“Nine out of 10 senior leaders think engagement is important, and eight out of 10 organisations have a formal engagement programme already in place.”
For decades, organisations have recognised — and have tried to realise — the benefits of a highly engaged workforce. According to a recent study, DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Create and Sustain Highly Engaging Cultures, conducted by Mercer | Sirota in partnership with the Engagement Institute™, nine out of 10 senior leaders think engagement is important, and eight out of 10 organisations have a formal engagement programme already in place. Clearly, engagement is a vital area of focus: It’s estimated that organisations spend close to a billion dollars annually on promoting higher levels of employee engagement. Despite this huge investment in employee engagement, and even with the many different approaches to driving employee engagement that are available, most organisations are still frustrated with their progress in overcoming their engagement challenges. In fact, results from the study show that only 50% of HR leaders feel that managers know how to take action on engagement survey data to help achieve their desired results.
So what’s the problem? Is it a lack of relevant data and insights? An inability to hear employees’ voices and truly understand their concerns? Or is it that organisations are just sitting on data and neglecting to execute their well-intentioned action plans? In talking with many different stakeholders (including business leaders, HR leaders, frontline managers and employees), we’ve noticed that despite significant differences in how highly engaged organisations approach their people challenges and the myriad ways in which they choose to engage their employees, one thing remains the same: Highly engaged organisations anchor their engagement approach in a critical value— empathy.
But some might ask, “Aren’t we being empathetic when we conduct employee engagement surveys to better understand our employees’ experience at work?” Well, yes, to a certain extent — but in reality, the survey is only the first step. The principle of empathy should apply not only to the survey process, but to all aspects of the employee engagement journey, especially to post-survey-related activities such as action planning.
Be Empathetic by Adopting Design Thinking
An empathetic approach to employee engagement may sound fairly simple as a concept, but ensuring it’s executed effectively requires a major shift away from the more traditional methods that most organisations have adopted.
To better understand how to achieve the goal of an empathetic and highly engaged organisation, we have worked with leading organisations that are setting the standard for high employee engagement by adopting human-centred design thinking to address their engagement challenges. Although there are numerous frameworks for design thinking (devised by Stanford and IDEO, most notably), they all share three key stages of developing an employee-centric approach— exploration, generation and realisation. The three stages are outlined below:
- Exploration Stage
o Learn more about employees, other key stakeholder groups in the organisation and the context of problem
o Synthesise learnings gleaned from discovery and from listening to various points-of-view
- Generation Stage
o Conduct iterative ideation to push past stereotypes to get to breakthrough ideas
o Build prototypes to learn, providing a foundation for making ideas better
o Test ideas and prototypes with actual users, or in this case employees
- Realisation Stage
o Implement the chosen solution and maintain a focus on continuous improvement
There are two phases in this initial stage: discover and define.
- Discover. Using an employee engagement survey to collect employee feedback helps organisations explore the unique needs of their employees and discover what their people value. Employee engagement survey results serve as the foundation for providing the necessary insights organisations need to be empathetic and to design meaningful actions that not only meet business objectives, but also truly address employee needs.
Another important element of this phase is creating a compelling problem statement. A well-developed employee engagement survey identifies the core elements of the problem to guide the future direction. The core elements include the following:
- Who — identifying specific demographic segments for which the problem/issue is most relevant
- What — understanding the impact of the issue and/or problems caused
- When — conducting multiple rounds of study to identify when certain workforce trends, whetherpositive or negative (attrition or turnover, for example), are happening
- Where — pinpointing the geography (or geographies) where the issue is taking place
- Why — using statistical analysis to identify key drivers of employee engagement
- Define. Organisations need to synthesise the insights they gather — this is how they make sense of what they’ve learned, identify patterns, find meaning and develop an overall picture of their own workforce trends. In this phase, organisations also begin to lay the foundations for an overall employee engagement architecture. By translating the findings into an employee experience story, they can identify the root of the challenge and clarify how to move forward. The story can be simple: for example, a technology company I worked with recently, successfully engaged its employees by providing them with a high level of autonomy and embedding an experimental approach into company’s processes. This resonated with employees who tended to be more motivated by having opportunities to innovate instead of by achieving financial rewards alone.
