by Sophia Man
Many organizations in Hong Kong struggle through a love-hate relationship with employee engagement.
They see the business value of a highly engaged workforce, aspiring to receive the “love” from their employees in order to directly compute it into a productivity measure. Yet, they are often discouraged by the lack of positive results they find when analysing the sometimes elaborate and always well-intentioned initiatives to engage their staff. Despite the costly investment to improve engagement, many employees in Hong Kong remain disengaged. According to the 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards (TM&R) and Global Workforce Studies (GWS) conducted by Willis Towers Watson, less than one-fifth (19%) of Hong Kong employees are highly engaged, while as many as 38% are disengaged.
Why aren’t we harvesting the desired engagement levels?
The question, while fundamentally important, often seems under-discussed or mis-diagnosed.
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there is an underlying message of paradox that we see generally across our clients.
In Hong Kong, strategies in many organizations merely aim to measure engagement, or offer generic solutions at the system level. They fail to have a lasting impact on nourishing the “engaged feelings” inside employees at an individual level. Many employees remain uninspired, as their personal values and the meaning they make of their work hasn’t been addressed.
Here we dig deeper into what we see as the three main challenges underlying this trend.
1. Organizations Equate Engagement Surveys as the Be-All and End-All Strategy
Conducting an engagement survey has become a norm these days. While it should be used to measure engagement level, the survey itself has somehow become synonymous as “the main tool” to engage employees in many organizations. Here we can see we are mixing up the measuring stick with the strategy itself.
Surveys are typically conducted once a year (or every other year) as a means of ensuring that senior management and front-line managers can demonstrate their overt intention to listen to their employees. While the intention is good, the action often stops there. After the survey, the timeline to implement action plans is often loose, accountability is vague, and follow-up plans are unfocused. This leaves employees feeling more disappointed than engaged.
Placing an engagement survey as the figure of the picture, rather than the frame of the picture, risk organizations having the wrong focus point. Although many HR leaders might say “Leaders and Managers should be engaging staff year-round, and we have other initiatives in place across the board – the engagement survey simply serves to test how we’re doing”, and this is indeed correct in theory. However, the experience and reality for many employees is that the survey experience is the loudest, clearest message they get about engagement. The very process of running a formal survey shifts conscious attention to the measurement of rather than the true sensation of engagement, which can only truly be measured through observation.
2. Organizations Do Engagement at Their Employees
Many organizations shower their employees with affection in the form of extra fringe benefits, treats, freebies and the odd ping-pong table. They give their staff Appreciation Day, Birthday Leave, Casual Fridays, free gym, drinks and snacks, standing desks, community days, team retreats etc., in the hope of being reciprocated with their engagement.
In Hong Kong, however, we tend to be a bit hard to please and have high expectations for our employers (the spoil factor!). While most employees are happy to receive these engagement benefits, they only serve to continuously escalate the baseline expectations. These solutions are often an adrenaline shot to boost engagement - short-term and temporary- and are not enough to keep employees engaged. They are a “top down” and “one size fits all” approach to engagement. While not bad initiatives, these perks haven’t had the impact on engagement rates and productivity that was anticipated, and often leave leaders and HR at a loss as to how they can maintain and continuously top.
Again, a savvy HR leader might say “We have asked our employees what they want, and we have aimed to deliver what we can”. However, this relies on the assumption that employees themselves know what truly engages them. In fact, as humans, most of us are not aware or cognizant of how we find meaning and connection at work, and a large-scale survey will not allow us to tap into this.
3. Employees Often Do Not Feel Accountable to Engage Themselves at Work
A dynamic and healthy relationship has the right balance of give and take between the two parties. With engagement initiatives in the workplace, however, employers often seem to take accountability to initiate engagement, pushing and sustaining the agenda, while employees expect to sit back and be engaged. Many leaders and managers point this out with distain, aiming to solve by hiring staff who are naturally motivated due to their personality type, yet few business heads truly know how to create the conditions whereby “average” employees lean in to engage themselves.
Meanwhile, there are many individual employees who constantly feel “stuck” at work, regardless of their job role, pay and seniority. They feel uninspired by their company, their managers and their work. In the worst case scenario, they stay suspended in motion, unable or unwilling to take accountability for their own career satisfaction and success. This group comes to be known as “parked cars” or “dead wood”. They often do not feel motivated enough to engage themselves at work, not to mention to be engaged by their employers. While on the other hand, those employees who do take accountability for their satisfaction in their roles may take control by changing jobs, continuously searching for a boss and company where they find a natural fit. These staff come to be known as “job hoppers” and experience the wrath of recruiters and the media everywhere. But can we blame them when indeed they may simply be the proactive ones, willing to uproot themselves in the search of career satisfaction and engagement? Employees vote with their feet, and this is why the behaviour indicating attrition is a noisy measure, but highly correlated to engagement.
