Can we afford to live without employee engagement?

Written by
Glenn Elliott

12 Jan 2016

12 Jan 2016 • by Glenn Elliott

Surviving on engagement alone

I find it a little strange, if I'm honest, when people say to me that they don't understand or don't "get" employee engagement. Now many might accuse me of living in a bubble – I've spent most of the last ten years working with HR managers talking about and influencing employee engagement. And running an 'employee engagement business' I guess means my world self-selects people who think the same, or are at least interested in the same. But if you strip the jargon off it and talk about people being happier at work, people feeling better connected to their employer, and people feeling better connected to their job, it isn't honestly a hard thing for anyone to understand or to want.

Sometimes I'm asked if we can prove there is a link between employee engagement and organisational success or profit. Well yes you can – there have been lots of organisations around the world in all sorts of formats that have proved it. And more than one journal has analysed and linked corporate performance to workplace happiness in various best companies to work for lists. And the UK government's McLeod report did a pretty comprehensive view of it too.

In my own experience, I literally couldn't afford to live without it. You see, when I founded Reward Gateway, we had no money. And I mean no money – no VC, no Angel investors and certainly no bank to support us. The original gang of five who founded the business had a few thousand pounds between us – mostly scraped from credit cards and personal loans. So when we started back in 2006 we couldn't afford big salaries, fancy offices or anything else that money could buy. 'All' we could afford was to create a workplace, a structure and a culture that would attract, retain, inspire and motivate people based on being a great place to work. 'All' we could afford was an open and honest culture, clear communications, and inclusion of our people in our strategy as key stakeholders. 'All' we could afford, was employee engagement. You can even see evidence of that online – just read our Glassdoor reviews from the early years, almost all of them said Reward Gateway was a great place to work and people stayed, but they could earn more elsewhere. In those first years almost every employee review made some mention of that.

The importance of engagement with or without money

Now, nine years on, I'm a very fortunate CEO in many ways. I run a successful, growing company that has a highly engaged workforce and a strong, vibrant culture. On a good day it feels like we can do anything; the world is at our feet.

But of course every day can't be perfect and there are days and things that don't go our way. On those days, to be honest I still find this job really hard. The leadership team and I face challenges on a daily, weekly, sometimes hourly basis that really test us. Our clients quite rightly demand a lot for the money, and the trust that they give us, and our competitors around the world keep us on our toes. The technology landscape is constantly changing and sometimes it feels like it's an almost insurmountable job just to keep up. And then there's the things outside of our control in the environment that hit us unexpectedly. Just yesterday I was looking at our mid-year profit forecast and it's under our budget by half a million pounds just because of the strength of the Aussie dollar!

But like I said, I'm fortunate. I get to navigate these challenges with a highly motivated, highly engaged team. And that's an amazing place to play from. It doesn't make it a walk in the park, but it makes it doable. There are still days where we really screw it up. But there aren't days where we feel alone and there aren't days where we feel no one cares. On those hard days, I have the strength of over 300 engaged people on my side. And it’s never long before you feel you have the world at your feet again.

So when I think about employee engagement – or as the headline suggests, the absence of it – I kind of think of how hard business must be without it. I think of how hard it is for an organisation to perform when too many of their people 'just turn up to do a nine to five'.

And I really wonder, I really question, what sort of organisations don't need all of their people pulling forward in the same way for them. I wonder what sleepy parts of our economy or world they must be in to have the luxury of not needing their people to perform. What undisrupted sector are they in where being average and turning up is enough?

So maybe that's the message that ends this article. Maybe you can afford to be without employee engagement if you just want to be average. But if you want or need it to perform? Then it's clearly not an option anymore.

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