government and public demands to make a contribution to society.

The second way participation resonates today is that it suits the way people increasingly like to interact and work. Younger employees want to be heard, as shown by their use of blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc. The approach in traditional workplaces, with its focus on direction, control and risk avoidance, will no longer attract the brightest minds or achieve the best results, if it ever did.

How does it help the employee?

Through participation, employees can develop awareness of their skills, potential and identity, and how they can best work as part of a team. Businesses that can orchestrate this process will soon see higher levels of commitment and creativity – and engagement with work.

So how do employers go about it?

Increasing participation lies, to a large extent, within the control of employers. They can use social media to create communities on existing channels, or build channels to enlist people into workplace activities in new, flexible ways that do not involve getting everyone together in a room after work.

Many companies are already seeing the benefits of this kind of approach. Bupa has an internal social networking platform that enables staff to take part in forums, join groups and create communities of expertise. Users of the platform are reported to score between 5 and 10 per cent higher in employee opinion surveys than non-users. They are also better informed about the business, scoring 10 per cent higher than others.

OK, social media. But what else?

Companies can also explore ways of developing systems to recognise the efforts of individual employees. These are mechanisms that show people how their work contributes to the organisation’s achievements, and to encourage them to appreciate the efforts of colleagues. Nine months after security software provider Symantec launched its global programme, called Applause, employee engagement scores rose by 16 per cent.

Other activities can be informal or formal, self-driven, team-driven or management-led, and can focus on virtually any activity – from learning new skills to charitable projects and special interest groups who organise social or cultural events. The skill lies in finding approaches that resonate with staff and generate a shared commitment to the success of the company.

What does this do for the business?

Participation can pay tangible business dividends even when its purpose appears primarily social. Such techniques allow organisations to move from traditional approaches, where employees are directed by senior management and, at best informed and sometimes consulted, towards one where they feel they are partners in the delivery of the company’s results.

How far can companies take this?

Some organisations experiment with even higher levels of participation, where the company’s activity is co-created and co-designed by the workforce, or where the company is co-owned and co-led. The ultimate example of this kind of mature participation is perhaps provided by WL Gore, manufacturer of Gore-Tex, which has no chains of command but forms teams to achieve a particular objective and lets leaders of those teams emerge naturally. 

To read the FT article online, please click here.

To read another article by Jonathon, click here. To read a recent article where he was quoted, please click here.

To visit PA's pages on HR, please click here.

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