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Democratising engagement

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The working world needs to prioritise employee engagement to achieve, results with productivity, but what does real engagement mean? This can be a very varying definition across the entire workforce. Martin Blackburn, UK People Director at KPMG UK explains further.

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This month I’m focused on engagement. For two reasons, firstly my good friend Gareth got married to his partner Manuel.

This prompted a discussion with my partner as to whether we should get engaged. We’re both trying to buy our own flats so when a financial advisor said it wouldn’t make sense to get married yet due to stamp duty, my partner made the fatal error of saying ‘Oh good.’ And given engagement is rooted in communication and we’re not speaking, it’s fair to say we’re not engaged either!

But there’s another reason for my focus. It’s KPMG’s annual Global People Survey. When I first joined KPMG four years ago, the survey was in full swing – open for a month with everyone seemingly obsessed by the response rate.  There’s a bit of global competition around which country has the highest response rate and as we all know, you get what you measure.  So with prizes up for grabs, the response rate was good but I wondered…why did people need to be incentivised to fill it in?  Wouldn’t they want to anyway given it would presumably improve their working life?

The Global People Survey

I soon found there were other reasons to be cautious of the survey. It was a bit like announcing an annual spring clean.  You’d find things you didn’t know you’d lost but you also raised expectations that every cupboard was going to be scrubbed. We’d get a wealth of data.  We had big data before I even knew what it meant.  Quantitative and qualitative. That survey alone had 9000 verbatim comments. But it took months to process and as time marched on, people became impatient for change.

And it was all managed centrally. We were essentially saying ‘give us your feedback then step away whilst we analyse it and tell you what we’re going to do as a result.’  And with all good intentions, we’d then announce the actions we were going to take, only to find ourselves surprised the following year when the question ‘have you seen significant action as a result of last year’s survey?’ generated one of the lowest responses.  Truth was, a year had passed, the issues had changed, people had forgotten their feedback and the actions we’d promised to take. And so our engagement score remained unchanged.

I’m sometimes asked why engagement matters.  In 1990 William Khan, one of the first academics to focus on personal engagement and its impact upon organisations described it as ‘the harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances’.  I tend to think of it as the quality of the interaction between the individual and the organisation. If the quality of this is high, engagement tends to be high.

So what have we done at KPMG?  I like to think we’ve democratised engagement…

Firstly we’ve created engagement teams in all parts of our business. These teams bring people together from all grades. And they’re entrusted with the survey results for their area and empowered to make a change. They are also encouraged to remember that with five generations in the workforce (traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Post-Millennials) engagement will mean something different for each of those populations.

We still create firm-wide priorities – but even with these, we encourage local activity to support what we’re doing at a firm level. Beyond this we ask each engagement team to come up with their top three priorities.  We then connect those teams that are working on the same priorities and offer sprint sessions for accelerated problem-solving. We also create online forums where we seek further qualitative feedback from a large number of our people across the country on key topics.

And crucially engagement has moved from being an annual action planning activity focused on the Global People Survey.  It still exists but we also have much shorter quarterly pulse surveys – a maximum of 20 questions each time.  Through this, we track engagement but also ask bespoke questions that give us instant feedback on current topics within KPMG.  Because our annual survey falls around the same time as our salary and bonus review, we can sometimes get distorted results around reward.  Asking those same questions at different times of the year gives a more meaningful view.

The regular pulse surveys also give local engagement teams’ real-time data on how they’re progressing and whether the actions they’re taking are making a difference.  We can also adapt the questions to align to what they are doing locally.

We are also using the pulse survey with other key people data such as retention and exit interviews to more accurately predict people trends in our business and take proactive action.

Making a clear difference

The Global People Survey still has its place. Particularly as these days we can access and analyse the data at the touch of a button – as can our engagement teams.  And through sentiment analysis of the comments, we also quickly understand why people are responding in the way they are.

Is it making a difference?  Our pulse surveys have shown engagement improving this year. It looks like we’re doing something right.  But for all our focus beyond the Global People Survey, I’ll still be keenly anticipating the results.  There’s still a healthy sense of competition around different country’s results.  The good news is that when the survey closes in two weeks’ time we won’t have to wait to see what it’s telling us.  I can find out the moment the last survey is completed.

And we can instantly communicate with our people as to what it’s told us.

Communication sits at the heart of engagement. Being honest with people about what you’re doing well and what needs to improve. It also sits at the heart of a relationship as well. Maybe I need to survey my partner?

Second thoughts, maybe not.

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