Employee engagement: key to successful change

With the HR Excellence Awards just around the corner, our sponsors will be sharing their thoughts on each category. Today, Jo Sweetland, head of HR practice at Green Park Interim and Executive Search, tackles employee engagement, and how it can make or break a change programme.


Few organisations in the past five years have been able to avoid significant changes to their business model. The tough macroeconomic climate, new regulatory demands and consumer driven changes have all contributed to significant change programmes across all sectors and geographies. 

The vast majority of these changes are driven top-down and require a pace and commitment that organisations are unlikely to be ready for. Moreover, the challenges facing the senior leadership teams managing these change programmes are unusually large and complex in terms of scale and impact. 

Without hesitation, most board HR directors have cited the most difficult element of the change programme is supporting senior executives in developing the ‘softer’ skills required to ensure staff are properly engaged and invested in the change agenda.  These include the ability to keep people motivated during intense workflow, improving collaboration across business lines and maintaining a sense of purpose and momentum. 

One of our clients, a group HR director within a large public sector body, described how lack of employee engagement was holding back a large-scale transformation. “Everyone at board level and the next tier down clearly bought into the need for change. The problem was that the vast majority of the workforce was deeply sceptical of the proposals having seen many previous attempts at change fail.”

To address this she used her previous experience to break down barriers and dispel misconceptions. “The first thing we had to do was demonstrate that we were all in this together. Once we increased direct communication from senior leadership, including the CEO, we began to see progress and a greater sense of shared purpose and collaboration.” 

This sense of collaboration was the key to success for one of our clients in the retail sector. The company was losing market share and profitability and needed to stem costs and re-align its operating model to compete in the digital/online retail space.

It was concluded that the first strand of their transformation programme should be to centralise some of the company’s strategic operations, streamlining its current patchwork of regional and divisional operations. Resistance was strong from internal stakeholders as they felt, understandably, threatened and early attempts to get buy-in proved difficult. 

It was clear to the HR director that he needed to find different methods to influence the regional directors. He established and supported a group of change champions within the stakeholder group. Discussions focused on solutions and how to build on existing strengths. Positive reinforcement from the CEO of the benefits realised from the change programme helped to create momentum.

Over the next 12 months the company saw improvements in cost efficiencies and performance. But the most significant outcome of the change programme was a new culture of collaboration: "The management information proved that the change programme was delivering the desired results. However, it was when divisional management teams in Europe started pro-actively collaborating with their counterparts in India to reduce headcount and redeploy staff that we knew the process was finally bedding in.”

Every change programme is unique with its own characteristics and challenges. What many of our clients tell us, however, is that unless employees are fully engaged and the leadership team is visible, the results of any programme will be limited and short-lived. However, with research showing that engaged employees are more likely to act as organisational advocates, drive business performance and support colleagues, there is every incentive for leaders to develop and harness this potential while implementing a change programme.