Organisations discuss the actions and ideas that make engagement a reality at CIPD conference

The common definition and academic rationale for engagement may be a source of furious debate in HR circles, but everyone can agree that having an engaged workforce is beneficial to the common good. And at the CIPD Employee Engagement Conference, HR professionals shared their experiences, and their missteps, in the quest for greater engagement.

Catherine Allen – whose engagement-friendly job title is head of keeping people happy at organic baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen – said that whatever you decide to do around employee engagement, it needs to be authentic and right for your company. She said there were very strong commercial reasons to look at engagement and values, but that it’s about “doing things that appeal to your people – it needs to be personal”. She had three top tips to improve engagement levels:

Give your team clear reasons to feel engaged and proud

“Everyone wants to be proud of the organisation they work for,” said Allen. And that means it’s important to have an agreed mission you aim to bring to life for people. For example, Ella’s has set up volunteering opportunities for staff, in areas related to fresh produce, to help them better connect with the brand’s goals. “Think about your mission and what is relevant to your people,” she advised. “Getting your values and mission clear is the foundation for everything you do.”

Understand your team as individuals

Allen said she has never been a fan of broad-brush HR initiatives that only cater to one population. “It’s about getting to know how people tick – and key to this are managers,” she said. Ella’s encourages ideas in all sorts of formats, through ‘show and tell’ sessions to a postbag for comments. It also runs a twice-yearly survey to try and understand how well the workforce is living and breathing the company’s values. “Eighty per cent of the reasons for being engaged relate to managers – they have a huge influence,” she said.

Have great leaders and managers… or create them

“If you base your company around really strong values, the leadership are really going to be held accountable,” said Allen. “We defined what good looks like for managers in the context of our values and asked ourselves how they were going to demonstrate them and encourage others to live them.”

Elsewhere at the conference, Gillian Felton, head of people development, engagement and wellbeing at the National Institute for Health Research – Clinical Research Network, spoke about how the organisation had worked to create an inclusive culture to reconnect with its employees.

She said she knew success would be down to achieving employees’ trust – “they needed to see how their contribution fitted in with the overall business strategy”. Felton said she believed in giving employees multiple opportunities to get involved. One initiative was a staff day, where employees were asked for three things they would like to see on the agenda to make it worthwhile for them. Former patients with inspirational stories were also invited to talk to staff about their experiences. “The measure that is most important to us is ‘how does it feel to work in our organisation?’” added Felton.

Virgin Trains faces the challenge of a diverse, dispersed and multi-generational workforce, but Den Carter, internal communications manager, said this doesn’t stop the business engaging its staff. Eighty per cent of his team’s time is spent on face-to-face communication, whether that be regular team meetings, one-to-ones or informal chats.

“We involve our people in every conversation that we have,” he said. With only 800 of the 4,000 staff having regular access to a computer, the company has also ditched its intranet system and moved all its company and social content into internal social network Yammer. It houses links to everything from workplace policies to quirky videos that reinforce Virgin Trains’ values and messages. “It’s 2017 and digital is just part of life,” he said. “We don’t have a digital roadmap, we just have a roadmap.”

The civil service, on the other hand, has a more traditional approach and carries out an annual people survey among more than 400,000 employees. David Widlake, employee engagement adviser at the Cabinet Office, said interviews with high-scoring teams in the survey revealed eight themes or ideas for building an engaged team with high wellbeing: leaders who welcome feedback; prioritising feedback, involvement and consultation; encouraging innovation and creativity; making time for frontline exposure; challenging negative behaviours; supporting flexible working approaches; building team spirit; and taking action on staff survey results. “People worry about the feedback rates on surveys, but what’s important are the actions taken afterwards,” he said.