Strategic HR in tough times: Employee engagement as a competitive edge

Historically, in many companies, HR was considered an afterthought—a back-office corporate support function, more a necessity than a value-adding partner. Executive perception of HR’s job was to handle comp and ben, hire and fire and support necessary chores like open enrollment and organize corporate events for employees. This attitude was exacerbated by the perception that “if employees don’t like it they can take a hike—there are 10 others dying to take their place”. While companies may have gotten away with this approach in the past, and may be using the current economic environment to perpetuate this short-term view, it’s an unsustainable position in the long-term for those that aspire to be leaders and win. The reality is that there are always good jobs for great people, even in these tough times, and we must strive to keep our top performers motivated and engaged. Those HR professionals that can counsel executives and guide companies to take an approach based on maximizing employee potential will be best positioned to excel in their current position and/or present an attractive package to a prospective employer.

We all know that in today’s world the competition for talent has become extreme. Sophisticated employers no longer talk of mere workers, but of human capital, where strategic investment in personnel has a demonstrable ROI. People migrate among companies looking for the environment that best suits their needs, and these needs have become increasingly complex. No longer is it simply about money, especially among younger employees. Factors motivating employees to join companies today include work-life balance, job security, safety and environmental policies, etc.

Consequently, an aspect of HR that is becoming more and more critical to the success of businesses, especially in environments where there is robust competition for talent, expertise and experience is Employee Engagement. An engaged employee population is a competitive advantage that results from motivated employees demonstrating commitment and loyalty to their organizations.

Within this new environment HR is being challenged by executive leadership to play a much more strategic role in the business. It is critical to be able to leverage human capital through tools and techniques that will drive efficiency and productivity, mobilizing employees to reach goals faster: this is the principle outcome of an employee engagement program.

The challenge we face is to elevate above the tactical and practical supporting functions of HR to becoming heroes in our organizations. Adding this value by remaining relevant in the larger strategic discussion is not only a means to maximize the contribution HR can make in your company, but it is a sure way to positively manage your career to ensure professional growth, development and advancement.

Some executives will argue that with falling revenue, limited budgets, layoffs, etc., now is not the time to focus on employee engagement. You’ve probably heard from managers “they’re lucky to have jobs at all” or “where are they going to go?” This is a short-sighted and naïve position as employees will remember how they’ve been treated and leave at the first possible opportunity (and it’s usually the best that leave first). However, companies that double down on engaging employees during tough times will emerge stronger and more competitive long-term with a more committed and loyal employee base.

In the past, quantifying employee engagement in business or financial terms that C-suite executives understood was very difficult. Today, significant data exist to quantify the tangible economic benefits to having a more engaged employee group. Simply put, companies with higher levels of engagement outperform their competitors. Additionally, with empirical measurement and scientific analysis, employee engagement researchers can determine not only the level of overall engagement but can also pinpoint pockets of high or low engagement across the enterprise, assessing a team of as few as 5 employees. These data allow us to analyze where we are succeeding in our companies and where our focus needs to be more acute. Keeping your finger on the pulse of employee teams allows HR Professionals to counsel and coach supervisors, managers and executives to maximize team effectiveness and ensure leadership development programs have practical and measurable impact.

The added advantage of creating or working from an employee engagement baseline, is that we can measure the success of HR programs, allocating more resources to initiatives that are working and improving those activities that are not showing expected results. In these difficult times, eliminating guesswork as to what is working and knowing exactly what is amiss in the organization allows us to be surgical in our approach, precisely targeting areas of concern, ensuring efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Finally, having data to support your recommendations to management will boost your confidence to propose bold programs, reinforce your credibility and ensure accountability—all vital factors in eliciting C-Suite support. Most importantly you will be in a stronger position to help drive change across the organization—in good times and bad.

One final thought—change will take time; after all, only Nuns change their habits overnight.

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