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Employee Engagement – just for the big boys?

The other day I had what is becoming a standard comment from SME employers on the subject of employee engagement. The managing director of a warehousing company which employs about eighty people, told me that it was impossible for him to “engage” with his employees (his voice emphasised the derisory inverted commas around the word “engage”), because “I don’t have the time or budget of the big boys”. He went on to explain that he hasn’t even the available cash to run an employee satisfaction survey every year but that he’s confident his managers have it all in hand.

I asked him what his staff turnover rate is. The response – 30% – was justified in his view by the fact that he employed a lot of Eastern European staff.

The problem is that, in many ways, he is right. While the very smallest companies can do it without thinking, it genuinely is extremely difficult for companies between about twenty and two hundred staff to create effective engagement. In 2016 Gallup calculated that only 13% of employees across the world meet their definition of being engaged[1]. Other studies have shown that levels in the UK are relatively low. Predictably, the main efforts are being made by the largest companies.

Large companies are no fools. They would not operate employee engagement processes if the returns were inadequate. Instead, they almost invariably sing the praises of their systems and laud them at conferences at which their executives get invited to speak. And they are right, well-designed and managed systems of employee engagement do, indeed, bring with them significant benefits for all parties, including productivity increases, enhanced customer satisfaction, lower staff turnover, better quality recruits, higher motivation among staff, and much more.

But what most of those executives don’t always expand upon is that achieving these benefits – desirable as they are – is not straightforward. The whole process is multi-layered and requires commitment by all levels of management over an extended period. Its core is the regular staff satisfaction survey but that isn’t enough, by itself, to deliver engaged staff. Apart from other things, the company’s leaders have to genuinely buy into an underlying change of culture which emphasises collaboration and involvement and which not only listens to the results of the annual or bi-annual survey but creates an ongoing dialogue with employees.

So, is it possible for smaller companies to scale this mountain? Of course it is. The “mountain” is, relatively speaking, no higher for a smaller company than it is for a larger one and the benefits are the same. There’s also the cruel fact that, if they are to succeed in our rapidly changing employment environment, they have no choice. It’s that or suffer the costs and hassle of high staff turnover rates, lower productivity, more management time spent training and supporting, and more.

Pye Tait’s approach to employee engagement recognises the dilemma faced by smaller companies – limited budgets and limited management time, set against the undoubted benefits of getting the workforce more engaged. Our solution is iterative. One small step at a time, keeping a defined long-term goal in view and with very specific and measurable targets.

My message to that managing director was, therefore, a simple one … you don’t need to install an all-singing, all dancing employee engagement system from day one. Start with a properly designed employee satisfaction questionnaire on a regular basis.

But, and this is vitally important, don’t do it if you don’t mean it.

[1] Gallup The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis, (January 2016)


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