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Unlocking Engagement: Productivity Through Employee Experience – Roundtable Report

07 June 2018     London
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Jason Spiller.

Sage People

sage people - June 2018DELEGATES
Ian Allwright, HR Strategy & Commissioning Manager – Kent County Council
Chris Baldwin
, Group HR Manager – Liquid Telecom
Dr Helen Carter, Interim HR Director – St Joseph’s Hospice
Richard Eastmond, Senior Director, People & Services – Amnesty International
Alex Farmer, Head of Customer Success – Sage People
Duarte Ferreira, Group Training Manager – Edwardian Hotels London
Tim Kensey, HR Director, Corporate – Nomad Foods Europe
Brian Newman, Vice President – Human Resources – Live Nation Entertainment
Laura Perretta, HR Director – Kantar
Mark Taylor, Director of HR – Topps Tiles Plc


The world is becoming increasingly competitive, organisations are forced to cut costs and squeeze their employees even harder, workloads are increasing yet expectations about the employee experience such as work-life balance, wellbeing, etc. are also increasing. How is this new business environment affecting business?

A talent shortage and a culture of employee mobility is making it harder to recruit and retain high performing talent. So, how can employers improve their capacity to have and hold onto the critical skills necessary to meet business needs?

Brian Newman: As with the engineering sector, the digital space sees an education system that is finding it hard to keep up with technology, plus there’s the mindset that university is the only route to access tech jobs. There is also an inclusion challenge, whereby young people de-select sectors they think do not represent them – the example of a lack of females leading in technology is a headline. Businesses need to stop talking about building bridges and just do it.

Laura Perretta: The norm is, the “office” is a laptop and phone, the rules of engagement have changed and it is quite challenging – managing remotely requires a high level of emotional intelligence and flexibility and leadership needs to adapt to this. Ian Allwright: As a council, we need a stable workforce, but we can’t compete with the private sector in areas such as salary, so we have to determine what our offer is. The average age of our employees is 45. There is a workforce planning issue for us, because we do attract younger people, but they don’t always stay long. So, we’re trying to exploit our apprenticeship levy as much as we possibly can. Not only working with our current employees, but also looking at how we can bring in more young people that we can grow through our various career pathways.

Richard Eastmond: At Amnesty, we too can’t compete on remuneration. But we attract vocational ambition and so engagement and motivation are intrinsic. More widely, I think the increasing gig culture will inevitably re-write the books on engagement, perhaps it may drive a return to more traditional, paternalistic organisations. That feeling of belonging is a natural compulsion.

Chris Baldwin: A growing fear in remote working and flex is that if you have job share, so twice as many people to manage and twice the problems. This overrides the potential for increased productivity that job sharing brings. Instead, job sharing is perceived as being “too difficult”. If we could encourage our managers to actually open their line of sight and try more flexible approaches then this is a way of overcoming skill shortages. We’re too narrowly focused.

Brian Newman: The flexibility issue is 360, because organisations also demand flexibility. There is no real work-life balance anymore – rather, life goes on and work is part of that. I think this can be a very positive thing if mutual, and yet we focus on the negatives.

Tim Kensey: At the more junior level, people generally stay one to four years, and there is a lot of movement between FMCG organisations, but once people are at mid to senior level, the longer tenure and engagement builds. But on a simplistic level, people at all different levels in their career, just want a nice place to work.

Helen Carter: We must reach out to less traditional talent pools. I sense that changing our focus from this narrow view of where we find talent would mean we no longer thought that these apparent challenges were quite so significant.

Duarte Ferreira: Recruitment and retention is a challenge across the hospitality industry. We recently implemented an employee wellbeing pulse survey to understand how and what motivates our employees and noticed significant differences in the way millennials – a big part of our work force, like to be managed in contrast to older generations. Younger generations rank high in importance aspects such as autonomy and flexibility.

Brian Newman: Communication and being on message is key and in the HR sector, there are some skills gaps on marketing – I partner closely with my marketing colleagues, perhaps because the nature of the business we’re in.

Mark Taylor: We were 88 percent white males but moving the brand to appeal to a diverse demographic a 30-70 percent gender split has been achieved now. In our business, there is definitely the appetite to be even more innovative and go further to attract the talent in.

Richard Eastmond: You do rely on your frontline managers who take the essence of the brand and distil it into their own teams. But that doesn’t necessarily work. You do need to play to every individual and that is a very difficult mixto get right.

