Employee engagement tops the agenda of companies across the GCC seeking to drive superior business performance. Debbie Whitaker of Oxford Strategic Consulting talks to HR leaders about their practices.
The age of employee engagement
Over the past 10 years employee engagement has come of age, starting life as a ‘buzz word’ and growing to a mature discipline. Now it has been proven to positively influence organisational performance, customer service, retention and employee commitment.
Given the challenging competitive landscape in which they operate, organisations must keep in tune with what’s important to employees to really tap into their discretionary commitment. Energising and retaining great employees, a critical part of any nationalisation strategy, has more to do with the intrinsic aspects of their experience at work than pay, including development opportunities and empowerment, largely driven by the quality of managers. The further you go up the career ladder, the less connected you become with what matters at grass roots level.
Telecommunications supplier Omantel considers employee engagement to be increasingly pivotal to its success. Dr Ghalib Al Hosni, vice-president HR, said, “Gone are the days when you could count on a young person starting their career with you and staying until retirement. We aim to ensure our employees are committed to our goals and want to stay by building strong values and a climate of respect and trust.”
Omantel adopts a systematic three-step approach to measuring engagement, action planning and communicating results. With a survey response rate of 81%, it has a strong handle on what employees think and feel. The leadership team prioritises a maximum of three areas for action planning to ensure efforts are not diluted and says it works to avoid believing it has the monopoly on knowing what’s best for its people.
“Employees are involved in every step of action planning, including brainstorming sessions to find out what they think and why,” explains Al Hosni.
“This gives us a robust foundation for action planning around the things that will make a difference to them. We agree on clear objectives, accountability for action and review progress to ensure they are delivered.”
Examples of resulting initiatives include a series of forums led by the top leadership team. These are underpinned by open and two-way communication and involvement, including ‘VP Panels’ and ‘CEO Road Shows’ and are designed to give employees insights into the business and share best practices.
‘Refurbishing Experiences’ is a five-day programme that promotes knowledge and skills transfer from retiring employees to their more junior counterparts working in the same professional discipline.
Understanding what is important to employees has spawned other activities that resonate with GCC culture. ‘Omantel Talents’, a programme designed to showcase the talents of employees and their families, provides a platform to represent Oman in national and international events.
These include Quran recitation and poetry competitions to generating new ideas on topics ranging from traffic safety to environmental protection.
“This programme has made a huge impact on loyalty, a key test of engagement,” says Al Hosni. “Employees are in no doubt that our leaders are genuinely interested in their wellbeing. This has differentiated us from our competitors and contributed to strong financial results.”
Shell has been measuring and managing employee engagement for over a decade via its annual staff survey, but it says it has sharpened its focus in recent years. At the heart of its strategy is the premise that managers are key to unlocking engagement. “Managers with teams of eight or more people now get their own engagement ‘scorecards’, down from 12 previously,” said Jonathan Kohn, VP HR.
“This means more managers get their own results and can drive meaningful actions at team level.” Kohn adds that this makes it easy to pinpoint variations in engagement on a team-by-team basis in each country.
He continued, “In Qatar, employees operate in the same national and corporate culture, are covered by the same people practices and face the same economic environment. It is clear that differences in team engagement are down to the line manager.” However, for him, the goal is not measuring engagement per se, but driving outcomes; “For managers struggling to truly engage their people, we work with them to help them improve. So our survey is essentially a tool to help us to help them do a great management job.”
With this in mind, HR’s role is to create an environment that makes it easier for managers to do their jobs well. “We’ve adopted a 70:20:10 model of management development,” explained Kohn. “Most of our managers learn on the job, so their development is relevant and promotes engagement by helping them set clear goals and coach team members according to their strengths and needs so they feel their managers really understand them. We’ve also put together short best practice management guides containing inside stories and tips from our great managers in our downstream business.”
In Qatar, the organisation regularly gathers its extended leadership community of 80, organising face-to-face events to communicate its 5 to 10-year vision and get input on what needs to be done to achieve it. “We also run workshop-style town halls for employees to engage in key issues, take the opportunity to ask questions and contribute ideas,” said Kohn. “This replaces the traditional ‘talk and chalk’ model.”
