10 Ingredients for a winning workplace

HR professionals are acutely aware of the benefits engaged employees bring to an organisation, but what lies behind the figures and how can you apply the theory to your workplace?

“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace” – those are the words of Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup. Few leaders would disagree, but how does one create a ‘winning workplace’?

ORC International’s 2016 Global Perspectives research, a global survey of over 8,800 employees across Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific, provides some clues. With an eye on not just the theory but also the practical application of its employee engagement research, ORC International asked participants to identify what makes a ‘winning workplace’. The core messages have been distilled into 10 essential ‘how to’ tips for creating a perfect workplace.

The survey found employee engagement in Australia remained steady at 66% this year. In the UK and US the figures sit at 58% and 72% respectively. In Asia-Pacific there are further variations, with Hong Kong a low 49% and Singapore sitting at 53%.

However, it’s what sits behind the engagement figures that perhaps holds the most interest for HR professionals.

Oliver Rust, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, Engine Group, talks to countless CEOs annually, and they invariably say that talent management is critical to their business. “There are three elements that these CEOs talk about: their talent, their cash flow, and their customer engagement.”

So how can employers create more engaged employees and customers – and in so doing, maximise their company’s financial results?

1. Create ‘superfans’ 
Superfans are employees who are advocates of their organisation both as a place to work and as a provider of products and services.

Forty-seven per cent of Australians believe the best way to find out what an organisation is like as an employer is to ask its employees. Encouragingly, 71% of Australian employees would recommend their employer’s products and services and 66% would recommend their organisation as a place to work.

In Hong Kong the stats are even less inspiring: 32% of people in Hong Kong think that the best way to find out what an organisation would be like as an employer would be to ask its employees, 53% would recommend their employer’s products and services, and 49% would recommend their organisation as a place to work.

The situation is slightly better in Singapore: 41% think that the best way to find out what an organisation would be like as an employer would be to ask its employees, 59% of Singaporean employees would recommend their employer’s products and services, and 58% would recommend their employer as a place to work – both up since 2015.

“Today there’s a blurring of the lines between consumer and employee perceptions around brand,” says Wendy McInnes, Managing Director, Employee Research, ORC International.

McInnes cites companies like Google and Zappos as being adept at encouraging employees to talk positively about the workplace on online and social channels – and this has a natural flow-on to better customer service.

Just as importantly, these organisations listen when employees don’t talk positively about the company.

2. Manage, engage and inspire people in the here and now
Long service is less important to employees today. Indeed, 45% of Australian employees say they would move employer every few years to get the best career opportunities rather than staying in one company for a long period of time.

Other parts of Asia-Pacific are more positive: in Hong Kong 52% of employees say they would move employers every few years to get the best career opportunities; in Singapore the figure is 58%.

The goal is therefore to create an environment that allows people to perform at their best (see box below for further tips).

> Communicate a strong sense of purpose. Create passion and commitment to the organisation’s vision and purpose through a compelling strategic narrative that everyone can relate to.

> Design your onboarding program to get people working at their best quickly. In the induction program include: an immersion in the purpose of the organisation; an opportunity to connect with leaders; and advice and help building support networks.

> Invest in people’s learning and development and give them opportunities to stretch and grow, even if you are concerned they may move on before you have had your returns.

> Provide a healthy workplace in which people can work sustainably. You don’t want them to burn out, so work at providing wellbeing support.

3. Empower leaders
For McInnes, leadership is perhaps the most important of ORC International’s top 10 tips. 

“Leadership is a key driver of engagement but what we’ve found is that despite all the resources pumped into leadership development programs, we’re not getting much traction,” she says. “Of course, going to a three-day leadership course doesn’t necessarily mean you invest in those behaviours when you go back in the workplace. There’s an important role for executive coaching and having leaders role-model those behaviours on a day-to-day basis.”

McInnes also talks about the “liberation of leadership”. “Organisational structures have flattened out; leaders can be all throughout the organisation. We need to be leading through influencers and collaborators rather than through fear, authority and competition. The focus needs to be on authentic, agile and focused leadership.”

However, there’s a problem: workers in Asia-Pacific do not trust their leaders. Just 54% of Australian employees say they trust and respect their leaders, compared to the global average of 60%. In Hong Kong and Singapore the figures are 50% and 58% respectively.

