Is it time to put a ring on it?

Since first entering the business lexicon in the ‘90s, employee engagement has remained an often misunderstood term. But, says Cora Lydon, let’s make 2018 the year that PAs across the globe help make their mark on improving staff retention, performance and output

Employee engagement: it’s a term that’s bandied around many a boardroom table and, while everyone has a rough understanding of the concept, few really and truly understand what it is, why it’s so important to business and just how to put it into practice.

Put simply, employee engagement is used to describe just how invested staff are in their work. One of the strongest drivers of engagement is feeling valued and involved and, in the workplace, this is achieved through having some say in decision making (however small) and being able to voice ideas and have them heard.

Now, as a PA you’re probably pretty dedicated to your role and company. It helps, of course, that you tend to have the ear of your manager and, through this, can help shape the business practice – and while confidentiality is key, you also tend to hear about changes first. This puts EAs at the heart of the solution to driving engagement – you can lead by example. You’re likely already in the enviable position of being engaged in your role, can see the benefit and can help other people achieve the same feeling.

But research by Gallup into employee engagement tells us that only 13 per cent of employees are engaged worldwide – and worryingly that figure has barely budged in years. So, if CEOs are working so hard to improve their staff engagement, why’s it not yielding results?

One of the biggest problems is that companies focus on identifying and measuring engagement levels, rather than focusing on what can be done to improve them – and this is where you, as an EA, can make a difference.

PAs tasked with improving levels of engagement also need to be able to spot a disengaged workforce:

    • One of the first clues may well be the sheer rate of turnover – a disengaged workforce will have no loyalty to their roles and so staff retention rates will suffer. Aside from the constant efforts to recruit and train, successful businesses make a point of building teams from the ground up – hiring from within and engaging with people to develop their careers.
    • Unengaged workers can lead to productivity issues. Turnover and customer service can all suffer when the people trusted to carry out a role just don’t care about the outcome, so it’s no surprise that absenteeism and disengagement are linked, too.
    • Finally, one of the most worrying parts of disengagement is how insidious it can be. It’s contagious and can easily spread through the office as the attitudes of the most disengaged spread and take hold.
  A PA-in-the-know
At Deloitte, employee engagement is given due consideration and, for PA Heather Clarke, that means playing her part: “To me, employee engagement is not just one thing. It’s a tone of voice, a sense of fun, inclusiveness, using our imagination, making an effort, it’s empathic, responsible (for budget and appropriateness) and of course, it’s making sure the fridge is full!
“For the past five years I’ve complied and part-written ‘The Weekly Word’ email for our national team. It was initiated by my former National leader who wanted to reduce the amount of circular emails sent around the team. Whilst it’s debatable whether the publication achieves this, we certainly have lots of good content to share each week.
“I regularly get feedback from staff saying how much they enjoy reading it, especially those working remotely at client site – it seems to be a great way to maintain a connection with the broader team. It helps to disseminate useful information from a business point of view and to strengthen the culture of our team, which is one of support and inclusion.”

Engagement in numbers:

  • According to the McKinsey Global Institute, productivity increases by up to 25 per cent in companies with connected employees.
  • Profits can be increased by USD$2,400/£1,685/AUD$2,987 per employee when the investment in employee engagement is increased by 10 per cent, says the Workplace Research Foundation.
  • Disengaged workers suffer 49 per cent more accidents, have absenteeism levels that are 37 percent higher and make 60 per cent more errors than those who are engaged, confirms Gallup.
  • According to UNC Kenanflager Business School, companies with a highly engaged workforce have an average three-year revenue growth that’s 2.3 times greater than a business where its staff were only averagely engaged.

Here are some of 2018’s key trends for laying the foundations for excellent engagement – could you suggest one of these to the boss?
1: Career paths will be vital
Not having a clear career path is often given as a major reason for why people are unhappy – and people who lack a sense of how they can grow within a company are more likely to leave. So, for an engaged workforce it’s crucial that everyone within it has given thought to their personal career trajectory. For yourself, this means sitting down with your manager and letting them know how you wish to progress, and finding out what they can offer to help you do so. It could mean finding a mentor, shadowing someone, being seconded to another department or undertaking professional training. And, as a PA, it means ensuring everyone in your team or the wider business has the chance to discuss career growth then access to the tools and learning and development opportunities to achieve their personal goals.
2: Work/life balance becomes a reality
Too many companies have used the work/life balance argument as a means to make the workplace a fun place to be – think ping pong tables or Friday afternoon drinks. But, the workforce of today want a work/life balance that sees them spend less time in the office. Does your company offer flexible work practices – from condensed hours and flexi-time through to the ability to work remotely? Not only does this put staff in control of when they work but it also encourages self regulation and discipline and builds trust – and engagement – between employee and employer. Of course, life as a PA means it’s rarely simple to work away from the office but perhaps you could have a discussion with the boss to see about working from home when they’re next away travelling, to see how it works practically.
3: Unlimited paid time off
Feeding into the trend for improved work/life balance is another we’re sure many of you will hope takes off – unlimited paid time off. It’s not yet made it mainstream but there are plenty of success stories coming out of it. Despite what many organisations may assume, workers who have access to unlimited paid time off only generally only take one more day per year than they would normally be entitled to. And the uplift in engagement is significant – it helps create a culture of trust and staff are grateful to be able to access time off when needed without worrying.
4: Engagement means forming bonds
People want to feel supported and part of a team, and all of this helps to enhance how engaged they are with their work. So, a PA can play a key part in this by encouraging meaningful relationships to be formed. Think about what social activities you could help organise to get teams working together – something as simple as a monthly cheese and wine tasting afternoon could do wonders for office morale. For new hires you could implement a buddy system so newbies have someone to direct queries to, and who can make introductions for them, while they’re finding their feet.

Building best practice
Through extensive research, Gallup has identified some key best practice principles to improve employee engagement:
 – Integrate plans into regular business activities
It’s vital that engagement is given due consideration all year-round and treated as an on-going process. Any strategies implemented should have a clear and identifiable purpose.
 – Measure current and future engagement accurately
You wouldn’t try to resolve conflict by measuring coffee intake – so when measuring employee engagement, make sure you use the right tool – a tightly focused questionnaire for example – rather than a lengthy, woolly one. Not doing so may lead you to focus on the wrong problem – or not recognise the real issue.
 – Know what engagement is (and isn’t)
Improving engagement can also be about the little things – making sure work expectations are clarified (and knowing this is more than providing a simple job description), promoting strong and helpful office relationships, ensuring people have the equipment they need to do their job, plus providing training and learning experiences.

Katie Streeter-Hurle spearheads the B3 initiative at SMG – a scheme to build engagement from the ground up. She explains: “Our Build the Company programme is a company-wide initiative, developed in-house. We have a series of project teams who are given a brief by the Board which brings to life their purpose, goals for the year ahead and a couple of thought-starter ideas. This year, for example, our working groups include a team who leads our marketing and PR activity, a team that is building a graduate scheme and one who is tasked with developing new tools to make processes slicker. Each group is diverse, composed of people across a range of company locations, levels of experience and departments.
“These projects take up around 10 per cent of staff’s time and so it’s mapped out into their objectives each year. Every permanent employee is eligible to receive a bonus twice per year, and performance on these projects is taken into account. On top of this, we have an awards scheme where employees who go above and beyond in these projects can earn extra holiday.
“It’s helped us create a culture where everyone is able to contribute to the shape of the company and that’s helped us score strongly in ‘feelings of pride’ for the business in engagement surveys. What’s more, it’s kept collaboration high as we grow; critical in any company going through significant expansion.”