Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Employee engagement: Simple concept, complex reality?

Fifty senior human resources, talent, learning and development specialists met last week at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace & Reconciliation. This was an appropriate setting given that the theme of discussion was on the need for organisations to reconcile the meaning of the organisation with the personal needs of employees.

The debate raised far more questions than answers, so does this mean we don’t have a way forward?

Can employers prescribe meaning when it is such a personal concept?

Should Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs be turned upside down in times of hardship; will security and safety follow meaning?

Can you really say that you’re engaging with your staff and giving them a place of work that has meaning when you’re stripping away benefits that play a crucial role in their lives?

Do people want meaning at work, or do they – above all else – just want to do their job well, be rewarded accordingly and treated with respect? After all, stories abound of people turning up to work at the worthiest of charities for a higher purpose, getting treated terribly, and leaving…so how much can meaning really carry you through a 60-hour week?

There was a mix of passion for engagement countered with just as much cynicism about whether employee engagement is just the PR of HR. Even more cynicism surrounded the question of whether organisations really did walk the talk on engagement, or should they be preparing for huge attrition rates as soon as the recovery opens up new avenues to greener pastures?

A great line-up of speakers, including John Philpott from the CIPD and Matthew Jeffery from Electronic Arts, was topped off by barrister and poet, David Neita, who amongst all these complex issues proposed that it is simply about staff taking responsibility for those things beyond their job description.

You may recall the story of President Kennedy asking a janitor at NASA what he was doing, to be told: “I’m helping put a man on the moon”, you will understand what David Neita means.

We all know an engaged employee when we see one – is it more complex than that?

David’s final act was to draw the metaphor of employee engagement as a romance drawing on the beautiful prose in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Passion & Love’. This highlighted the idea that romantic engagement can’t be forced any more than finding meaning at work.

- Oliver Mack is Head of Learning & Development at Common Purpose and chaired the Common Purpose and Changeboard event on 16 September 2010.

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