Laura Perretta: Do you think managers are really having those conversations? Most often than not, individuals become managers by being great technically and in HR we are responsible to support their growth, to help them develop people skills.

Mark Taylor: From a retail perspective, you have lots of great sales people in management roles. So, we absolutely have that challenge, so are those conversations taking place? To some degree yes.

Brian Newman: When managers say they cannot find talent, it’s often because they have been looking in the same place they have always looked. There is a good deal of blinkered vision.

We’ve discussed hr needing to partner with marketing to be more effective on message, but does hr struggle to communicate the right messages in this changing world of work? The profession loves its buzzwords and right now “flexible and agile” tops the list.


Brian Newman: HR has some challenges. Whilst we want to be very flexible and progressive we also on occasion take a more paternalistic view. We have been really focused on ensuring our people understand the value of their pension, but to a 22-year-old who has come out of university with £30k worth of debt and who wants to work in the music business, to do rock ‘n roll, that is the hardest possible conversation.

Helen Carter: We need to bring more flexibility into a whole range of areas in HR. That might involve creating a menu of learning and development opportunities rather than mandating a standard programme that everyone has to go through. It can also apply to progression routes through organisations, to avoid what the Chartered Management Institute refers to as the “accidental manager”. On balance, I’m not sure we’ve understood how flexibility can apply in HR outside of the reward space at the moment.

Ian Allwright: The workforce is not structured how it used to be, the demarcation between the roles is not as clearly defined and accountabilities can be watered down.

How has the new world of work changed attraction and recruitment?

Tim Kensey: We have to try harder than a P&G or a Unilever to attract people and we are actively adapting the new way of working that appeals and emphasising the different experiences that you can enjoy in the business, as we cannot pretend to compete in terms of infrastructure and L&D with our big rivals.

Chris Baldwin: Everybody is responsible for the brand, but in my experience, managers see this as a very unpopular task – there it is, arguably the most important aspect in business, but many managers hate it. They don’t see it as a talent acquisition thing, they see it as an interruption in their work. They don’t seem to approach it with much energy and enthusiasm.

Brian Newman: There is also user experience challenges in the way recruitment operates in organisations. It can be very clunky, very slow, very disconnected, and it can be a pain in the neck for the manager and that is where the role of HR should kick in on thinking with an ‘UX mind’, again like we do for customers.

Helen Carter: Agreed and that process experience goes for managers too, who let’s face it have a wide roster of responsibilities other than recruitment. I wonder whether many of our challenges with recruitment are that it’s so often undertaken in a panic in the absence of appropriate succession planning. Are we then making recruitment a stressful experience for managers and candidates because we manage it as a short-term, reactive process?

Richard Eastmond: Let’s assume we get over all the issues of the process, the paperwork and the user experience. Then the challenge is whether an interview is too much of a transactional conversation with insufficient time to really get to know the person – managers do not invest sufficient time in the process.

Helen Carter: Is that perhaps because we don’t have recruitment and selection processes that are fit-for-purpose, even given all of the technology that is available to us? There is strong research evidence on the predictive validity of many types of psychometric instruments for in-work performance. These can easily be delivered at scale for high volume recruitment situations and may also create a much better user experience for both managers and candidates. We are trying to design workplaces fit for the 21st century, yet seem to still be using 20th century recruitment practices.

Duarte Ferreira: With a bit of innovative thought, you can make recruitment more time contextual and add more dynamism and all round interest. For example, for our graduate programme we are asking candidates to send us a little video of them, introducing themselves.

Ian Allwright: In large organisations, with multiple roles, recruitment is big scale so it has to be realistic. Managers are the conduit for helping people understand their expectations and I would probably say that two-way conversation doesn’t happen enough during the selection process.

Alex Farmer: There has been mention of clunky procedure and systems and in this fast moving environment, that can cause a good deal disengagement all round – this has to be seriously considered when the context is continuous change and it’s arguable that many have assisted in creating culture of the short tenure. Loyalty starts with good candidate experience, and also a strong brand and reputation for the organisation.

Brian Newman: And social media doesn’t always allow you to offer that UX, because tools like Glassdoor are not powered by companies rather, they are influenced by the consumer.

Alex Farmer: Once candidates become employees, if you’re not asking the Glassdoor questions while they work for you, then the pressure builds up and they just put it online. They are given some type of outlet to the pressure if we ask for feedback in their employment.