“Employees’ needs are more or less the same everywhere. But we do pay care and attention to engaging people in a way that is attuned to the GCC culture. Qataris are more reticent than Westerners about speaking up and sharing their concerns – so we invest more time thinking through how we create an environment where people feel safe to voice issues or make suggestions.”
When it comes to impact, Kohn said, “Some of our downstream businesses have seen their engagement index increase by 3-4% each year, and are now ‘best in class’ compared with industry benchmarks. On the ground, our people are getting more energised and thinking more about their long-term career with us.”
Eisa Abdulla is unequivocal about the impact of engagement at Vodafone. “Delivering great customer experience is down to engaged employees and how they interact with our customers,” he said.
The organisation runs a global people survey that is customised to include Qatar-specific considerations. All of its operating companies’ results are communicated.
“In Qatar, we can compare our results with those of operating companies in other countries. This generates a bit of healthy competition to see who can get the best results but we also use them to learn about best practices across the group.”
Vodafone’s Engagement Index provides clear insights into how employees view it as a place to work, their pride in working for Vodafone Qatar and their motivation to do more. It also indicates their intention to stay and how strongly they would recommend it as a workplace. The current focus is on action and follow up. “In 2013, we drilled down into survey findings around teamwork, diversity and inclusion, safety, career and sustainability,” said Abdulla. “We found clear differences, for example, between what our male and female employees value. We’ve responded to the needs of female staff by improving our maternity leave provision, both paid and unpaid.”
He continued, “We also have a Managerial Index in our survey based on employees’ ratings of their managers on a range of soft and technical skills. Any issues regarding managerial capability are spotted quickly. We expect managers to identify how they can raise their game and learn from our best and most engaging leaders. Where managers get below average engagement results, this feeds into performance discussions and how we can help develop them.”
Vodafone also uses its corporate social responsibility agenda to engage employees, encouraging staff to volunteer with non-governmental organisations such as Qatar’s ROTA (Reach Out to Asia) to help communities to achieve a basic level of primary and secondary school education throughout Asia and the Middle East. Abdulla is clear that Vodafone’s increasing levels of engagement have brought business benefits, “QatarVodafone gained 30% market share last year and it’s still growing. Our competitors’ profitability fell by 4%. Our profit margin is higher than that for our UK business. We’re on a great trajectory.”
Obeid Al Turkastani’s personal model of engagement and performance is based on “a triangle of trust, learning and discipline”. Creating trust in leaders and the direction they are heading requires a style congruent with the organisation’s vision, values and commitment to its employees, customers and the community. Learning is important too, both in the formal sense and its link with personal growth and progression, and in learning from mistakes to build future capability. Discipline is all about personal accountability for delivering on promises and raising the performance bar.
On building engagement in the GCC, Al Turkastani said, “Work with the Arabian culture. The Western paradigm is ‘who I am and what I’m capable of doing matters’. In Saudi, it’s more about ‘how my work will make my family proud’.
“This is bound up in who you work for, what you do, your level, the type of business you’re in, and how it contributes to the community and the country’s goals. “A key takeaway is to create meaning for employees by ensuring they understand what they do and why it’s important. This evokes the story of John F Kennedy’s visit to Cape Canaveral in the 1960’s, when he asked a worker sweeping the floor what his job was. Smiling, the man answered, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon’.”
How does Al Turkastani’s philosophy manifest itself in his personal brand of leadership? “Many managers don’t see the value of sitting down with junior people and talking. I’ll sit in the canteen and just listen. I pick up what’s important to staff and what’s missing.”
He is not afraid to trust his intuition in addressing employee issues, “As a newly joined leader I visited one of our offices to meet people. I sensed they were not comfortable, so instead of sticking to my plan I told them: ‘I’m the most junior person in the business. I’m new and learning. Tell me what we need to do differently and I’ll take action’.”
He continued, “Humility is important for leaders wanting to engage their people. I tell staff they have the right to challenge me if I don’t deliver on my commitments.” He firmly believes in open communication too, “Don’t tell employees what to do – tell them the principle behind what you want. They’ll find the best way based on who they are and their talents. This is far more engaging than traditional command and control ways of managing.”
This article first appeared on www.changeboard.ae
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