In Tuesday’s blog, my colleague David pointed out how nearly half of employees share content about their employer on social media. It’s a given that any company wants this sizable chunk of their workforce to say nice things about them, so perhaps we should take a look at things from their perspective.

Firstly, here’s something to mull over: while many companies are comfortable with the idea of opening up a dialogue with their customers in order to build a lasting rapport (i.e. that whole content marketing thingy), they often don’t apply the same principles to their own employees.

That’s mad if you think about it. I mean, a shop on the high street’s unlikely to be teeming with happy customers if all the staff are bored, miserable and appear to hate each other.

If the team know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they are more likely to get on board

The business case for engagement

But this seems to be the case for ‘most organisations’ recently surveyed by the government-backed Engage for Success movement, led by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, in a report entitled “The changing nature of employee engagement”.

The report looks at why it can be hard to make the business case for an effective employee engagement strategy, and where the challenges lie for improving the situation. In short, the main problem is that, while everybody sees an engaged workforce as wonderful in a “flower-powery, everybody-hold-hands” kind of a way, the reality is that there are often far more seemingly urgent things to be getting on with.

Only 41% of the companies surveyed could tangibly relate employee engagement to broader business performance, and nearly as many said they would like to be able to make that link, suggesting they’re unable to do so yet.

And here’s the thing – those employees that strive to make that link do so to prepare a business case for management. While gaining senior buy in is obviously essential, it turns out that’s often not the biggest obstacle to maintaining a happy workforce. The research showed that, when it comes to employee engagement, the biggest issue often lies with line managers.

These are the people present on the front line of employee engagement, so it makes sense that they will have a huge influence on workplace satisfaction.

One respondent from the survey said: “The constant challenge is to get those with line management responsibility to live the high-performance culture values we have, particularly around giving quality feedback, having the ‘even better if’ conversations, coaching and generally making people feel like they are valued and being developed.”

It’s a great point, and it’s easy to see this as a line manager just not doing his or her job properly. The real explanation, however, might not be so simple. For example, that line manager might be inordinately stressed from all sorts of administrative factors. Worse, they might not want to be there in the first place.

Too many managerial roles are filled by highly skilled technical workers that just aren’t manager material and, more to the point, never intended to be. That’s a failure of the tranche of management above them. These technical workers were likely promoted to make them feel valued and as if they’re being developed when ironically the opposite is true.

Despite best intentions, this is effectively employee engagement in reverse. It’s a case of not looking at the data first; it’s taking action on your instinct rather than the results. And if your attention is already being diverted to more pressing matters, then that instinct is unlikely to be well informed.

Clearly there’s a problem in the chain of responsibility that ends at the line manager, who cannot necessarily be blamed for not prioritising employee engagement. And so we’re back to senior management again.

They see an engaged workforce as wonderful in a “flower-powery, everybody-hold-hands” kind of a way; the reality is there are more seemingly urgent things

The caged executive

It was pointed out that executive leaders can be quite closed about the detail of their future strategy and plans, so already the workforce en masse is struggling uphill to align its engagement plans.

This unwillingness to be transparent suggests an endemic attitude issue. For instance, many managers will use an employee engagement survey as a first step to assessing the state of their workforce, which is a perfectly viable approach when done properly and regularly.

“We need to use a defined, measurable strategy and take action on results, being open and honest,” another respondent said. “We need to develop a culture where people do not fear being reprimanded and ‘hunted out’ if they give an opinion via the survey that management doesn’t like. The company needs to be emotionally intelligent enough to take the feedback and make changes. If you truly do not want to know, don’t ask.”

Making systems and taking measures

One major asset in promoting that transparency is the HR system and intranet. Nearly two thirds of respondents said they’d change their HR system if it resulted in increased engagement. Interestingly, beyond suggesting obvious improvements in user experience, just under half said they wanted a system that was more talent-centric and which includes ‘embedded and predictive analytics’.

People want information. They want data. Employees want to be informed. We live in a world where nothing is secret let alone sacred. Those research participants who reported that they can make a business case for engagement cited client satisfaction and retention, mystery guest scores and quality of service, staff absence rates and even share price fluctuations as useful metrics to measure. These all link directly to business KPIs and, ultimately, the bottom-line. If the team know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and why they need to improve in a given area, they are more likely to get on board.

Employees want a system more talent-centric and which includes ‘embedded and predictive analytics’

It is, as ever, a question of trust. The other question is of time. So, managers, get the results of your survey, find out the needs, set your KPIs, and then get the help of someone with the time and knowhow to implement the right strategy. After all, you’ve got other stuff to be getting on with.