A key part of an organisation becoming more empathetic is by strengthening its analyses of the employee experience through journey mapping and blueprinting — to illustrate the journey of an employee over time. Other components are sometimes added, such as high points (moments that garner the highest reception from employees), breakdowns (areas that likely may receive varying degrees of receptiveness, leading to lower positive perception from some employees), emotions (employees’ psychological reactions to certain changes, which employers can anticipate by defining employee personas) and touchpoints (the connection between the various parts of a holistic employee experience within an organisation). This helps us understand the building blocks of engagement that are unique to each organisation, and reveal the processes that are delivering highly engaging experiences for employees. It also enables us to connect the various components of the employee experience to one another, from frontstage (involving direct interaction with employees) to backstage (including all the behind-the-scenes preparation required to implement a successful engagement programme).
An effective journey map and blueprint should be able to:
- Provide a clear overview of the employee experience and the systems in place (like performance management, and learning and development)
- Facilitate communication across dimensions (for example, total rewards versus agility) and related organisation groups (managers and employees, for instance)
Spot where certain things are not working, highlight opportunities for greater enhancement and support decision-making to identify the most suitable options
While most organisations are open to listening to employees’ voices and needs, action planning is typically still a “closed door” activity and thus not truly empathetic. The generation stage is about the divergence and convergence of ideas, and about building on the outcomes from the exploration stage to identify possible solutions in a collaborative way. The three phases of this stage — ideate, prototype and test — function as an iterative cycle.
- Ideate. To be truly empathetic in idea generation, highly engaging organisations are adopting a participatory design approach by involving employees in their action planning. These organisations recognise that employees have important insights to offer and can best articulate, when given the appropriate tools to express themselves, how their needs should be addressed. The ultimate aim is to prompt employees to tell their unique stories about their experience in the organisation. This serves as a core component of the design of an effective employee engagement programme and offers numerous benefits:
- Enhances the potential for being innovative by going beyond existing solutions
- Leverages diverse perspectives and the collective wisdom of employees
- Uncovers unexpected knowledge worthy of exploration
- Generates greater volume and flexibility in innovation options
- Creates a sense of ownership of the ideas that are generated
There are many ideation techniques — brainstorming, mind-mapping, sketching, among others. But no matter which techniques are adopted during ideation, postponing the evaluation of the ideas that are generated during the ideation phase is critical. When employees know that the merits of their ideas will not be immediately evaluated, it allows their imaginations and creativity greater freedom, and also demonstrates an organisation’s flexibility in aligning employee input on engagement actions with its overall business strategy.
- Prototype. After ideation for employee engagement action planning is complete, building a prototype will be crucial — to avoid losing the potential for empathy and innovation while focusing on the most viable ideas, and to answer questions that will help bring an organisation closer to the best solution. A prototype for employee engagement action can take any form, as long as it encourages employees to interact with it: It could be a storyboard of a concept, a game employees play or a gadget they put together, or a role-playing activity, to name a few examples. The prototype can be simple — it need not be very detailed; it only needs to include a few points to describe the solution or outline the steps that need to take place. The key is that for a prototype to support the idea of empathy, it must be something the employee can experience.
Four principles should guide the prototyping process:
- 1. Get started — don’t delay. If you lack a clear picture of what to do about employee engagement or don’t have all the details in place, don’t let it stand in your way. Just having some notes and ideas is enough to get the process going.
- 2. Look for a clear indicator. A prototype is critical because it enables you to answer specific questions with certain variables (for example, whether to link performance ratings to salary increments or to a percentage of an employer’s contribution to employee pension funds). These variables will serve as the anchor to support the next step or action (whether it be further strengthening the variables or deciding to change direction).
- 3. Be ready to let go. A prototype is not meant to be a guaranteed solution. There are many different ways to engage employees: Organisations should not let themselves get too attached to any one idea or solution, and should be open to exploring other options.
- 4. Stay focused on employees. Continue to ask, “What do employees want?” The answer(s) to this question will help focus the prototyping by collecting meaningful employee feedback that can inform iteration and guide next steps.
- Test. To ensure a prototype can become a viable solution, it needs to be tested: eliciting feedback on the prototype from employees creates additional opportunities for empathy, reinforcing the focus on employee engagement. Testing is also crucial to supporting the iteration cycle and, of course, identifying the most suitable solution.
An empathetic approach to testing collects employees’ feedback during the iteration process to help shape the employee engagement action plan design. “Micro-piloting,” a hot choice and one of the latest market trends, is a great way to capture employee feedback. There are many different ways to conduct a micro-pilot — below are some examples drawn from my experiences in working with highly engaging organisations.
