Career

Empathetic Employee Engagement: Putting Yourself in Your Employees’ Shoes

21 August 2018
  • Andy Leung

    Principal – Career Business, Mercer Hong Kong

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“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.[1] 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.[2]

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
     

Exploration Stage
 

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

Generation Stage
 

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
     

Realisation Stage
 

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.

In Closing
 

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.
2
Ibid.

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While measuring the absolute and relative performance of private markets is critical, it is significantly nuanced. As "value creation" is an important aspect in the private equity story, measurement should be not only accurate but also meaningful. As with all investments, evaluating past performance is always a factor when deciding whether or not to include private equity within the overall asset allocation of a portfolio. However, PE investors must look deeper to determine a Fund's true performance, through rigorous due diligence. A combination of metrics and qualitative measures are important for providing a holistic understanding of the Fund's track record and its future performance potential. In terms of quantitative metrics, the three most commonly used ones are Internal Rate of Return (IRR), Total Value to Paid (TVPI) ratio and Distributed to Paid-In (DPI) ratio. IRR is the most widely cited metric for measuring the performance of a private market investment. This is a time-based measurement which takes into account the investment made and acquired over a period of time. The longer an investment takes to mature (or sell at a given price), the more a given annualized IRR will fall. The second measure, TVPI, considers the total of how much value is received from investments (through dividends and a sale at the end), compared to the initial investment made. The final measure is the DPI ratio, which measures how much of the initial capital is returned (through dividends or other payments) compared to how much was invested initially. DPI is a barometer of realized value, not total value. All three of these metrics play an important role in helping investors evaluate a private equity fund's historical performance. While there is no single answer for comprehensively and accurately assessing the performance of a private equity fund, these metrics when employed together can help get a better understanding of it. Gauging past performance of a fund doesn't tell you much about the performance of the next private equity fund. These commitments have a long life, and it is, therefore, necessary to consider other investment related factors. They could include the stability of the investment team, looking at how the investment team sources deals or how they create value at their portfolio companies. Following the Abraaj case, assessing managers and back office operations have become an essential measure of due diligence. Effective internal controls, strong systems and a well-staffed operations team are also critical for a private equity fund to succeed. Measuring private market performance is certainly more complicated than measuring public market performance. It requires a clear view of relevant metrics and methodologies, is informed through multiple perspectives and demands specificity of analysis. Additionally, it can be subjective, prone to manipulation and ultimately represents an imperfect assessment of the success of a private market investment. However, private market performance measurement is likely to continue to evolve, thereby improving its current shortcomings. The key for investors is to identify investment talent who can generate strong investment sustainably over time. While past performance is useful in evaluating a managers' historical track record, it won't guarantee future results. Hence, an investor needs to undertake deep "qualitative" investment with operational due diligence together to assess the likelihood of future investment success. To learn more about how Mercer can help you with your investment strategies, click here. 1Ramady, Mohamed, "Abraaj Capital: The Rise and Fall of a Middle East Star," Al Arabiya, July 3, 2018,https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/07/03/Abraaj-Capital-The-rise-and-fall-of-a-Middle-East-star.html#.

Siddhartha Gupta | 13 Jun 2019

Talent acquisition is one of the biggest challenges organizations face, according to Mercer–Mettl's State of Talent Acquisition 2019 annual report. With technological innovations sweeping the market and more emphasis being placed on skill evaluation, talent assessment is no less than a marathon to grab high potential talent before competitors. Also, as the hiring process continues to evolve from newspaper ads to social recruiting, the next industry wave is automated recruitment. Organizations have started drifting away from manual hiring to technology driven processes. Here are three ways technology is changing the talent landscape for the better. 1. Technology Can Boost Employer Brand Values   To attract and retain top-quality talent in 2019 and beyond, building a strong employer brand should be a priority of every employer. With more organizations striving to create better workplaces and spend more to drive employee engagement, your brand must create a positive buzz in the market. A leading LinkedIn Report also suggests that 75% of candidates factor employee branding before joining an organization.1 A positive employee brand can help you attract quality talent, retain them and close multiple requisitions on autopilot through referrals. Such is the power of employee branding. How can technology make a difference here? State-of-the-art tools, applications and solutions can make a huge difference. Be it a smart career site, robust social media presence or a Candidate Relationship Management (CRM) system, technology can assist organizations in achieving a more refined branding strategy — and bringing in all the benefits that come with it. 2. Technology Can Improve the Candidate Experience   When candidates have multiple jobs to choose from, you have to give them a pretty good reason to join your organization, which should be different than a fat paycheck. Providing a gratifying candidate experience can do the job. The recruitment process is broadly classified into three stages: Sourcing, Screening & Selection, and Onboarding. Your job is to provide a seamless and hassle-free experience in each of these stages, so that the candidate thinks, "This organization has a nicely structured recruitment process. It must be a good place to work." And, you're all set! On the other hand, if there are roadblocks in any of these stages or if candidates get the impression that your recruitment process is haywire, they might look for a better fit elsewhere. Thanks to recruitment technology, there are plenty of options you can exercise to provide a great candidate experience. 3. Technology Can Enhance Talent Pool Quality   Previously, organizations did not have any standard procedures for evaluation and recruitment. They largely resorted to newspaper ads, walk-ins, unstructured face-to-face interviews or even pen-and-paper tests to fill vacancies. However, with time, they realized that these methods came with drawbacks. Traditional methods of recruitment were long, complex and biased. They failed in assessing candidates' soft skills or in understanding their weaknesses, since HR did not have any concrete data or framework to base their screening questions on. This ultimately increased candidate back-out and early attrition rates, leaving employers in a dilemma.      Such an unstructured process has given rise to online assessments that now help in shortlisting candidates ideal for a job role, based on the skills they possess. Additionally, these pre-screening tests also predict a new hire's on-the-job performance and retainability. With top talent typically available in the market for 10 days, on average, companies are increasingly making their talent acquisition process more practical, time-saving and interesting to attract talented candidates. According to the Mercer-Mettl report, 53% of organizations use competency-based interviews and 40% of organizations use video interviews for hiring top talent. New-age recruitment methods not only increase candidate engagement but also improve quality of hires. In 2017, the use of assessments in the IT/ES industry shot up by 132%, while the Banking Finance Services and Insurance (BFSI) industry experienced an increased assessment usage of 217%. The adoption of technology for hiring indicates the effectiveness of new-age methods. The tools collect inputs from candidates and compile responses to provide a final report which highlights the positives, negatives and areas in need of improvement. The data-backed results ultimately provide a boost to the employer brand value, improve candidate experience, enhance talent pool quality and help to carry out bulk, as well as niche, hiring in a seamless manner. 1"The Ultimate List of Employer Brand Statistics," LinkedIn Talent Solutions,https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/business/talent-solutions/global/en_us/c/pdfs/ultimate-list-of-employer-brand-stats.pdf.

