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UNLEASH 2019: Engagement and leadership at the World Food Programme


World Food Programme speakers explained how they engage staff operating in some of the most challenging environments

Employers must think strategically about how to motivate employees working in high-risk environments, according to Aitor Maguna, chief human resources officer at the World Food Programme (WFP).

Speaking at the UNLEASH World conference and expo in Paris, he said: "At the WFP we have had to think carefully about how we can look after our people. There is such a thing as being too engaged – our employees get a lot of purpose from what they do but there's a risk of burnout.

"You can't offer flexitime to an employee who is working in a refugee camp, but there have been other ways we've been able to improve wellbeing for people who are working in extremely difficult environments."

The WFP, which is part of the United Nations, assists 86.7 million countries each year, and has 5,000 food trucks, 20 ships and 92 planes operating on any given day. Given cultural differences, employees' different locations across the globe, and the tough conditions, typical methods of boosting engagement may not work, Maguna explained.

"One of the fundamental things we've learnt through our journey on engagement is that it's important to focus on the tangible concrete aspects of engagement," he said. "It's easy for messages to get confused when you're working in different languages across different cultures. So we need to look at things that are measurable. We ask solid questions such as: are people being given career progression? Are they able to have contact with a line manager, either in person or via video link?"

While leadership is a critical driver of engagement within traditional organisations, the WFP had to approach this on a more granular scale, added Michael Rosetz, senior inter-agency advisor for human resources.

"Leadership, demonstrated by the actions of a CEO, is usually one of the most important aspects of engagement in a company. [But] for our workforce, which is more decentralised than most, the single biggest driver of engagement has been what is happening with their teams locally," he said.

"They want to feel as though they are part of a highly-functional team, who are being recognised and developed. We are working on trying to give more employee voice and give people greater autonomy for what happens in their specific teams. Interestingly, people are initially quite sceptical about the idea of being given more control, but we're confident the people out in those areas will know what's best for them," he said.

The basics also can't be forgotten, Rosetz said: "The fundamental part of what we do is making sure our employees are safe. They need to know exactly what will happen to them if they go to offer help in somewhere like Yemen or Sudan.

"Technology has been really important to us here. We’ve been able to roll out a ‘booking.com’-style system where employees can find out about the level of risk, the availability of local doctors and medical staff, and the amount of food and resources."

He added: “Many of our employees have also witnessed some incredibly distressing situations, so we make sure to always offer counselling externally. Being able to use video links for this has been invaluable. When it comes to health and safety transparency and communication are essential.”

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