Richard Eastmond: I ignore Glassdoor, because it is a place largely for aggrieved people. It is not to say they are not appropriately aggrieved, but they are a one to ten percent, not 80 percent. So, it is a lens, but it is a flawed lens. Again, that is a 21st century management challenge.

Why – if the reports and statistics are to be believed – is productivity and engagement at its lowest ever levels in the UK?

Helen Carter: Productivity is not a term I like applied to people, since to me it speaks of a manufacturing process. It’s a word that encompasses so many different aspects that it becomes meaningless to use as a comparator against other countries.

Laura Perretta: What do you mean by productivity? How do you interpret it? You need to define it before you can make such a statement.

Ian Allwright: Looking at productivity in the public sector and the way the ONS measures it is complicated. They started in 1997 as the base and the public sector has moved two points above it in the last 20 years. When you start to get underneath what they are looking at, it is so complex. The measure has to have validity.

Brian Newman: The measure of productivity can completely miss out on important things like innovation, and creativity. It is far more difficult to put a measure on innovation and I think that could be part of the problem in how these key skills could be inadvertently ignored, in seeking a productivity measure only.

So, if not productivity, what should be measured?

Alex Farmer: Maybe vibrancy is a better term than productivity – if we are talking about customer experience in, for example retail, you might not have sold as much, but the experience of the customer was better. The productivity measurement is not going to measure when the customer came back and bought something, and told people about the great customer care. Much of these really important elements largely go unmeasured.

Ian Allwright: Agreed, in social services for example, we may deal with a troubled family, which will not see the benefits in terms of the police, the criminal justice system and health for a number of years. What we have done has been productive, but the nature of that outcome is a lot further down the track and one we won’t necessarily see.

These days, productivity is rarely about how quickly a production line runs with the greatest possible efficiency, without it affecting quality control, it’s more complicated than that.

Duarte Ferreira: I believe the reason our employee engagement has increased is because in hospitality, there is no time to lose to rectify matters, that is the culture of our world and it influences how quick we action any points that need addressing and changing – reaction time and momentum are key to customer outcome.

Brian Newman: There is also the media reality that good stories are not as attractive as bad stories, So there is a skew on what you read. It can be the same with Glassdoor, if you respond, you create a dialogue about something that may only be one person’s opinion or lacks validity, but if you don’t respond, you can’t set the record straight – it’s catch 22.

So the media is to blame, there is no negative productivity story? What people see is their much-loved high street shops disappearing, it feels like the uk economy is sinking to the person on the street.

Alex Farmer: It’s a good point, the move of retail from bricks & mortar to digital, typifies the difficulties of cultural and societal norms – the High Street is a very visual exemplar of change – a closed down shop looks definitely like a negative headline.

Helen Carter: A measure of productivity is simply a neat number, so too can be engagement, the other part of the question. I am sure that if we asked people how they would evaluate engagement at the level of their own job, their team and manager and then the whole organisation, the majority would feel it most strongly in areas within their own sphere of influence, weakening when moving out to consider corporate culture. A single figure cannot encapsulate these variations.

Chris Baldwin: In a more service-orientated economy, we have already had some very strong examples about how hard it is to measure an output and when you can actually realise the output. It is not necessarily the cost you are measuring, but it is the opportunity cost. It is what you incur if you don’t do something, and that is harder to prove.

Has there been mission creep in these protracted hard times, aided and abetted by the erosion of role descriptions.

Chris Baldwin: Technology was supposed to be a time giver. We were supposed to have more leisure time as a result of it, but what I have seen is that you have less leisure time and you are constantly interrupted by thought of work, and technology draws you in to deal with it.

Ian Allwright: You have to look at how technology is used. Our employees tell us they welcome the flexibility that our organisation offers them, where the role allows. Technology helps with that. The difficulty arises when people don’t use it in a wise way. That is when we have to work with them to understand the potential impact and how it can be managed.

Richard Eastmond: For me, it is that clarity of boundaries – if you understand the boundaries and have that conversation with colleagues, you can find your way through.

Duarte Ferreira: We have so many distractions – it is proven that human beings don’t multitask well. However, with technology and the way things are evolving, we are available 24/7 and that is where wellbeing is playing a bigger role.

