Some thoughts on Employee Engagement written for Harvard Business Review

Today, the degree of employee engagement has become an essential component of a company’s economic and human success.. To put it into practice, rolled out by all the businesses, the inspiration could well come from the principles and methods implemented for the customer.

Picture the scene during the executive committee of a major banking group. All the executives are seated. A red seat to the left of the Chairman intrigues them. This chair is there to symbolise the presence of the customer. It will remain empty throughout the meeting but will still be a focus of attention, comments and even some questions. When conversations turn to results, processes or product launches, all it takes is a quick glance at this chair to get back to what really matters: what does the customer want? What are the real expectations of the guest virtually sitting on this vermilion chair? It may only be a symbol but we know the value of these signs: in their presence, we tend to mock them gently, but in their absence, they are eagerly awaited, like signposts on a deserted or foggy road.

How did the customer earn his place on the “comex”? Simply by claiming it. Pushed to his limits, he did not hesitate to claim that the “customer is king”, to say loud and clear: “You made me a brand promise, well, keep to it!” He refused to become an anonymous face among the other “consumers” – always used in the plural – and fought to be recognised as a “customer” – in the singular – by seizing the various digital megaphones to proclaim his need for customisation. Companies got the message and responded to it by innovating through increasingly customised and tailored offers, by introducing a more direct dialogue.

However, a customer can never be taken for granted. To guarantee him a strong experience time after time – the dream on a real life budget, in short – innovation, in terms of products and services, is not enough on its own. It must be carried, animated and even embodied by the company’s employees. It is this daily engagement that, in a way, brings the product offer to a boil, makes it go beyond the stage of “(good) business as usual” to reach that of the experience, that transcends the simple act of purchase through a true brand experience and transforms the customer into a promoter. Employee engagement is therefore necessary today as a strategic lever absolutely essential and a new challenge for all businesses. Provided, to begin with, that you go beyond appearances.

 

Satisfaction does not mean engagement

 

At first glance (and backed up by the figures), employee engagement is not a problem. In 2016, the firm Korn Ferry Hay published a study conducted among 140,000 employees of French and international companies of all sizes. According to this barometer, 70% of employees surveyed said they were “satisfied” with their employer. An overwhelming majority! However, when you dig a little deeper, other figure from the same survey relativise this reassuring but rather hasty conclusion. For example, only 54% of the non-managers consulted felt that they were “appreciated at their true value”. They then confessed that, despite their stated satisfaction, they did not see themselves recommending their employer to a third party. As we can see, satisfaction is not engagement. A customer who simply declares they are “satisfied”, rating services in NPS 7 or 8 out of 10 is certainly neither “critical” nor “disappointed” but that does not make them a promoter (the concept of NPS, Net Promoter Score, was introduced by Frederick Reichheld in 2003 in an article entitled “One Number You Need to Grow ” and published in the Harvard Business Review, where he demonstrates, after two years of research, that the question of customer loyalty is correlated with his intention to recommend or not a business to friends and family). He will remain “neutral” without any further engagement.  The same goes for employees. And their “satisfied neutrality” has a cost: in 2016, the Gallup polling institute estimated disengagement to be equivalent to a loss of 450 to 550 billion dollars in the United States and 60 billion in France.

The subject is of course not new. Business leaders have not waited for barometers and surveys to know that a committed team makes all the difference. But this issue is currently picking up pace: the gap between the individual and the group is growing faster and faster, and not only in the professional world. The various digital tools are paving the way for more horizontal, more direct modes of communication and decision-making. Hierarchies are simplified and sometimes some levels are even done away with completely. There is less tolerance for slowness in an organisationWhat was once seen as a guarantee of solidity or seriousness is now perceived as a burden.

As for the social networks, they greatly increase the possibilities for individuals to say what they think, put themselves forward, express their tastes and beliefs. The follow-up to the “customer is king” is therefore the “the employee is number one”, disoriented by a professional career that seems to elude him, exasperated by what he feels like a lack of recognition. His engagement is subject to conditions, given only if he can create another relationship with his company, a new link, both more personalised and richer. Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid is therefore shaking at its foundations: the need to be fulfilled is no longer a distant peak, a culmination but a reality to experience as soon as possible, from the early years of a career.

 

Proof behind the promises

 

To roll out this new relationship, it is interesting to take inspiration from the work done with the customer. The parallel is revealing. If the “employee is number one” then today he wants to see some proof behind the promise of the employer brand and hopes for more customisation, for consideration for his own personal aspirations. Just like the consumer before him. The teams also express a real desire for autonomy. Customers have begun to choose, to compare, to give their opinion freely and quickly. The employee, too, needs to take the reins back into his own hands. Today, he would sometimes rather apologize than ask for permission to embark on an initiative. A boss who does not understand this necessarily loses out in terms of creative strength and runs the risk of missing out on the expression of talents.

Two words define the outlines of a successful customer relationship: loyalty and pleasure. But they also shape the company’s human capital approach. Contrary to the clichés that show him on the lookout for the slightest career opportunity, the employee also seeks stability to thrive and prosper, to grow professionally. That is true for the long term. When it comes to the immediate present, he focuses on the pleasure he gleans from doing his job day in day out.

We are no longer, in turn, customer then employee, as if we were donning another hat. We are both at the same time, with the same desires and often the same reflexes. This human dimension is obviously not the only condition for success but, in an extremely competitive context, it trickles down through all businesses and is the spark, the “plus” that gives a company a head start. In the not-too-distant future, the comex table plan may well feature another red chair: that of the employee.

This column was originally published on the Harvard Business Review France website.

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