Results show that the bigger an organisation is, the greater the mistrust. “This comes down to transparency and context,” says Rust. “Sometimes company objectives evolve and that’s fine – organisations need to stay competitive and agile – but I also believe there’s a need to communicate these changes far more effectively. The frequency with which you engage the younger generation needs to change. These workers want feedback instantaneously; they want it in a less structured manner and they want it delivered through multiple channels.”

Indeed, Rust says communication is essential to build authenticity. “If you look at the traits of leaders today, it’s moved from the leader being someone who knows all the answers to a more communal approach, an emotional engagement approach,” he says. “And the single most important attribute of a successful leader today I believe is communication. If you can communicate to employees how they are impacting the end business – that is, the clients and customers – then they will see it, they’ll get engaged with it and will do whatever they can to deliver on it.”

4. Show appreciation and value
Two thirds of Australian employees feel valued for what they can offer their organisation and 74% think their organisation respects individual differences.

ORC International suggests that purpose and meaning can be brought to employees’ work by demonstrating the value they bring to the business. Be fair in action and words so all employees, regardless of who they are or where they work, feel they are an integral part of your organisation’s success.

“Leaders need to use various means to recognise people for good work,” says Rust. “It’s not one thing; it’s not giving them a gift voucher or sending them off on a junket. It’s not just about financial reward. Sometimes it’s as simple as a ‘thanks for your hard work’. It’s the combination of each of those factors that helps to reinforce the message the customer is critical; it recognises that this employee is changing what we’re doing as an organisation and is fuelling the brand to be more adaptive to this environment. Or they might be accelerating a new idea for innovation, or reducing a process in the business.”

5. Win with words
Only 40% of Australian employees think the communications they receive from their employer excite or inspire them. Regionally, the figure stands at 38% for Hong Kong employees and 47% for Singapore employees. In addition, just 53% of Australian employees think the communications they receive are open, honest or help them do their job better (46% and 55% for Hong Kong and Singapore employees respectively). Positive perceptions of communication effectiveness declines down the organisational hierarchy from senior leaders to non-managerial employees.

> Treat your internal communications as seriously as your external communications. Plan your strategy so messages connect; talk to people in a human tone of voice; and make communications an open conversation.

> Use a variety of channels to provide clear and concise information to employees. Understand the channels that work best for your audience and pick the channel mix to fit the messages you want to get across.

> Don’t forget about face-to-face communications. Team briefings, town hall meetings and opportunities to meet with leaders face-to-face are still the most impactful methods if you want to influence behaviour. Use digital methods but not at the exclusion of human contact.

> Create opportunities for conversation. Provide channels for employees to share their ideas, ask questions and give opinions. Ensure there is a feedback loop so they can see what happens to their comments after they have been submitted.

6. Support today for a better tomorrow
Technology has blurred the line between work and life, which means work can be done anytime, anywhere. But this means companies need to pay closer attention to how they deliver well-being so that all employees, regardless of when, where or how they work, can do so sustainably. Unfortunately, Australian organisations are getting worse at communicating what they offer in the way of health and well-being, with just 55% aware of what’s on offer, down three points since last year. Consequently, almost one fifth (18%) don’t think their organisation cares about their health and well-being.

Hong Kong organisations are also getting worse at communicating what they offer in the way of health and well-being (41%), down four points since last year. Employees in Singapore are more positive: 54% think their organisation does a good job of this.

7. Create a line between employees and customers
The growing dominance of social media is bringing employees and customers closer, for better or worse. How customer-centric you are has a notable influence on employee engagement, and how engaged you are impacts on the customer experience.

In Australia, for example, 56% of employees working in a non-customer-facing role are engaged, compared to 69% of employees who work directly with customers. In Hong Kong, 41% of employees working in non-customer-facing roles are engaged, compared to 51% of employees who work directly with customers. In Singapore, the figures are 49% for non-customer-facing roles and 58% for customer-facing roles.

If their organisation is perceived to be customer-centric, all employees, regardless of their role, are significantly more engaged.

