· Features

"Work made fun gets done" sums up the preconditions of an engaged workforce, says David Fairhurst

Employee engagement is the most important issue the HR community has to resolve if we are to maintain credibility with our peers in other disciplines.

Now that may sound a little extreme, but research by Gallup has consistently found that across the UK workforce something like one in five employees are 'engaged', three in five are 'not engaged', and the final fifth are 'actively disengaged' - a group which includes those who are consciously undermining their organisation's performance.

So, imagine this just for a moment: an IT director reports in a board meeting that on Monday the organisation's computer systems would work as intended, between Tuesday and Thursday they would be delivering just a fraction of their specified performance levels, and on Friday they would either be switched off or pumping out viruses across the network.

It would be unthinkable - and certainly career-threatening. But in many organisations that's pretty much what the HR director would have to report when it comes to its people.

Not surprisingly, this is an issue that has exercised HR practitioners, academics and commentators alike. MacLeod and Clarke's 2009 Engaging for Success report found more than 50 definitions of employee engagement before they even got to the potential barriers and enablers.

For every organisation there are vital preconditions for employee engagement. These are clearly and succinctly described by David Smith in his book Asda Magic: The Seven Principles of Building a High Performance Culture.

Smith should know, because he is a hugely respected HR practitioner who, as former people director at Asda, played a pivotal role in creating a world-class retailing organisation during a time of massive competitive pressures and serious economic upheaval.

In the early years of my career, his work had an enormous influence on the people policies and practices I was creating. I would frequently supplement what I read about Asda in the HR press by chatting to the staff in my local store about what it was 'really like' to work there. And, without fail, these individuals would be positive and committed to the business, which would leave me, as a twentysomething, scratching my head about Asda's secret recipe for employee engagement.

A couple of decades later, Smith himself took me to a store to meet some of the staff and managers. Here, just as in his book, I heard the same three words over and over again: 'colleagues', 'buzz' and 'fun'.

'Colleagues' is the word Asda employees use to refer to each other. And it was clear from what they said that they like each other and truly value the sense of family you'll find among the staff in every Asda store.

What was also clear is that they enjoyed their work. They thrived on the 'buzz' of a busy shift, and the 'fun' they had in creating a great experience for their customers. As Smith says: "The real challenge is to give individuals and teams the permission to have fun and enjoy their work."

Creating such an environment, in which people feel part of a 'family' and enjoy their work, may not sound like hard-nosed business. But when 93% of Asda employees report that they 'love' working for the company, you have to take notice.

Work made fun gets done: five words that Smith uses to sum up the vital preconditions of an engaged and highly productive workforce. And he's not alone, because as the composer, actor, singer, director, and writer of more than 50 plays, Sir Noel Coward, observed about the roots of his own remarkable productivity: "Work is much more fun than fun".