- Crowdsourcing Campaign: A company might encourage employees to participate in budgeting decisions for its people programmes (for example, a company outing or a wellness programme) by asking employees to “vote” for a specific event or initiative by using a virtual token that has no direct monetary value, but instead has an internal currency. For example, if senior leaders have budgeted $100 per person for people programmes, they might issue a $50 virtual token to employees to enlist their help in identifying the most promising programmes and determining how much the company should allocate to these programmes. This engages employees by giving them the opportunity to show how they think the organisation should use its funding, allowing them to have a more direct influence on budgeting and to have a say in what experiences will deliver the best outcomes and most value.
- False Door: A false door is typically a webpage that includes a simple call to action to promote an employee engagement initiative or programme — often employees are prompted to click a button to “understand more” or “sign up to participate”. Organisations can then track employees’ actions and responses to various engagement programmes, allowing them to determine, for example, which programmes have the highest click rate or most visits, providing organisations with valuable data that helps them understand what serves their employees’ best interests.
- Wizard of Oz: In this scenario, employees don’t know that they’re participating in an employee engagement initiative; instead, their feedback is being collected behind the scenes. For example, in a retail company I worked with recently, employees wanted an enhanced training approach to improve their customer service skills and support their ongoing development, so the company designed a new online programme to test how the training could best be delivered — they wanted to more closely assess their use of technology to determine, for example, the optimal number of interactions for employees. As employees moved through the online programme, their behaviours and responses (for instance, how they navigated from one page to another within the programme) were guided, observed and recorded to help shape and refine the design and the delivery of the training. By testing against different variables and adapting the design of the training accordingly, the retail company succeeded in customising the training to fit their employees’ needs.
To maintain a strong focus on empathy in the execution phase of any employee engagement programme, deployment must be consistent and all stakeholders must adopt a continuous learning approach. Organisations that have been successful in the realisation stage understand that for an empathetic approach to have real impact, employee engagement efforts must not be built just for show — they must be authentic. And more importantly, employee engagement programmes must be “built to run” and “built to learn”.
- Built to Run. Being empathetic is not just about “branding” improvement actions; it’s about ensuring follow-through. Employee engagement must be managed in a holistic and enduring way. To achieve this goal, highly engaging organisations have defined a clear governance model to ensure their employee engagement action plans are executed in a consistent and empathetic way. When it comes to employee engagement, good governance is defined by six characteristics — employee engagement efforts should be:
- Participatory: Employees are involved in the implementation.
- Ownership-driven: It’s not only leadership and HR who have accountability for driving employee engagement; this critical responsibility is also delegated to more junior employees.
- Transparent: Employees have a clear picture of all the different aspects of the employee engagement programme.
- Responsive: The employee engagement programme is designed to capture moments that matter (for example, those involving communications around bonus awards, promotion decisions or departures from the company).
- Inclusive: Employees feel they have a stake in the organisation’s engagement journey; no one feels excluded.
- Rules-based: A fair policy framework is put in place to enforce actions, with incentives and consequences, to help ensure the identified employee engagement actions have been properly implemented and the desired impact is achieved.
- Built to Learn. Iteration with the goal of continuous improvement is a key aspect of adopting a design thinking methodology and a lab mind-set in promoting employee engagement: Indeed, employee engagement is not a one-off initiative, but an ongoing journey. To excel in this journey and ensure they keep learning, highly engaging organisations adopt the mechanism of progressive survey design in their employee engagement studies.
What is progressive survey design? High-engagement organisations do not issue an employee engagement survey as a one-time exercise; instead, they conduct engagement surveys regularly to chart progress and ensure employee voices are continuously heard. Because the number of survey questions is often limited to ensure a better survey experience, selecting the right questions to reflect the current moment is crucial. Each survey questionnaire should be designed to align with the overall strategy, keeping longer-term objectives in mind, while mirroring the natural evolution of change within an organisation. If senior leaders want to understand how an organisational transformation is impacting their employees, survey questions must be designed to reflect and capture employee responses to progressive change. For example, survey questions might evolve as the organisational transformation unfolds, moving from initially asking questions about employees’ awareness of the change to later posing questions in subsequent rounds of the survey about employees’ understanding of and commitment to the change.
It’s clear that an organisation that succeeds in engaging its employees in this age of increasing disruption creates a competitive advantage. And to win this increasingly competitive war for talent, organisations need to reinforce and model the principle of empathy by adopting design thinking to design employee experiences that are meaningful and enriching. When organisations truly empathise with their people and literally put themselves in their employees’ shoes, and when they take an iterative approach to employee engagement initiatives with a focus on continuous learning, they succeed in building a thriving workforce — and a thriving business follows naturally.
1 Mercer | Sirota and Engagement Institute study, DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Create and Sustain Highly Engaging Cultures, 2014.