A critical step is to ensure employees are empowered to make decisions around the customer experience. “The companies that excel with customer engagement are those that allow employees to take part in the decision-making process,” Rust says. He cites a financial services firm as an example. This firm allows call centre operators to handle – and act upon – customer complaints. “At their own discretion those employees are allowed to offer a compensation voucher or discount of up to US$200. In environments like this, customer satisfaction increases dramatically because issues are dealt with straight away and the complaint does not escalate.”

Despite the perception that HR is too distant from any client or customer interaction, McInnes says the function can play a critical role. They can, for example, create a clear vision of what customer-centricity means for the organisation and empower and inspire those who work at the organisation to exceed customer expectations.

Even those who don’t usually have direct customer contact can be given opportunities to work on the front line, to ‘mystery shop’ or try new products and services.

Most importantly, HR can share stories and examples of great customer experience. This will have a double impact – showing the employees delivering that experience that you value them, and demonstrating to others what ‘great’ looks like.

8. Care at any cost
Sixty-two per cent of Australian employees are confident their senior leaders would not place cost or schedule ahead of safety. Employees working within transport and logistics, professional services and government are the least likely to agree.

Although 72% of Hong Kong employees say workplace safety is an important consideration for their organisation, only half are confident their leaders would not place cost or schedule ahead of safety.

Employees in Singapore are more positive: 60% are confident their leaders would not prioritise cost or schedule over safety.

9. Encourage ideas, but expect some of them to fail
Fifty-three per cent of Australian employees believe their organisation values creativity and innovation. However, 23% of employees don’t think their organisation recognises the role failure plays in innovation or that it learns from mistakes.

In Hong Kong, 47% of employees believe their organisation values creativity and innovation. More employees think their organisation recognises the role failure plays in innovation (49% – up from 44% in 2015), but there has been no change in the proportion that think it learns from mistakes (47%).

In Singapore, 58% of employees believe their organisation values creativity and innovation. More employees think their organisation learns from mistakes (53%, up from 50% in 2015). The proportion who believe their organisation recognises the role of failure remains stable at 47%.

“There’s never been a greater pace of change than today, and that will continue,” says McInnes. “It’s volatile and unpredictable. There’s competition and disruption popping up everywhere, and without innovation you will struggle to survive – that’s not technology and the products and services you offer but channels to market, policies, even new job roles. For example, five years ago you wouldn’t have had someone in HR focusing on analytics.”

Organisations can firstly encourage and inspire employees to come up with innovative solutions to work-related problems. Use suggestion boxes, regularly reach out for ideas on a particular challenge, and encourage ideas at every opportunity.

Secondly, people need to be given time to innovate. Set challenges, create teams to solve them, and then recognise employees when they come up with new and innovative ways of working.

Finally, communicate that failure is part of innovation and manage it constructively. Use examples of when things didn’t go to plan as opportunities to learn, not as reasons to reprimand.

10. Provide opportunities to develop
Fewer Australian employees believe they have opportunities for personal growth and development in their organisation (58% compared to 66% last year). In addition, a quarter of workers are not convinced they’ll have an opportunity to get a better job in their current organisation. Regionally, the figures are also uninspiring. In Hong Kong just 49% of employees believe they will have the opportunity for growth and development (down from 58% last year) and in Singapore the figure sits at 57% (down from 60% last year).

> Provide different channels for learning, not just structured training programs, such as opportunities for work shadowing, work experience or formal secondment into different teams/departments.

> Provide clear guidelines for development, with regular progress reports. Ensure opportunities are communicated fairly and transparently to all employees, not forgetting employees who work non-standard hours.

> Provide training for managers on discussing performance and providing constructive feedback during formal and informal performance conversations.

> Ensure all employees have an annual performance review as well as quality conversations throughout the year and ahead of the appraisal process so they have a clear understanding of how they are performing.

McInnes has one further tip: underpinning all of the preceding areas are organisational values. She says that amid massive change, having clearly articulated values can help steer the ship.

“Those values touch on everything else – customer centricity, leadership, how we communicate – so getting the values right and embedding them in everything you do is essential.”

ORC International is a leading provider of true intelligence that is at the heart of our client’s decision-making. Through uncovering what truly engages people around the world, we provide specific actionable solutions that bring our clients closer across customer, employees, marketing and strategy. ORC is part of the Engine Group, which is an end-to-end marketing services company. To learn more, visit www.ORCInternational.com.

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