If we want to ramp up the engagement level in the workforce, both organizations and employees obviously need to approach engagement differently.
True career engagement, by and large, is an inside game. It is an emotional bond and commitment that employees have for their organizations, their professions, their teams, and their bosses. Therefore, to have any chance of boosting engagement, we must ignite the flames of engagement from the inside – the heart of the employees.
Engagement Starts with Finding Meaning in What We Do
According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, engagement at work is a form of self-fulfillment for employees (the highest level of need to achieve). Without meaning in the “doing”, there is the slow death of self-fulfillment. Instead of doing engagement from the top down “at” employees, organizations must first instill in the organisation structure some opportunity for employees to connect with their own values, define what success means to them, and explicitly connect those personal realizations with the tasks of the role and mission of the business.
Therefore, we need to create an ongoing narrative dialogue with our staff, actively giving them opportunities to articulate why their work matters, why the value working in their role and team, and what they are proud of in the organization. Only when employees know their own “why” can they clearly connect it to the “why” of their business, and express engagement in their own terms.
And it is when employees are constantly inspired to recognize and identify with the meaning of their work, the mission and values of the organization, they will be motivated enough to engage themselves at work to achieve their full potential, working beyond just the pay check and benefits.
This sounds logical when you think about it – right? But HOW do you do it, and at scale?!
A Culture of Trust Promotes Engagement
Employees’ emotional commitment is also conducive to their trust in organizations, particularly in their leaders and managers. Compassionate leadership, therefore, builds trust and promotes engagement.
Compassionate leaders lead with both mind and heart. They see what employees see and feel what they feel. They know their employees simply cannot feel engaged if they are only asked about how they feel once a year (in the form of a survey), and understand engagement is more than a score.
Hence, they have an ongoing communications strategy to bond and build trust with their employees.
The leaders encourage their team members to share their own thoughts on a regular basis, articulating in a personal forum how they connect their own values with the objectives of the team or business, and in return these leaders show a genuine interest to listen actively, and to communicate openly. Leaders and managers who have a mindset of engagement for themselves are able to create the forum for dialogue where staff can find their own meaning too.
When employees feel that their leaders truly “get them”, through active and empathetic communications, they naturally develop an emotional commitment with the company that is hard to replace. Not all leaders and managers are this way inclined, but by approaching engagement with a targeted coaching, mentoring, and workshop approach to values-based exploration, the organisation can help its leaders to make the connections that they in-turn can pass on to their teams. This trickle-down effect in engagement takes time, and requires a disciplined approach, but means that organisations can hyper-personalize engagement at scale through the management network.
Solving Engagement Issues at the Core Helps Sustain the Business as a Whole
Instead of applying different band-aid interventions to “fix” the surfacing engagement issues, we should aim to identify and address the underlying causes.
When employees feel that their work is not recognized, for example, they often need more than free lunches and “job well-done’s” from their managers.
Instead, managers should dig out the causes of “work un-recognition”, by understanding how employees feel performance management and career development are being handled and communicated, then implementing actions that address the causes. Only by addressing engagement issues at the core we will speak to the heart of the employees.
Here, we recommend the use of Design Thinking principles to root-out insights, and re-shape the employee experience to be based on engagement as a guiding principle. By workshopping trends seen through the engagement survey, and via close collaboration with managers on the ground, talent teams and leadership can completely re-shape initiatives to get to the subconscious level of employee engagement. In making these bold efforts, businesses truly have a chance at enabling human capital to impact productivity and sustainability.
Using Influencers and Coaching to Franchise Engagement
And you might say “Well, it can’t all rest with Managers and HR – you said this was an inside job!”. And that’s true. We have seen that by identifying influencers within your organisation – those who have the widest networks of connections and who use their platforms to share information and sentiment to impact their colleagues – HR and leadership are able to infiltrate the employee base and encourage engagement from the grass roots. If influencers receive coaching, have opportunities to workshop their values and are given multi-media internal channels to voice the meaning they find in their work, then engagement has a chance. When employees see others finding their individual meaning, and using their voice to articulate their career satisfaction and success, it drives others to go on their own quest and make their own meaning too (or simply borrow someone else’s – so in this case, give them enough positive role models!). The coaching method, by nature of its hyper-personalized approach, is money well spent in connecting individuals to their higher purpose and then setting them free to rub off on their colleagues.
