· Features

Employee engagement: whose responsibility is it anyway?

It’s 8.30am on launch day. The banners are up, the stand looks fantastic and the champions are in place brandishing flyers.

As employees arrive we go to work promoting the new health & well-being service that's being launched. All is going well except that the executive HR sponsor is nowhere to be seen. By lunchtime there's still no exec sponsor or even anyone from the executive team. The day passes and while staff are interested and engaged in what they see that one key ingredient critical for project longevity is still missing: visible senior management buy-in.

Sadly this is not a fabricated anecdote but a real example where a company has spent a long time weighing the pros and cons of various wellness initiatives and solutions, found and committed money to a programme they like, but then walked away before the fire is really lit.

Management support, particularly from HR which carries the baton for staff well-being, is a key feature of a successful people initiative. While outsourcing specific HR initiatives can be a highly effective way of improving people performance, encouragement must still come from within, both from the HR team's own internal interaction and by building the cultural values of the organisation into the initiative. Third-party suppliers, while being experts at what they do, don't know your people like you do. Expecting employee engagement to be the sole responsibility of the third-party provider is like buying a great car, but not servicing it. It simply won't run as well as you want it to.

Employee engagement is a topic that's been on HR's lips for a long time and while some organisations are fantastic at it many, frankly, are not. Generally, HR work really hard to engage employees, but this engagement work is not always extended to outsourced programmes. I have seen first-hand how culture, management buy-in and visible support in initiatives can make all the difference between success and mediocrity. And one of the key ingredients for success is the collaboration between HR and third parties. HR has the trust and relationship with employees; the third party has the subject expertise. Together they are a great team. Alone, even the best initiatives will struggle. If HR executives think about their employee benefits many will conclude that few rarely achieve the level of engagement and excitement they should. Might this be because there's no real 'partnership' in engagement?

Another challenge to initiatives is ensuring they are designed around the cultural bedrock of the people in organisation. If employees can't relate to an initiative, or see the benefit in it, engagement will not happen. I believe that a programme should be implemented only with a deep understanding of the employee culture. Solutions always work best when they are geared towards employee interests and communicated in a way that is aligned, not alien to this.

It is also critical that engagement is not left to the last minute. Last minute drives to get people involved can be perceived as desperation or a lack of forethought devaluing an initiative right from the word go. If you really want results, communication and an engagement campaign need to be at the heart of the project. When engagement is at the core of what you do it will become a central part to how you approach and design any initiative. These programmes should then have greater appeal to your employees, giving them a much higher chance of success.

When it comes to engagement HR should be leading by example, not taking a back seat. When we implement health and well-being programmes it is critical that HR leads and demonstrates support both physically and verbally. By showing passion for your initiatives it will become much easier to harness engagement amongst your fellow employees and make it a success. In a world where it is all too easy to get bound up by excessive administrative and legislative tasks embracing engagement provides a great opportunity for HR to get back to their core desire to work with the people who make up the organisation.

At the end of the day, engagement in HR projects is centred on principles which should be at the heart of all great HR departments. It comes from understanding and interacting with employees. If you are outsourcing an initiative don't think the engagement process fully follows suit. Get engagement right and you will ensure that your HR investments have a tangible benefit for both the business and more importantly the people, which make up your organisation.

Jessica Colling, product director, Vielife