In good times and bad – engagement matters

At Inflexion, we are committed to sharing best practice across our portfolio, meaning the companies we partner with can benefit from hearing about others’ experiences as well as draw on the resource from our Network of experienced professionals across the globe.

Whatever the size of your company and in whatever sector you operate, engagement is crucial to getting the best from your staff. Glenn Elliott, founder of former Inflexion portfolio company Reward Gateway, shared his views and experiences with our portfolio HR Directors, saying now is the time to ensure your team are able and willing to do their best work.

“When the receptionist knows the strategy, you’ve nailed engagement,” says Glenn Elliott. He should know: he founded Reward Gateway as he saw a gap in the market for a business to help engage employees. His statement highlights the fact that it’s not enough for senior management to feel engaged – hefty paycheques and a sense of leadership can make it easier to feel motivated (but not always – more on that later). He stresses the importance of that feeling trickling down into all employees across each level of the business.

He learned this the hard way. Having set up employee engagement business Reward Gateway in 2006, he lacked sufficient funds to pay a lot and so instead relied on staff feeling committed to ensure he could create a “great business powered by great people”. He says, “everyone had to matter, and know they mattered.”

Glenn cites a number of factors that foster this: openness and honesty, fairness and kindness, connection to the business’ leaders and its success. He says today’s pandemic means that psychological safety is crucial for engaged staff, and so leaders should be authentic and realistic about where the business is how staff can join management on the journey.

Ongoing effort

He stresses the point that employee engagement isn’t a final destination; it’s a journey.

Precisely how to do this is more of an art than a science. Many companies rely on staff surveys, though he warns against deeming them a panacea. “If you have a limited budget for engagement and then use most of it on an expensive survey, you don’t have the resource to act on its results.”

Recognition is important in fostering a feeling of commitment and importance in staff. “It’s not about an ‘employee of the year’ award or bonuses for achievements; humans want to be seen. The CEO knowing your name is huge.

He adds that gifts or money can in fact be counterproductive if they slow down the process of recognition by languishing in approvals. Additionally, money can ration recognition. “It’s really about the notes of praise that go out rather than money, as the former needn’t be rationed. Send a card to someone’s house. Ring someone up. Thank them in a personal way.”

Such appreciation needn’t be earmarked for staff below management level. Glenn explains that well paid managers also need to feel enthused by a company’s goals. “People don’t always come to work every day because they’re engaged. You can have people trapped by salaries which support their lifestyle, and so they stay on board despite being checked out emotionally.” And this is dangerous as it can lead to under-performing and disgruntled people who aren’t only expensive, but potentially detrimental for morale.

Culture vulture

Such advice is perennially salient but perhaps now more than ever. A positive corporate culture can reap rewards without impacting profits, though it must be prioritised when bringing on board new staff. For example, a top sales person may lack hubris and so dent a collaborative and supportive culture. “Always fire brilliant jerks,” Glenn says, attributing the phrase to Silicon Valley. “It’s a tough action because they may be hitting targets but if they’re bad for culture, they need to go.”

Glenn says his lifelong project is open and honest communication, and recalls the moment when he realised all his admin would move to Bulgaria. He told everyone on the team in one day, and rather than leave early and in a disgruntled manner, they all stayed until the very last day – Christmas Eve – to train the new staff in Bulgaria.  Then when he realised they needed yet more people, he rang the former staff and they all came back to help. “It was because a difficult situation was handled well.”

This anecdote illustrates that engagement doesn’t always mean happy. “There may be moments where engaged staff are unhappy – they may disagree with business decisions, or have difficult times – but in the long-term, humans are happier if they feel they are truly part of something. Engagement breeds passion and in business, that makes for better decisions.”

He says happiness is a by-product of engagement, but happy employees are not necessarily engaged. For example, someone could be happy because you pay them well and don’t expect much of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re engaged. “You should strive for employees to feel your organisation’s purpose is worthwhile; their contribution is a meaningful part of that; and they strive for it to succeed.”