Hence, for the above reasons, it is time we stopped making engagement efforts that just touch the surface of the issue and yield little results. Beyond all the good intentions, process, formality and “the doing” of engagement, is an opportunity for both organizations and employees to look within themselves, facing heart-to-heart, which is where the real engagement lies.
Let’s re-set and make the difference, should we?
by Alexandra Lamb
Design Thinking as a concept is enjoying notoriety across most business functions, following other powerful trends in process improvement and project management such as LEAN and AGILE etc. In each instance, businesses look to finesse performance by adapting frameworks from their native uses (e.g. software development, manufacturing efficiency, or product design) to be applied in new scenarios.
In the case of Design Thinking for HR specifically, we aim to drive strategic effectiveness by bringing an innovation mindset from the design world into our programs, unlocking new opportunities for performance through an employee-centered platform and change-agile culture. And, as Bersin, Solow and Wakefield (2016) put it:
“Design thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a “process developer” to an “experience architect.” It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical environment; how people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.”
So, before we get too heavy on the strategy and consultant jargon, what is Design Thinking anyway?
Design Thinking is a framework for collaboration and innovation, and as the name suggests, it is a way of thinking first and foremost. There are several schools of thought around its accompanying processes and methodologies (most notably from the Stanford d.School), each with its own appealing visuals. Mootee (2013) from Idea Couture points out that the business world may have romanticised and over simplified these concepts (apologies to all the core Designers and Strategists out there!), however even these basic visual models offer a significant contribution to good HR work. So, whether you think in loops, circles, stars or squiggles, the fundamental concepts of Design Thinking propose that our HR initiatives should be human centered, iterative and powered by insights.
Human Centered: The team at IDEO describe the essence of Design Thinking as: “…a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.” This is an important concept for HR, compounded by the fact that we have two (or often more) distinct yet overlapping groups of end-users to design for: our business leaders, our employee populations, and our business customers for whom all our programs are designed to ultimately benefit. Each group has needs, and sometimes those needs are competing. It’s no surprise then that HR has predominantly invested in designing processes, tools, and cultures to meet the needs of business leaders, trusting that they will act in the service of customers, while retroactively fitting our solutions onto staff populations through ‘engagement’ initiatives. The subtle shift that Design Thinking brings to our programs of work therefore lies in the opportunity to design for multiple end users, bringing the profile of the employee into sharper focus as a key stakeholder.
Bringing employees into the design equation as stakeholders and users, not simply recipients of programs that are aimed ‘at’ them, is an important nuance. It has significant repercussions for ROI. Here’s some examples:
Perhaps you’re thinking: ‘but we run a regular engagement survey – we’re asking what employees want, and we’re transparent in acting on what we hear’. If there’s something that stands out in the Human Centered Design method, and psychology more broadly, it’s that you can’t just ‘listen’ to what’s said explicitly, because people don’t always consciously know what they want or need and are often curating socially-acceptable messages rather than revealing their own truths. That’s not to discredit our staff – it’s just the way the human mind works. We’re not always hyper conscious of our true drivers. The proof is in behaviour and action.
Design Thinking Take-Away: invest time in directly observing and defining your user profiles, and design your initiative with each major stakeholder group in mind.
Iterative: The value of iteration to the HR function is key. To get results, we must ensure we don’t slip into a ‘fixed’ mindset, but rather expect to continuously prototype, test and challenge our assumptions, analyze and refine our programs of work, and go beyond our pre-conceived ‘rules’. The concept of pilots are well accepted in HR, however we don’t often bring the element of radical thinking to our design, and in the pursuit of business case results it can sometimes seem like iteration is a luxury.
To think like a designer, HR must be willing to take a ‘growth’ mindset across the team – one set by curiosity, and continuous improvement through effort and collaboration. HR teams across the region are well-versed in Carol Dweck’s work on this topic - we can use this concept to consider how we incentivize and cultivate the right attitudes in our talent teams to foster innovation from HR. Through the iterative process, HR can observe where it’s appropriate to bring divergent thinking where wild, ‘nothing is too out there’ ideas can be discussed and celebrated, versus convergent thinking where the HR team eventually gets down to the nuts-and-bolts of bringing a realistic initiative to life.
Design Thinking Take-Away - through the piloting phase, don’t be too eager to commit to a concept or design principle.
"One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the attachment to a 'pet' idea. You have to be willing to test your assumptions with employees and accept you may have it wrong. That's why prototyping is such a powerful thing." says Make Studios Director, Patti Hunt.
Embrace the ambiguity of a low-fidelity experience, because even through piloting you want to create an environment where feedback and group instincts have space to emerge and shape truly impactful initiatives. Trust that the Design Thinking framework will do its job in your HR team culture, if you take the time and effort to invest in….