Mustafa Faizani | 30 May 2019

There is no doubt that family businesses are prominent across the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in various industries. From small to renowned multinational corporations, family owned and managed companies are the foundation of the modern country. Many of these businesses have been in existence for five decades and still exist today. As the first-generation of individuals begin to step down, we're seeing a shift to second and third generation ownership. It is estimated that, in the Middle East, approximately $1 trillion in assets will be transferred to the next generation of family owned companies over the next decade.1 The transition from the first to the second generation, and increasingly, the second to third generation, will have tremendous implications on the sustainability and growth of these companies. As a result, legacy and succession planning are becoming an increasing concern for the region, as many businesses stand in a position to pass the baton over to the next generation. While existing leaders prefer to keep the business within the family, there are many challenges that can arise if there is no preparation done well in advance of the transition. This lack of preparation is common, as it's easy for leaders to be so involved in the day-to-day running of the business that they lose sight of longer-term, more strategic priorities. The penalty for failing to tackle leadership or ownership changes can be significant. Lack of a clear, strategic succession plan can cause disruption, conflict and uncertainty within the business, making it vulnerable to an acquisition or takeover. The long-term survival of a business and the preservation of the wealth that has been built, will likely depend on getting ahead of those changes through legacy and succession planning. Have a Strong Internal Talent Strategy   Planning can have many benefits. The priority is to ensure leadership continuity, which is an important factor in keeping employees engaged and ensuring retention. It also allows time to hire internal candidates for key positions, therefore avoiding the cost of external searches. Internal candidates know the organization better and tend to have a better chance of success than external hires. Additionally, promoting internally helps retain good people, because they see opportunities for growth and will stay on to pursue them. A strong talent strategy can also fill leadership positions quickly, not only avoiding the potential cost of unfilled positions and errors from a lack of leadership, but helping to circumvent legal consequences from potential missteps. Evaluate Your Operating Structure and Execute in Phases   Leaders often first look at the current reporting structure and organizational chart to evaluate who the next leader(s) may be. However, it is also important to think of an organization's operating structure and how it may change over time. Leaders must consider how functional activities will evolve as the business grows, while also looking at the experience of the shareholders during this significant change. These factors need to be reviewed before selecting the people who will take over the function. As part of this process, it's critical that succession planning is done in phases. Firstly, it is important to identify the roles critical to the business and the pool of successors that best fit the organization's requirements. Ensuring the right assessments to determine readiness levels can solidify the next generation of company leadership. Multiple assessments methods are suitable, including looking at historical measures of performance, 360 leadership behaviors tests and predictive measures of potential. Involve Executive Leadership   Lastly, executive leadership involvement is essential in the succession planning process. The organization's top leaders should be fully on board with the plan to bring in the next generation and meet frequently to discuss strategic talent management issues. The ultimate results of a business succession plan depend on the adherence and commitment to it from the organization. It requires a high level of engagement and continuous efforts to keep the succession moving forward over time, despite inevitable interruptions of operational needs and unexpected changes. To learn more about succession planning for family businesses, visit us here. 1Augustine, Babu, "Middle East's Family Businesses Get Serious on Sustainability" Gulf News, November 7, 2015,https://gulfnews.com/how-to/your-money/middle-easts-family-businesses-get-serious-on-sustainability-1.1614502.

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