Employee engagement: metrics, mindsets and managers
Siân Harrington, editorial director of The People Space, discusses employee engagement metrics, the lack of integration with performance management, and HR's challenges to implementing new technology with Glint chief marketing officer Jim Bell
Siân Harrington, The People Space (SH): In today's People Space podcast I am discussing employee engagement with Jim Bell, chief marketing officer at Glint. Glint is an AI-powered employee engagement technology company and is now part of LinkedIn. It recently partnered with Harvard Business Review Analytics Services to understand how organisations across the globe are leveraging employee engagement. The overall message is that leaders believe it is critical to their business’s success and that engaged employees perform better yet very few integrate engagement into the performance management process.
I began by asking Jim how new approaches to engagement can help and what challenges there are in getting organisations to adopt new technology in this area?
Jim Bell, Glint (JB): I think the first overcoming this fear of moving from a very heavyweight process of an annual employee engagement survey and lots of questions and a lot of analysis and a lot of, frankly, preparation before sharing it down into the organisation. It feels very hard to do that more frequently because it's such a heavyweight process and I think the big mindset change that's been one of the biggest challenges is getting those leaders to understand this is not about running that same process three or four times a year. It's about treating employee engagement and the health of your organisation as a metric that you look at just like any other business metric. It's not as though you don't report your financial results quarterly or sales, no matter how well it's going, you don't necessarily change your strategy every quarter when you do that.
Probably the other big one is just this idea of the trust in leaders and managers to be able to release the data without having reviewed it and without having a clear position on what we're going to do about it. Because that was, has always been, the mode. It was interesting last week we had a Glint Summit here in Europe and we had customers from customers and non-customers, from Sky, Erickson, H&M, HCA, and others. And one of the big things that came out was you could see with the people who are newer to it and struggling a bit with that leadership support, and could they really have a single unified survey across the organisation with different business units and release data quickly, versus the ones who've been at it a little longer – Sky Erickson and others. And they're in a place where Sky releases their results to all employees the morning after the survey is closed. Now they do preparation along the way to be ready to do that, but that's so fundamentally different from the cascade, the careful cascade of information in the employee engagement survey. So, it was neat to see and to watch the lights go on in the room of people who are in the earlier part of that journey. But it requires a tremendous amount of senior leadership support, and sometimes that is just there and sometimes the people leaders have to help create that.
I think probably the other piece is this idea of an employee engagement world of an action plan being this separate thing and this heavyweight thing. We’ve tried to help shake that loose too. We have a framework called ACT. I don't know if anyone's shared that with you, but ACT is an acronym: A is acknowledge, so share the data with the team. Let's acknowledge where we are, kind of where are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, things like that. C is for collaborate. Okay, let's talk about what's going on here. And the T is take one step forward. So, pick one thing to work on. I just heard from our head of people science last week that basically if we look across the usage data of our product, the managers who have three or more action plans that they're working on, their engagement scores do not improve at nearly the rate, in fact often they go down, versus people who have one and those that have one action plan, on average – there was a wide range – but on average their scores improved and the net difference between those groups was pretty large. So it's just, I think the shift in the adoption of so much about mindset and helping drive these habits over the technology.
SH: So, let's take a slight step back and think about engagement itself because it's been quite controversial over here, there's some evidence-based academics who are saying that there is just no correlation between engagement scores the outputs that people want, be it better service levels. Interesting what you've just said about the HCA patients because they've obviously clearly identified what they're trying to measure from it. And, having spoken to HR people for so long, everyone seems fixated on the engagement score and when I try and push them and say, what does that mean for your business, what's the outcome, ie more profitability or service levels, patient outcomes, whatever – it gets a little bit woolly doesn't it? So I just wondered what you've done as a business and the evidence you've found and how you help people to look at that end game?
JB: There have not been a lot of great KPIs, right, for HR to bring to the executive team, time to fail hires and attrition rates and things like that. But what we've seen is it's very core. I think of it more as a like a surrogate for good business outcomes. Right. You could, if you think about what you're trying to achieve, there may be a whole bunch of different metrics that you can tie to the business. I think the challenge has been that oftentimes HR doesn't even have access to some of that data. So we have a number of customers who can get access to that and they tie scores to customer satisfaction and obviously there's attrition and that certainly is valid and I don't think anyone really questions that one too much. But yeah, customer satisfaction or patient satisfaction and healthcare, injury rates, safety. And with the airlines, lost baggage and on time arrivals and things like that.
