2007 – Knowing your employees
How well do companies know their employees? The answer,
according to a forthcoming study from Watson Wyatt, the
Human resources consultancy, is not quite as well as they
think they do.
The research* to be published next month, based on a survey
of 15m people across 22 countries, reveals that employee
and management concerns across the world are much the same,
and so are the misconceptions.
The study found some pointed mismatches between employer
and employee perceptions. Employers, for example, failed
to grasp the importance attached by employees to the nature
of their work. This intrinsic satisfaction to be found in
a job was overlooked by managers who believed that opportunities
for career development would be of prime concern.
The distinction is important because the latter assumption
relates to future possibilities while it seems that the
immediate concern of employees is for the “here and
now” of their work.
Some may interpret such findings as a “jam today”
attitude, typical of younger employees, and they may well
be right. But I believe the jam we’re talking about
here is less about status and wealth – although pay
remains important according to the research – and
more about opportunities for self-expression.
The influences shaping these concerns have emerged in another
piece of research, this time commissioned by Microsoft,
the computer systems company that has looked at the kind
of attributes needed for success in today’s workplace.
The most important skills identified in the Microsoft research
are critical thinking and problem solving capabilities,
communication skills, a capacity for team working, enthusiasm
for work and self-esteem.
Stephen Uden, head of skills and economic affairs at Microsoft
in the UK, believes that many of these qualities can be
found in the way young people are using information technology.
“Using systems such as instant messaging, young
people today are helping each other with their homework
in the same way that we expect employees to collaborate
on projects,” says Mr Uden.
“The education system is biased towards knowledge
and the ability of people to recall and regurgitate remembered
information whereas technology is promoting the ability
to source relevant information quickly. This is what is
becoming important among employers such as ourselves.
“Problem solving, good communications and collaborating
in teams is happening all the time over the internet but
these skills are not valued in the way that young people
are assessed in examinations. Collaborating in exams is
called cheating. Yet the first thing we want to know when
people come on board here is that they will collaborate.”
Mr Uden urges more employers to forge closer relationships
with their local schools in order to pass on their needs
to teaching staff.
The Watson Wyatt research, however, suggests that many
employers are being slow to wake up to the changing demands
of the workplace and employment. Too many remain wedded
to traditional assumptions behind career ladders, promotion
and the chain of command.
One of the best ways to understand the concerns of employees
is to ask them. Typically the way this information is beginning
to feed through to managements is in the engagement questionnaire.
I still have an issue with the word “engagement”
since I’m sure for most people it continues to be
associated with the prelude to marriage, either that or
an occupied lavatory.
But for the human resources community it has come to mean
As is often the case in HR, this relatively recent use of
the word has outstripped the etymologists, at least in my
aging office dictionary that remains stubbornly faithful
to traditional meanings such as: the act of betrothal, an
appointment with an other person, an encounter between hostile
forces and, lastly, not to be ignored by employers, a moral
For any large employer today, however, employee engagement
has come to mean something else: something to do with discretionary
behaviour, often described as a willingness “to go
the extra mile,” to borrow yet another management
cliché. The understanding behind this is that employees
who feel well disposed to their employer are going to work
harder for the good of the business.
One reason that engagement is big news in management is
that research has made a link between highly engaged workforces
and profit. Another reason is that companies are able to
measure, using questionnaires, the extent to which their
workforces are engaged.
A third reason is that levels of engagement are just beginning
to be perceived among some investors as useful indicators
about a company’s future financial performance.
According to a study** released this week by Towers Perrin,
the HR services consultancy, most companies today seem to
be understanding the concept of employee engagement.
“I think organisations are getting the hang of it.
We find we can take a lot more for granted when talking
to organisations about engagement than we could a year ago,”
says Jim Crawley, principal, Towers Perrin HR Services.
The research, based on information from more than 88,000
respondents in 19 countries, shows, however, that while
companies are beginning to grasp the concept, they still
have much to do in building engaged workforces. Towers Perrin
could describe no more than one in five of the employers
surveyed as fully engaged.
Yet, when researchers compared engagement levels with financial
performance they found a correlation between high engagement
and higher net profit margins. There are savings to be made
in recruitment and employee turnover costs too, because
highly engaged employees are more likely to stay with a
So employers need to work on fostering employee goodwill,
or rather they need to address the way they so often undermine
goodwill. Unfortunately I don’t see much evidence
of this in what I call traditional businesses – beyond
the Microsofts and the Googles of this world.
Look at retailing, for example. How many shops pay their
assistants for coming to work early to get the cash registers
ready? Yet shop workers consistently work ahead of and beyond
the allotted opening and closing times for which they are
paid. They do so out of goodwill that is all too readily
exploited by employers.
It’s important to get one thing straight here: there
is nothing new about engagement, other than the HR meaning
of the word. There is nothing new about the attitudes of
young people either. Organisations have always benefited
from team-working and collaboration. Nor is there anything
new about the general desire among people to enjoy their
“People have to feel they can influence the way they
work and it’s up to senior managers to ensure that
every member of staff understands how they can make a difference.
It’s all about knowing your people,” says Andrew
Cocks, a senior Watson Wyatt consultant.
In that respect it’s pretty simple stuff. What is
quickly changing in this world, however, is the element
of choice through technology that is redefining the possibilities
of work. A good salary still matters but great work matters
*Playing to Win in a Global Economy, the global strategic
rewards report and European findings is published next month
by Watson Wyatt, www.watsonwyatt.com
**Towers Perrin 2007 Global Workforce Study, www.towersperrin.com