HR is failing to engage employee hearts and minds

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True engagement means leaders have to focus on creating the right culture

The UK has an engagement issue. Only 37% of workers say they feel encouraged to be innovative, and just 49% say they feel valued at work.

This problem is not getting better either; those figures are down from 47% and 56%, respectively, the year before, according to ORC International.

These figures are also similar across different studies. For instance, Investors in People found 26% of the workforce was ‘actively disengaged’; in other words, someone who is willing to support activity that would directly cause the organisation loss.

The impact on the UK economy is very real, with UK workers having an output 19% lower than their G7 counterparts. The ongoing failure of organisations to tackle low morale and engagement is costing UK businesses billions of pounds annually.

This fact is well documented: staff engagement remains HR’s ongoing challenge, and it has been written about at length. I believe that HR has failed to engage not only the minds but also the hearts of staff.

As a profession we have made strides in developing a more evidenced-based practice. Today, projects and initiatives are justified on the basis of their bottom-line benefit, and HR professionals are adapting models and methods of working to meet the needs of the business, rather than the needs of HR.

While there is still room for improvement in this respect, we should not lose sight of the less tangible drivers of engagement, which still have a significant impact on the workforce. I am referring, in particular, to workplace cultures. If there is no environment where staff feel supported, and they feel their employer cares about them, true engagement is not possible. Furthermore, if these elements are lacking, businesses can only gain the compliance of their workforce, and not the true engagement that supports both innovation and productivity.

So what can we do that will have the greatest impact on building supportive workplace cultures that enhance engagement and drive performance? Culture is created and defined by the visible actions of leaders.

If they are transparent, accessible and shown to be supportive of those around them, then this will filter through the organisation. Conversely, if they are uncooperative, unappreciative and do not care for their staff then these negative traits will also be adopted by the wider workforce, leading to wholesale disengagement, and the development of toxic cultures.

I don’t necessarily believe HR should be the ‘moral compass’, instead organisational values should come from the business itself. HR can, however, have a role as the ‘moral charter’ of an organisation. By this I mean that HR acts to ensure the business’s leaders are living up to the values that have been agreed by the organisation. One of the reasons many technology companies have found success in recent years is because they have high-profile leaders who embody the values of that organisation.

Limited engagement across UK businesses is impacting on national growth and innovation. To remedy this, HR must focus on building supportive workplace cultures where staff are energised and incentivised to perform at the highest level. The most effective way of doing this is through ensuring the organisation has leaders who can gain the trust and admiration of their workforce. HR must take the lead in this, for the benefit of our workforces, businesses and the wider economy.

Jabbar Sardar is director of HR and OD at Cafcass

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