Do all the roads lead to Rome?

SAM_0070Every year, I travel to Oregon to visit my business partner to discuss cross border challenges US to Europe and the effects on business and personnel who hold office. This year’s trip coincided with Independence Day. I did not have the most of desirable starts when Springfield-OR experienced its first earthquake in 15 years, but it certainly set the day with a bump and even before we had a fireworks fest for the evenings celebrations.

Mark and I had an aperitif of fine Pinot Noir from the region. One of the amazing things I always learn from Mark is the fullness and wonders of Pinot Noir from Oregon. We started to discuss a recent project that Mark had undergone with one of his clients on employee engagement, the employee survey was particularly significant to the subject matter of employer trust, values and vision and covered many issues connected to employee satisfaction.

I questioned with Mark; is it not a company or manager’s dilemma that the organisation is not being made accountable or responsible, surely this is the route to the problem… all roads lead to Rome right?

Mark explained executive commitment aside, we frequently get asked this by managers: “How can I keep my team it engaged in the face of policies that put the company’s interests ahead of those of the employees?”

This is a very common exasperation among managers who are told to hold tight and ‘engage the troops’ in the face of blatant adversity imposed by senior management. Executives expect the managers to somehow bring team members along and even protect the integrity of the employer’s reputation while asking more from every employee on their team.

Mark and GeoffA manager cannot alter reality. If the company’s leadership team decides to push through a policy that will significantly impact the satisfaction of a large number of employees, managers cannot prevent the damage. This is especially true when the managers themselves are part of the affected group. But like all factors that are out of a manager’s immediate control, there are ways to soften the blow.

Often an organisation will work hard to attract a specific workforce only to impose policies and procedures that indicate they do not understand – or value – what really motivates that particular population. Examples might include hiring technical professionals who value autonomy and imposing onerous project-tracking processes. It would benefit the company to go back and ask, “If we are going to mandate part-time flexible shifts, what employee population would be a good fit?”

Ensuring the right job fit and aligned interests from the beginning is half the battle won.

On-boarding is a necessary first step in introducing new employees to the organisation and familiarising them with the company’s culture, practices, and values. However, for many, on-boarding remains a very paper-based procedure. Indeed the general consensus from our recent HR Transformation Forum was that organisations are striving to achieve innovative, exciting, and engaging on-boarding practices. However, with this comes the challenge of ensuring that on-boarding remains effective and valuable for all involved, from employees and managers, to the organisation itself.

Even if employees have no say in the unpopular policy decision that gets rolled out, managers can – and should – have them involved in identifying possible solutions at a local level that might alleviate the impact. If a manager has developed a strong working relationship with direct reports they will have the option of working together, to discuss the impact of the changes and how the team might adapt to these new parameters.

So what is the answer…

There is no doubt that organisations that repeatedly impose unpopular changes on their workforce will be driving down engagement over time, and there is only so much a manager can do to help individual team members remain engaged in the face of adversity. At the end of the day organisations need to carefully weigh the long-term effect a new policy will have on engagement against the short-term impact it will have on the bottom line. The trend of over-reliance on part-time staff in retail, for example, may backfire if companies don’t rethink their hiring practices and attract employees for whom part-time is not just the norm but the expectation.

According to Brian Groom, Business and Employment Editor at the Financial Times, companies need to take an approach that is “less paternalistic than it has been in the past. […] It is going to take give-and-take and both sides need this. The employees need this as well. […] On the optimistic side I think there are moves on both sides to try and make this work.” [See video here]

This may be true with regards to higher-educated staff working in ‘knowledge worker’ and expert roles. The leadership challenge of bringing along hourly workers – who often bear the brunt of organizational policies and have fewer options than highly skilled employees – remains great, especially if senior leadership is not prioritizing engagement.