SH: What’s really the point of them having engagement regardless of whether it's a platform, a software or a Gallup survey, if they aren't actually tying it to some business impact that makes a difference?
JB: Right. I think in some cases it often depends on the senior leadership. In some cases, senior leadership either initiates the whole process of moving to something more progressive and more frequent because they just get it. The CEO of United Airlines in the States came on board and did a listening tour physically and then basically decided, okay, we need some way to do this on an ongoing basis that's scalable. And so then by looking at engagement data across different airports, for example, they can predict where they're going to have more injuries at any given airport 90 days ahead with 35% accuracy or something like that by just the engagement data without looking at safety checklists and other things like that. So, I think sometimes it's that leadership support and does HR have the power or the influence to get some of that data, which lives in other systems sometimes. Or when they've allocated someone to be the people analyst, do some of that work or create a function around that.
Part of our viewpoint is that employee engagement and performance management and learning development have all been created separately. So if you look at some of the quotes and stats out there about the percentage of leaders who feel confident that there's ROI on engagement or who feel that performance management is more than just a checkbox item and actually helps the organisation, they're almost all that. So this was designed to dig into that more. And so we worked with the Harvard Business Review and they surveyed 700 or so leaders from their database, and asked them questions about how they do engagement, how they do performance, and to what degree those things go together? And so 90% of the leaders in this believe that engaged employees make higher performers and yet something like two thirds still see performance management as just a tick box. Also very few are really integrating their efforts between the two.
So, to back up for a second, the employees then experience these three things separately at different times of year. Oh, it's employee survey time, or it's annual review time, or I'm getting pushed to learn this either because it's onboarding or whatever else, but it's rarely viewed together in a way that truly benefits the employee. Our philosophy is to try to bring these things together with a focus on the core things that are important to the employee – are you the right fit for the job, are you getting the support you need, are you aligned with the organisation, are you motivated, do you feel a sense of purpose and are you growing? And so the philosophy is to break those down and to focus on those key elements of what we think makes an employee successful that hopefully ladders up to the organisation.
So this is a quote from somebody they interviewed: a $9 billion integrated global health system ties engagement to patient satisfaction scores, quality scores, patient safety re-admissions, and even hospital revenue and found a strong correlation between near miss safety incidents and low employee engagement. And then there was another one that was a software company, with 7,000 people, and they've seen a correlation between the company's stock price performance and employee engagement with a 0.97 correlation, like a super high correlation - almost one. So there's some interesting stats in here.
SH: So, there's so many people there now doing what you might call engagement software or engagement platforms and they are all doing something slightly different, and they've all got a slightly different way of doing it, and it's very confusing. I think it's like, is there an app for it? Yeah, millions! So if you’re an HR director looking into this, what questions do you think they should be asking in their brief, in what they're looking for and obviously of potential suppliers?
JB: I think one of those questions to ask is something that's true for all, any kind of technology, particularly software, which is what's the direction and vision of this company. Because you're never just buying the product today, right, it's going to grow and it's going to change. And if you're not really philosophically aligned with where the organisation is going, sooner or later you're not going to get what you want. And if you're in the minority of customers who want that, or you're not aligned with the company which either doesn't have a strong direction or they're going to go with what most customers want and you're not confident you’re in that group, you're going to end up having to change technologies. And that's always painful. So I think really understanding what is the culture of the company?
I think the second is really looking for, show us, customers that look like us – either demographically or organisationally, psychologically, culturally, whatever it might be. Are these people thinking along the same lines because the unfortunate part of so much of this change is the market is really in flux and the analysts feel the same way.
I think the point that that's often missed, and actually I don't know why I keep coming back to the same examples, but Glint came very late into the process at HCA in the States. But one of the things they did, and one of the reasons we came away a winner there, was that while we were giving the demo and the presentation to the decision-making group, they took one of the staff members and set them up with somebody from Glint and said, you have a half an hour to show them how to use this product and then they're going to come in and report to us what that experience was like. And in our case, because of the design and the user experience, this person was with our training person and was like, yeah, I got it, okay, and it went really quickly. And so for this stuff to work, ultimately it has to get to the managers and the employees, assuming that's your philosophy.
So, I think a great question is to really understand that experience for the manager. If we're going to move to a more manager-empowered world, which most want to, what's that experience? And can we do that without feeling like we have to create a tremendous training programme and all these support mechanisms?
In a lot of ways, our philosophy is for HR to get out of the way! To support and to enable. But not to police and not to support in the technical way, but to encourage and to provide the tools and help share the stories.