Laura Perretta: We need to distinguish whether it is the employer asking to work 24/7 or the individual choosing to do so. Individuals need to be able to self-regulate themselves. This is so important in a global organisation.

What do you believe are now the reliable triggers that engage people and lead to improved productivity?

Tim Kensey: Some of the traditional triggers; having the right management and leadership, communication, the synergy of purpose and yes brand.

Chris Baldwin: With Topps Tiles, you can look at the overall statistics and performance but if you drill down, no surprise to see that the best managed outlets have the most engaged staff and better performance than the mean. So for all the workforce change, certain traditions still preside.

Mark Taylor: Agreed, those human relation skills, the communicative and transparent mindsets – technology is not superseding that, it is just a different way of managing.

Brian Newman: There can be a pressure on HR to move from programme to programme, and measure of productivity for HR can be on the volume of initiatives executed. Things need time to embed, culture is long forming. I would say on Maslow, I do think that the self-actualisation piece has moved further down the pyramid. Purpose is now more important – not having a sense of the value or purpose, will open up a gap in the psychological contract.

Helen Carter: Whether it’s Maslow, or Herzberg’s hygiene factors, which is a model that works well for me, I wonder whether going beyond that is a matter of transparency. I’ve often heard employees levy a criticism on managers that they fail to communicate about the decision-making process clearly. When you drill down into that, it seems people perceive they are excluded from something, even if that’s not true.

If you currently measure employee engagement through annual employee surveys, is it providing the real time qualitative data needed for managing The agile workforce?

 Ian Allwright: We do measure engagement. Trend data is important, as it helps us see where the improvements have occurred. I suppose the big challenge for us is about correlating that data with other data we have to see if corresponds with what our employees are telling us. The difficulty we have had is turning around the survey figures in a timely fashion to allow us to act on them. We have tried pulse surveys as well.

Brian Newman: Trend data; on thousands of people, who move about in a really agile way – like they do in our organisation – is much trickier to follow or derive conclusion from. It has to be connected to all the other data points to start to be valid. How long does it take this leader to hire talent? That is going to be connected somewhere down the line, to how engaged the new recruit is.

Helen Carter: For me, this is a matter of frequency. When we hear about the death of the performance appraisal, that’s not true. It’s only the death of the annual process. The same applies to employee engagement surveys, it’s a real challenge to retrieve sensible data and analysis unless this is sought much more frequently. But more than just frequency, it’s also about consistency. We need to align these with a golden thread, based on our strategic goals as a business, but also to invest in training line managers in coaching for example so that they can elicit useful and relevant information no matter the frequency adopted.

Tim Kensey: Our culture survey is really well embedded, to a point that our line managers look forward to it. We also do a pulse survey – just a dozen questions, and a full one with 50 plus questions. We really try and put the data out as quickly as possible, so it has that relevance.

Ian Allwright: We have stripped it right back, gone back to basics in effect. We have flattened our appraisal cycle into more continuous conversations. We’re supporting our managers with a conversational tool, so they understand the types of conversation they can have with their employees and we’ve introduced a manager standard which helps us skill our managers up to have those conversations.

What does great employee experience look like, do you think your organisation understands what this means and is it doing it well?

Brian Newman: People work in the live music sector because they love live music. It is hard work and it can be long hours in all places. Different challenges in our tech business, where we must source the right talent and battle sometimes for the same people as other Tech employers. I just don’t think everybody is in it for the same reason and we encourage the differentiation.

Duarte Ferreira: It starts before they join us, how we advertise, explain company benefits, possible career paths; and the induction process. We have a structured two-day induction for all new starters and we request feedback on the onboarding and recruitment process through an anonymous survey. We share this feedback with the managers.

Helen Carter: We can’t fully determine what a good employee experience will be for someone before they join an organisation. We should try to aim for what will suit the employee but, and this is the tension, we have to deliver business benefits simultaneously. Certainly congruence between someone’s values and the business and its culture is going to be important to achieve a great fit.

Mark Taylor: And making sure that ownership sits with the leaders and line managers. Laura Perretta: Indeed, we are currently focusing on empowering leaders to have personal and aspirational conversation with individuals, to understand their strengths and aspirations.

Ian Allwright: We know that the longevity of service has an impact on the levels of employee engagement, so how we maintain those levels of engagement is really important. The key is about equipping managers to be able to recognise those people whose engagement is falling away and performance manage, motivate and engage them appropriately.