Insights: Having a point of view and making sense of what you’re discovering through the Design Thinking process is key. This is a harder concept than it sounds, and should be constantly fine-tuned throughout the iterations of your pilot and beyond. The team at Thrive define an insight as not just a simple observation or a summary of your data, but rather as:
Gaining insights is a matter of exercising empathy for your user groups, and can be validated by data collected through surveys, interviews, and importantly: observation etc. Through these sources, we’re aiming to not only listen to what the end-users (e.g. business leaders, employees and customers) are saying and observing what they’re doing, but also to read what they’re thinking and feeling to infer those deeper insights.
The insight will be something that probably surprises you, like:
Insights are subjective, bringing together both your observations as well as the intuitions of the HR team. Don’t worry about being ‘right’, but do test your assumptions in a variety of ways. The better you know each of your end-user profiles, the more confident you can be in honing and eventually acting on the insights gained through the process.
And why NOW, HR?
The market demands it, and our businesses are inviting us to ratchet-up our strategic impact.
HR has been ‘transforming’ and advancing its perceived importance to business strategy globally for some time, and this is now particularly the case in Asia (where I’m based!). Forces in this region are varied, however in each country in Asia we see the impact of digitization on productivity; big-data offering nuanced consumer insights; the gig and sharing economies rapidly becoming the new-normal; Xillennials (yes… that’s the upper end of the Millennials’ cohort) reaching leadership roles, and Gen Z now on the precipice of entering the workforce; low unemployment and high demand for specialized professionals; and yet automation, AI and machine learning posing sudden shifts to our workplaces and lifestyles. Phew… it’s complex.
Consumers in this new marketplace have come to expect high standards of service delivery, personalized messaging, on-demand entertainment and abundance of choice. It’s natural for these expectations to carry over into how individuals expect to engage in the workforce as employees. The same Design Thinking principles that have escalated consumer anticipation now pose a solution for HR who seek to create the same engagement in their workplaces, personalizing journeys to enable productivity.
At a recent event co-hosted by OCBC and Chapman Group at OCBC’s Singapore learning campus the application of Design Thinking in HR was on display. Lucienne Blessing from Singapore University of Technology and Design, Bojan Blecic, SVP and Head of Experience Design at OCBC, and Aye Wee Yap, Head of Learning & Development OCBC, offered insights from customer experience that are being directly translated into the employee experience lifecycle. Each speaker demonstrated how using Design Thinking to reduce complexity in HR processes had demonstrably broken down barriers for employees to ‘opt-in’ to the business and spend their discretionary effort to perform, by shifting focus from ‘isolated touch points’ (such as the hiring event or performance management meeting) to the continuum of the whole employee journey. In the OCBC case study, the bank has clearly learned from its external customers to re-frame and visualize the value it wants to drive for its employees. The concept of ‘withnessing’ demonstrated the collaboration and empathy required to design with employees in mind.
This conversation carried over into the participant groups. Paula Day, Principal Organisational Development Consultant, APAC from Oracle commented that Design Thinking has become crucial for HR because businesses essentially require more agility (both in individual mindsets and in organisational culture itself) to compete and survive in the new marketplace, and see the HR function is positioned to enable this agility. The old ‘resources first’ approach to designing for employees is being replaced by a user experience and capability-first mindset, and the ‘F word’ (Failure… or rapid prototyping) is becoming more acceptable… so long as it’s accompanied by learning and iteration. Design thinking ideally drives dialogue, which gives employees a sense of being close to the source of power to fix the problems they experience. “If the organization has a feedback mechanism to get insights directly back to designers and decision makers, staff are more likely to give input because they have the sense they can have an impact” says Paula.
And yet we need to be thoughtful about the Frankensteins we create. The paradox of over-delivering ‘wow’ factors in employee-centered design, and focusing on quick-wins rather than deep insights (like offering free lunch, yoga rooms, laugh therapists, and massage angels in the office to drive engagement by integrating lifestyle into the workplace etc.) can inadvertently desensitise staff to ongoing efforts towards genuine and sustainable engagement. What Design Thinking isn’t: bells and whistles!
HR can apply Design Thinking across any manner of workstreams to ensure we’re crafting strong user experiences to drive sustainable business impact. As we mark the 20th anniversary since Ulrich’s HRBP model took precedent as best practice, Njemanze (2016) and other industry voices rightly call out HR’s opportunity to continue leaning into the role Ulrich describes as ‘the credible activist’ as we continue on our evolution as a function. Design Thinking is one way for us to continuously strengthen and integrate the strategic presence we have in our businesses, and plus… it can be really fun along the way.