The winning formula for employee retention and engagement

Employee engagement


By Rachel Kay, MD of Thales Learning and Development

Two questions frequently asked by organisations are: how do we make sure our employees are fully engaged with the business and their role, and how do we hold on to our talent? All too often, employers complicate these two reasonably basic, and intrinsically linked, issues. It is usual for engaged individuals to work hard for an organisation, always seeking ways to add value, and these people are also likely to be retained.

That said – many disengaged employees often stay with a business, as they are left unmanaged and it is therefore made easier for them to stay rather than look for employment elsewhere. While a certain degree of attrition is healthy – making room for new ideas and skills, and so on – it is crucial to retain your best talent in order to learn and benefit from those individuals. Equally, it is a business imperative to manage a disengaged workforce.

Why engagement matters

There are 30 million employees in the UK, and one in three feels disengaged. This is significant for the wider economy because we know that a disengaged workforce will have a negative impact on productivity, which damages profit and growth, and, ultimately, puts a dent in the bottom line. Many businesses don’t actually recognise that, or don’t know how to manage it, and so the problem persists.

So what should we do? First, we must remind ourselves what engagement really means.

There are three industry-recognised forms of engagement:

  1. Intellectual engagement – being willing to work hard, and putting in the effort to ensure the job is done well and to continue improving
  2. Affective engagement – being positively present and feeling good about doing a really good job
  3. Social engagement – experiencing positive emotions and meaningful connections in the workplace, which usually leads to shared ideas and further improvements

Fundamental wants and needs

Next, we must consider how individuals acquire these three feelings of engagement.

Many businesses are currently grappling with the issue of ‘generational differences,’ and these differences do come into play when it comes to certain aspects of the employment relationship – a flexible approach to benefits, social interactions and the way in which an organisation communicates, for example – but, fundamentally, whatever age, people principally want and need the same things from their work:

  • A sense of purpose
  • To feel valued
  • Clarity of their role and what is expected of them
  • An understanding of where accountability starts and stops
  • Open, two-way and balanced communication from line management

A lack of those elements has always been associated with people leaving an organisation.

Back to basics

Organisations tend to complicate retention and engagement unnecessarily, but we really need to go back to basics. There was a very respected HR director back in the 60s, working for the luxury clothing retailer Jaeger. When staff members were asked why he was so respected, they simply said: ‘because he actually talks to us.’

A simple, yet extremely powerful, concept, but one which no doubt seems alien to many organisations. If you really want to focus on what matters when it comes to engagement, there are three very straightforward principles to apply:

  1. Put people in the right role – ensure they are well suited to it and are able to emotionally and intellectually connect with it
  2. Communicate with people – give them a voice, listen to their ideas and respect them (learn about employee surveys and engagement in Enhance)
  3. Provide clear expectations – what is and isn’t expected of them

And there are three separate levels at which an engagement strategy needs to be targeted:

  1. Leadership level – employ and promote leaders who are visible, and able to share the vision and demonstrate the values of the organisation in their everyday actions
  2. Line manager level – hire and equip managers who are confident in their people management skills, allowing them to support and coach their staff and empower, rather than control
  3. Cultural level – encourage a culture of integrity, starting with senior leaders, by delivering promises and reflecting the company values in behaviours

Don’t just pay lip service

It is really important that organisations don’t just pay lip service to creating an engaged and happy workforce. People can see through superficial or spurious attempts to do this, which will almost certainly provoke negative behaviours

If employees are going to truly align with a business and feel engaged, their relationship with their employer has got to be a ‘nutritious’ one, i.e. one where employees feel they are getting something valuable out of it just as the organisation is. There is no scientific formula to this – it is simply about stripping everything back and saying: ‘we’re asking people to get out of bed and leave their loved ones behind every day to come here and do their job, so how can we ensure they are continually willing to do that?’

People leave managers, not companies

If you look at the years of research within the fields of retention and engagement, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that people leave because of their manager rather than the organisation itself. It is therefore a crucial responsibility of individual managers to set the right tone and culture within their teams.

For this reason, when it comes to engagement, much of the focus should be on training people managers, yet many organisations seem to get this wrong. If companies doubled the amount of time they spent training their people managers in this way, many of the problems relating to a lack of engagement would disappear.

Not rocket science

Creating an engaged workforce, and retaining it, is not rocket science. Essentially you need everyone in the business to understand the vision, believe in it, and be willing to push to make it happen. Achieving that requires the following three elements:

  1. Open and honest leadership from strong role models, who are visible and approachable
  2. Managers who have been trained to be confident in coaching, mentoring, supporting, and understanding how to develop the potential of their team members
  3. Individuals who have been given the skills, knowledge and clarity they need in order to autonomously do their job

It then comes down to making sure that all that good practice is shared. Then you have the full cycle, where everybody is learning from one another, continually improving and adding value throughout the business.

Practicing what we preach

Within Thales Learning & Development, we recognised that giving people a voice was really important, so this year we launched our first employee forum, with representation from all areas of the business. This enables decisions which traditionally would have been made by leadership to be shifted into the hands of a network of employees throughout the organisation.

The initiative has created transparency around decision-making, and has given people the opportunity to participate in a way which wouldn’t previously have been possible. This was the ideal solution for our business, based on the feedback we had from our employee engagement survey, but don’t assume you can apply a ‘one size fits all’ solution to any organisation and expect it to work.

The winning formula

The winning formula for employee retention and engagement, then, lies in following the above steps while tuning in to the specific mood, wants, and needs of your people. If you want your staff to engage, you first have to understand them. Only then can you create engagement which is organically, and permanently, ingrained within your business, and thus encourage your most talented employees to stay – not for reward, but because they want to.