Alex Farmer: We use the term ‘workforce experience’, but it is the same principle as applying the customer experience metrics to the employee population. The overarching element that leads to a great employee experience is about listening and making sure that the employees are the customers, as opposed to HR being much more of a prescriptive corporate function.

Tim Kensey: The transparency around our values gives an honesty from ourselves as an organisation to the rest of our employees about where we are and what we do. It is our culture, it is who we are, and I think that really helps the overall experience.

Richard Eastmond: Agreed, and it comes down to the manager – it is not just HR’s job – because managers facilitate, they interview, they follow-up, they welcome, they talk and they interact on a daily basis.

Chris Baldwin: It is really about: “Do I, as an employee, want to be here or do I feel I have to be here”? And the sense of wanting goes back to transparency and trust and knowing that you are listened to and valued.

What are the trends in benefits, rewards and recognition that are having a more positive effect on employee experience?

Ian Allwright: As a council, we have to be as inventive as we possibly can within the parameters that we have. Understanding the impact of our reward system is tough because of the individual nature of how they are used. If you have 2,000 managers, you potentially have at least 2,000 different experiences for your employees.

Richard Eastmond: You don’t come and work for Amnesty for the salary and the benefits. We have to pay a competitive salary, however we define that in our world, our benefits are extremely limited and we just do not do global mobility, pay for schooling, housing; and probably suffer as a result because other humanitarian organisations still do this, so we have a competitive issue.

Brian Newman: The importance of purpose should be crisp and clear, I go back to the fact that we don’t separate work and life quite so neatly, because we work when most people aren’t. I think that fits our culture nicely. We’re just very flexible about how we position those roles. We don’t go for chasing the cash.

Mark Taylor: It’s that personal touch – our CEO is very good at that and that has set a culture, plus we have worked on flexible working – we’re the only retailer that doesn’t have fixed shift patterns – and we’ve created that really open, flexible culture.

How are companies using analytics to design great experiences for their people?

Brian Newman: It’s not about data, it’s about insight – data is just a tool. I do think data offers the opportunity to be less biased in decision making, which is exciting, and data has offered really good debate, which in turn leads to creating better targeted experiences for people. Tim Kensey: We probably don’t use data as much as we could. Our Culture Survey is inevitably a valuable source of data. We realised that we have to go out, communicate, talk to people about what is out there.

Helen Carter: It seems that the focus is almost exclusively on quantitative data, rather than qualitative analysis. We are changing our HR software at present in order to increase the visibility of our data to HR and also to be able to devolve this to managers as we see it as important. However, I think it’s also essential in order to have effective conversations with boards, since many HR practitioners say they struggle to put their agenda on the table.

Richard Eastmond: We have our Outlook 365, and that ability to produce a hugely impactful, data-driven set of analysis for decision-making in all areas of the organisation is transformatory, and enables us to make insightful decisions as a consequence.

Ian Allwright: What’s challenging us is evaluation of the interventions and how we use the data. So, trying to marshal that is something we haven’t quite cracked yet. It would be great if it was justabout the data, however, there is a narrative to be had around it. It is the story telling in terms of employee experience is also significant as well.

Mark Taylor: It’s as if we have very common engagement surveys versus the actual data. You can almost tell as much from the verbatim comments, versus actually what is coming from the data – it gives it real colour.

Brian Newman: On a practical note, how we use work data is equally important, it is a combination of managers instinct, experience and knowledge of their people. But ease of access is particularly useful.

Where do you think technology and ai will continue to encroach on businesses, and how do you believe this will impact on the employee experience?

Alex Farmer: We should consider the impacts, and plan a roadmap from today and the first step on that roadmap should be trend and sentiment analysis. Going back to data, AI is already proving its worth – interpreting the data so that we are able to draw the best conclusion – rather than those drawn from our own narrow mindedness.

Richard Eastmond: For some, AI is an opportunity. We employ 16 people focused on tech and human rights, and their work is all about how you link and underpin artificial intelligence and human rights to ensure that when the algorithms are written they come from a rights based place.

Helen Carter: The dishwasher was a fantastic invention, so I think using technology to do jobs that can be easily replaced can potentially be hugely beneficial in bringing more dignity into the workplace. I’ve also been reading about the impact of technology on leadership and some people predict that feminine characteristics of leadership will become more important with the rise of AI.

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