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Sustainable Engagement Is Key to the Future of Work

Nick Lynn PhD. Senior Director at Willis Towers Watson and author of the book Employee Experience (EX) Leadership

Nick Lynn PhD. Senior Director at Willis Towers Watson and author of the book Employee Experience (EX) Leadership

Many companies are transforming the way they approach employee engagement. They are using new listening technologies and new sources of data that provide better ways of measuring and improving employee experience on an ongoing basis. There has been an explosion of pulse survey tools as a result and a sharp increase in the use of workforce analytics.

Leaders are also focusing more on the sustainability of employee engagement. This change is conceptual. It’s an evolution in the science of employee engagement. In part, it’s a response to increasing work pressure, anxiety and stress. But it’s clear that sustainable engagement is going to become even more important in the future of work.

Traditional approaches to employee engagement have always run into a problem of sustainability. Simply put, many organisations think of engagement in terms of earning employees’ discretionary effort. This is often referred to as “going the extra mile”. But when all organisations are trying to do more with less, and when all companies are undergoing some form of digital transformation, effort is not the only key factor. Three additional aspects are enablement, wellbeing, and inclusion.

In my view, enablement is one of the biggest challenges that leaders face today. With new technology and globalisation, the chain of people, processes and systems that is required to deliver a product or a service can easily become long and convoluted unless you have real focus and discipline.

"Engagement efforts are far more effective when they are run in combination with a focus on employee wellbeing"

There is also a growing problem of bureaucracy. In order to cope with the complicated nature of work, companies introduce more procedures, processes and structures. More time is spent on managing work and less time is spent on doing it.

As a result, many organisations have a renewed focus on organisation design. Leaders are interested in making their organisations flatter and more fluid. The aim is for work to be done by flexible and empowered teams. It’s important that talent can move across functions and groups easily.

There is also a lot of interest in the future of jobs, skills and capabilities. This includes optimising automation, using contingent labour, reshaping the architecture of work, and setting out pathways for reskilling employees.

All these efforts should be focused on addressing the central challenge of enabling people to do their best work. In other words, freeing people up, so they can contribute more and feel a greater sense of personal accomplishment.

A second and related engagement challenge is ensuring people’s wellbeing. Wellbeing was moving up the leadership agenda even before the coronavirus crisis accelerated concerns over health, anxiety and stress. This is because a lot of research has shown the performance advantage that comes from having effective wellbeing programs. This includes lower rates of absence and turnover, less presenteeism, reduced healthcare costs, and higher revenue.

Many organisations now take an integrated approach to wellbeing, which incorporates four dimensions: physical, emotional, financial, and social. Increasingly, wellbeing is not viewed as an individual program or initiative. Rather, it is woven into the fabric of an organisation’s values and the employee experience.

The connection to employee engagement is obvious. It’s one thing to be committed to an organisation and prepared to go the extra mile, but it’s even more important to be able to sustain your level of energy over time and to maintain your level of performance.

Engagement efforts are far more effective when they are run in combination with a focus on employee wellbeing. This includes proactive health and wellness programmes, access to healthcare and mental health support. It includes having a healthy and safe physical work environment. It also means creating work-schedule and working-place flexibility.

The other element of sustainable engagement is ensuring that teams benefit from inclusion and diversity. This includes diversity of background and experiences, diversity of thinking and attitudes, and diversity in ways of tacking work problems.

To thrive in today’s rapidly changing world, organisations must adopt a healthy company culture, where inclusion and diversity is at the heart of employees’ experience. This means people can bring their best selves to work – collaborating, sharing ideas, and helping to increase overall engagement, productivity and financial results.

There is a lot of research that connects inclusion and diversity to improved performance. Scott Page, for example, highlighted the importance of diversity of perspectives on team performance in his book “The Difference”. In particular, he highlighted how innovation depends on diverse people working together and by capitalising on their individuality. This is an essential human performance element of sustainable engagement. Other studies have shown the impact of company inclusion and diversity programmes on productivity, revenue and profitability.

These connections to wellbeing, enablement and inclusion are critical in order to create sustainable engagement, rather than simply focusing on discretionary effort and going the extra mile.

Moreover, this holistic and integrated perspective is part of an overall shift within organisations towards focusing on employee experience (EX). We are only at the start of this new science of EX, which uses new technology and design thinking to create lasting behaviour change. At its heart is the goal of building more human-centred organisations in the future of work.

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