Employee Engagement is Dead, Long Live Employee Experience

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

I love a bold statement. “Employee engagement is dead” is up there. But why would a man who spent most of his career preaching employee engagement say that it’s dead?

We speak to Cliff Ettridge of The Team to learn what’s going on. Have a listen to the interview below, keep reading for a summary and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Who are you and what do you do?

I run the employee engagement offer at The Team, an agency based in London that specializes in brand, I have done that for the past 15 years. In that time, I’ve started to see the phrase “employee engagement” used over and over, so much so that I’ve become a little bit disenfranchised with the very thing that I’ve been selling for such a long time, and it’s led me to believe that the phrase “employee engagement” is not very useful.

So “employee engagement is dead.” What makes you say that?

I find it quite paternalistic, the idea of employee engagement, and the idea of an organization reaching down to people and saying, “Right, we’re now going to engage you on our terms.” And the way in which brand has developed for many years now has all been about customer experience. If I go back to the ’90s, there was a book called “The Cluetrain Manifesto” that came out at the start of the internet era. It was all about the shift of power from organizations to consumers, and the fact that it was going to be customer experience that was going to be critical for any organization to regain the loyalty of customers.

So what’s happened is we’ve seen with the internet that there’s an exchange of ideas, exchange of information by consumers. Organizations have been pretty slow to pick up on that with their own people. It’s all about creating the right employee experience and allowing employees inside organizations to feel this full force of trust. I was reading about Timpson‘s CEO recently, just that there are a couple of rules that he puts in place. One is “Make sure you turn up to work fully equipped and ready to do your job.”

And the next rule is, “Make sure you’re just putting the money in the till, and everything that you do in between is about me trusting you. I’ll just create the right experience for you so that you actually do your job and put the money in the till.” So it should really be all about great employee experience now.

So employee engagement sounds like it’s from top to bottom, whereas employee experience is something where you trust people to just get on with it. And one of the things that you need to do is just track experience and how experience changes, and what people expect. Engagement is the outcome. Experience is what we need to be creating. And that’s why the term “employee experience” is so much better than “employee engagement”.

How do you track experience, and can you do it in a real-time way?

One of the things that we’ve always been bound by is the good old-fashioned employee survey. Increasingly, I’m seeing organizations put that to bed now, and instead look at 24/7 tracking of how people feel about the experience. I’ve been talking to a number of clients recently that are saying “The annual survey is no use to us whatsoever now. What we need is continual tracking.” And we’re seeing some big organizations adopt that, whereby you’re looking at constant feedback from people. In much the same way as organizations track social media and what customers are saying about them, we should be able to track our own social media, and see what our people are saying about us.

Things like Workplace from Facebook will allow that to happen. RBS is one of the biggest users of Workplace, and the conversations that are happening there are really rich. So you get a real sense straight away of how people feel about the experience on the ground.

What’s your definition of employer brand?

When you go back to the very easy top-down approach that used to exist, you’re able to develop your channels, put your information on your channels, and push it out there, and there were always the cascade models in place just to get communications from top to bottom. And they still are very much alive, and they shouldn’t be jettisoned from the mix. But in terms of the employee experience for employee communications, it’s really about tapping into your employer brand, and understanding what your employer brand promises.

People talk about employer brand a lot, and it appears to be something that’s been owned by the HR functions as they’re starting to look at their employer brand. But we need to see employer brand as communicators who are a part of our framework. A brand is a promise, and if you talk to the brand teams, they’ll talk very much about how that promise has to be lived for customers. There’ll be brand attributes, brand personality, and every decision that we take in terms of marketing activity, event activity and so forth, is shaped by what that experience should be like. We do it for customers, and we should do it for our employees.

The employer brand framework is something that communicators need to get involved in with HR. So that it’s not seen as just part of the recruitment process, but it’s seen very much as part and parcel of the employee experience on the inside. So, it means that if you’re working in Nike, the employee experience is going to be very different to if you’re working for say, Hiscox Financial Services, because the employer brand framework will be different. On one hand, you might have something that is far more innovative, and fun, and on the other side, you might have something which is far more process-oriented and considered.

I won’t say which of those two brands would have which of those brand attributes. But, it’s about understanding that employer brand framework, and then applying it to the employee experience, as employee communicators.

When you develop an employer brand, should all departments be involved?

