Employee engagement is high on the agenda for HR directors across the Middle East. This is particularly the case now we are seeing more visible links between increased levels of engagement and business performance – engaged staff invest their discretionary effort in the right behaviours to achieve future business results. ‘Making Engagement Happen’ will be the business challenge of the next decade and a focal point of the emerging talent imperative. And as we see a rise in the number of engagement surveys, we have started to see a pattern develop, which has re-emphasised the importance of carrying out the engagement cycle from start to finish, in particular, the vital steps post-survey.
A recent event stood out for us. A client called to ask us to re-conduct its engagement survey. We were delighted and started our preparations. We looked back at engagement results from previous years and noted that the data showed a consistent fall in engagement levels across the organisation. So what happened? There had been no major organisational changes and no changes to performance management or rewards systems over the previous three years. After talking with the client, we realised that, following previous surveys, nothing much was done with the results. By the second and third year, staff started saying that “management must take action based on the survey results” and “clearly communicate its plans”.
There lay the vital clues. We consulted Aon Hewitt’s global database to compare engagement levels of those organisations that had taken action based on the survey results with those that had not.
The analysis showed that, among those organisations that had conducted action planning and taken action based on the survey results, the engagement score rose by an average of 30%. In contrast, those that had undertaken no planning and no systematic action saw engagement levels decline by an average of 6%. What seemed like a logical next step to the survey was disregarded and resulted in a significant impact.
So what’s going on? There is now clear evidence that the very act of surveying employees raises their expectation that action will be taken and changes to improve the status quo will be introduced. When no action is taken, disappointment prevails and leadership is thrust into an unfavourable light.
What stops organisations from taking action on engagement?
In our experience, leaders in organisations genuinely want to know about employee engagement levels. Some are convinced about the linkage between employee engagement and business performance, for example, according to research carried out in our global engagement database; a 1% increase in engagement shows a 5% rise in operating income margin.
However, others are yet to sign up to the engagement-performance relationship, yet feel that taking the employee pulse will lead to a healthier organisation. Organisations invest a lot of effort in customising and rolling out surveys, making sure they are accessible to all employees, driving the response rate and so on, but once the results land on their desks, there is a formidable hill to climb to take the necessary action.
Best practice addressing the results of employee engagement surveys
In our experience of conducting employee engagement surveys, we’ve found definite pointers to best practice. Best employers are not necessarily flush with money and resources. Instead, they understand the importance of leadership and the belief that targeted actions will have a positive effect on engagement. They would not start an engagement survey until they are ready to do something about the results, and prepare themselves for a commitment that lasts longer than the few weeks it takes to administer the survey and get results. They also have the courage to communicate results, and commit to action.
Taking action to raise engagement: The case of a large Middle Eastern conglomerate
For one of our clients, a conglomerate with many subsidiaries across the region, one of the HR directors has been appointed ‘engagement champion’, responsible for ensuring all subsidiaries have action plans aligned to business priorities. They also created a corporate action plan in line with the organisation’s strategy. The director said engagement actions are always a point on his agenda when he communicates with any subsidiaries. The other key to success is that engagement forms part of the leaders’ performance scorecards and their year-end incentive payment.