One hundred percent. We’ve developed employer brand frameworks for a number of organizations, we always start by asking ourselves, “What is it that the customers want? What are they expecting?” Often, when you talk to people about employer brands, they tend to start immediately with the question of, “What do people want from their workplace?” If you ask people what they want for their workplace, and you begin to develop an employer brand around that, then you’re not developing around a very commercial argument, which is “What puts money in the tills”. So we always work from that angle. What do the customers want? Work backwards, and then you get to a framework, and that framework then becomes unique. And that’s what you need to execute. Very often, you ask HR “You’re putting in place a reward strategy. What reward strategy are you putting in place?” And they’ll say, “Well, we’re looking at best practice.” And I’ll say, “If you’re just deploying best practice, then are you actually creating a unique brand proposition? No, you’re not. You’re creating the same proposition as everybody else. And your proposition needs to be created around what your brand stands for.”

Is there a lack of spend and budget for internal communications?

I still think there is, and part of that is linked to the idea of return on investment. As an agency, I still see far too many briefs that come to us which don’t include aspects of measurement. They’re focused on getting stuff done. Which is great, and we do need to improve the amount of employee communication, the amount of work done in the employee experience space, but we have to measure it. And unless we measure the effectiveness and we tie it back to data that says, “This is added value to customers, i.e. customers are saying that people are behaving in a way that they expect, or data that has resulted in shifts in sales or productivity.”

Unless we’re doing that, then you don’t have a business case to take to the board. And if you don’t have the business case to take to the board, then you can’t secure the funds for the year ahead. So, the need to spend more is there. We’re not spending as much as we should be, and I think that’s linked to ROI.

You feel there’s a lack of diversity in employee communications, please elaborate?

It’s something I’ve observed as I’ve moved around the patch. And for many years we’ve been taking a very active interest in gender parity and ensuring that that is elevated in status. But as a result of that, myself and my colleagues at The Team rested on the conclusion that this was about creating an inclusive culture. So whenever we’ve done pieces of work on diversity and inclusion, we actually talk about inclusivity and diversity, with an inclusive culture that ensures that you create a workspace where you can invite diverse thinking and people from diverse backgrounds.

As I started to consider that, I looked at our own industry, and I felt that I see the same demographics. And you begin to ask “With such a narrow set of demographics, how can you come from a background, and have a set of experiences, where you’re able to make decisions that will appeal to a broad spectrum of people?”. It’s something which we need to address as an industry. “Are we inclusive and diverse enough? And are we really representing the thoughts and feelings, experiences of everybody that works in a UK PLC?”.

What’s your number one tip for employer brand managers?

I’d love every employer brand manager to build a relationship with their external brand managers so that they start to ask questions to customers and consumers about their perspective on employees and employee behavior. Whenever I go to any organization, I always ask “Can you tell me what data you have that demonstrates what your customers are thinking about the way your employees are behaving?” I very rarely ever come across an organization that is able to give me any of that data.

They’re able to tell me what customers think about products, or what they think about services, or what they think about price points, but rarely what they think about the people. So, that would be my number one tip. Work with your brand managers, get that question out there, and start to see what people are saying about your own people.

You might get someone from British Airways asking “Did you come into contact with people? How well did I do?” But you don’t get any decent data in terms of the attributes of people and how they’re behaving and what people expect of other people as well.

I was very impressed with HCL Technologies, who kicked off a train of thought which was employees first. I was reading on a British Airways jet only this week in the Business Life magazine that Deloitte’s Human Capital report is out, and it’s saying that increasingly people are starting to say, “We need to put our employees first. If we put our employees first, we create a great culture whereby we start to look after our customers, and then those customers buy, and then our shareholders are happy.”

HCL have been “Employees first” for a long time, and have performed well as an organization with that strategy. I first read about them five years ago, and was very encouraged by that. Everything is organized around employees first. Equally, I mentioned Timpson’s up front, who are consistently cited as one of the great companies to work for, again, they have a true “employee first” attitude.

What do you think will happen to employee engagement?

My sense is that technology, which everybody is talking about, we still need to crack the technology question. It’s interesting that we’ve seen an explosion in what technology can do for us. And yet when you look at the advances in technology and you put it next to the advances in productivity, the gap is still huge. So, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we harness technology properly within the employee experience, so that people can do a great job?” Because we haven’t done it yet, probably because we haven’t allowed people to use the technology in ways in which they see fit.

If we go back to the employee engagement, paternalistic, top-down approach, we tend to create pieces of technology, and then we tell people how they should use them. We need to allow people to come to us and say, “I’ve discovered a piece of technology that will help me do my job brilliantly, I’m going to use it in a way I feel fit, and a way which is right for my customer.” So we need to take the shackles off people and let them tell us how they should be using technology. Because we still haven’t harnessed that.

Technology will change so much. We will probably see headcount in a lot of organizations go down, and new jobs and new industries emerge. I don’t think it’s a negative picture for technology. People will be frightened by it, but I think it will open up so many opportunities for people to work in different industries in different ways.

Connect with Cliff on Twitter at @cliffettridge.


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