Employee Engagement Taskforce – One Year on Conference

Warning! Long blog post alert, do yourself a favour and grab a cuppa first.


As regular readers will know I’ve had an interest and involvement with the EE Taskforce since I (and of course many others) contributed to the original Engaging for Success report. This report got kicked into the long grass partly as a result of the sponsor falling out of political favour. Behind the scenes, the authors David MacLeod and Nita Clarke persuaded David Cameron to take another look and so on March 29th 2011 amidst some fanfare, the plan was relaunched.

I was cynical about the relaunch and wrote about it here. Coincidentally, or maybe it was Sun-Tzu at work with his ‘keep your friends close but your enemies closer’ approach, shortly afterwards I received an invitation to participate in the taskforce. Nice touch. Since then I’ve attended all the meetings I’ve been invited to except one which fell a couple of days after my Dad’s death (which David MacLeod has been very kind and supportive about). I’ve kept folks informed here, here, here, here and here, and all these previous posts have generated a good deal of conversation, both here and in other places too. So there seems to be some demand for news, and yet up until now at least, I’ve felt progress has been painfully slow. So when I received an invite to the one year on conference, I accepted more out of a sense of duty than with any of my usual enthusiasm.

Not in the Mood?

I made my way to the BIS offices in Central London yesterday with a sense of impending doom. I tweeted, ‘On my way to EE Taskforce. Shld I prep to be amazed, angry, disappointed or just have a snooze? One year on what will I learn?’ I received some lovely support but at the time I added ‘today will have to be good or I think I’ll quit.’

On arrival we were offered coffee and I had a chance to catch up with a few friends, I also noticed that the make up of the group looked and felt quite different this time (more on that later). Shortly after we were asked to take out places. Even though I knew this was a conference, I was disappointed at the theatre style layout. It set the scene for a lot of broadcast and very little conversation. Still, as David said, this was the first time we’ve pulled everything together to share. Today was a chance to get a sense of what is working, what gives us confidence. Where are the gaps? We need to spot them before we launch. Launch?! I thought we’d already done that. But apparently In September time there is talk of launching a national programme. My own personal belief is that engagement is not a programme, that feels too forced. For me it’s more like an environment in which we can choose to do our best work. Anyway – here come the updates, I hope they are useful for you.

Nailing the Evidence

We started with the old favourite, ‘Nailing the Evidence’. There was talk of making a compelling case to show the correlation between employee engagement and organisational performance.  Linkages between profit, productivity, absence, innovation, wellbeing, customer, absence, and health & safety were shown, and yet more calls for data and case study stuff. Then we were shown loads of numerical and statistical examples of how more engagement = better stuff. So I don’t get it, surely we don’t need more evidence.

I think the continued ask for evidence shows we lack confidence. I’d like to see this piece renamed as ‘Nailed the Evidence’, so we can move on to getting stuff done. If people don’t believe that engagement is worth the effort, that’s fine. Leave them be and I think they’ll come round once the movement and momentum is obvious, that’s how most people and organisations react.


The Taskforce has been looking for a purpose, and courtesy of Brand Union and others, we’re gonna get one! I was lifted by a mention of the ‘f’ word, fun. I use it a lot because I believe we do our best work when we’re enjoying ourselves, and I’ve yet to find an employee manual that says ‘no fun allowed at work’. Enthusiasm got a mention too. I’m liking this. We moved through the perceived need to have an expression of values, and a framework for defining tangible outcomes and measurement. I’m feeling a little less comfortable right at this point as I believe you can no more measure engagement than you can accurately predict how much longer you’re going to live.

I scribbled the values as they emerged (sorry if I’ve not got these bang on they weren’t on screen for long):

Inclusive: open to all

Practical: workable ideas for action

Accessible: connecting in open dynamic environments

What’s important now is to watch for the emerging behaviours that will either support or restrict these. I’m going to put my cautious optimist hat on for a while.

Also there is a visual identity on the way. Apparently we can’t show it yet, some legal reason or other. Personally I’m not sure about it yet – too many colours (I can recall purple, yellow, red, brown, blue, green, black and white in the palette) and clashing graphics for me. Still I guess we can be selective about that. There was also talk of standard facilitation guides and agendas. As one who prides himself on flexible facilitation you can imagine I’m not too keen on the sound of that. I guess it depends on what you want to get from a session, I think it was Albert Einstein who said ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

People Everywhere 

We were told of the legion of people currently involved. 50 CEOs (I expect their involved largely in name only), 40 sponsors 160 gurus (*puke* I remain a hater of that term) and practitioners, and many more. Whilst it is tempting to think a successful movement can be evaluated in part by numbers, I think that up to now some of these groups have been too big to allow agility and flow to occur. Importantly we are reminded that participation is voluntary, there is no money changing hands. Sure – there are companies giving resource into the mix but no direct payments are exchanged. I think that matters.


There is a recognition that the web is important for connections, distribution of info. Who might visit a Taskforce website? The CEO of a SME? The FD? Comms folks? Heads of engagement? Managers? There is user testing on the website and I will offer to help and let you knwo what arises. There was talk of spreading the word through social tools (yeah I’ve gone on and on about this before I know….). Places like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. There was talk of phasing and controlling and launching. Social was made a joke of, and though I’m biased I remain convinced there is untapped opportunity here.

Something Changed

I tweeted my frustration that social was the butt of the joke, and an online conversation began. Some of the participants were in the same room as me and some beyond. And we began to share other thoughts about the day too. This was the first time to my knowledge that a Taskforce meeting leaked out into the big wide world and grew. So we ended up seeing some enthusiasm and some constructive criticism being shared with a wider audience. And I met a few people in real life who I had only previously known online, and we were able to tell this little vignette before the meeting closed. You never know, we might have even flipped one or two cynics. We’ll see,

Why is engagement vital?

Neil Carberry from the CBI spoke about connectedness being stronger and simpler than ever before, and in real life we are likely to work more remotely. A sense of engagement is necessary to help keep us all together. Sarah Veale from the TUC spoke about nothing about us without us. She talked about the bonds between society and work, and the importance of bringing our humanity to work. Sarah said it’s important to keep the conversation going, reflect outside life into work, reconcile differences and work out the togethernesses. Conversational stuff allows the difficult stuff to happen, e.g. downsizing. Respect is what it’s all about. I enjoyed listening to Sarah.

Barriers to Engagement

Stephen Dando talked about some work being done to identify barriers to engagement. So far three interviews have been done with CEOs discussing what prevents CEO from engaging. The interviews are semi structured. What is emerging? Lack of emotional connection, leadership emotional intelligence, authenticity and trust missing. Reluctance to share power. Some simply don’t believe it, some are ignorant, that is to say they don’t feel they know enough. And of course tension between short and long term arose. There are plans to carry out more interviews and hopefully we’ll engage with and get views from cynics too.

Engaging Through Adversity

Change often brings work and home closer together. Talking with each other critical through change, which currently seems to be another word for redundancy. Be patient when exploring opportunities and challenges. I like this, most people don’t do enough exploration, far less show enough patience. Mind the say do gap. Command and control outdated, so my question is why are they still common practice? Two way dialogue is critical and it goes beyond work to family, community. Uncertainty is bad, be authentic, front up personally and answer questions honestly.

Innovation, CSR and Wellbeing

These sessions really came to life. Louise Beardmore talked enthusiastically about innovation and we were shown some potentially useful tools to help people link innovative practice to behaviours. For me innovation comes with chaos and mistakes and we have to recognise and embrace that for the good stuff to survive and thrive. More on this another day.

And Stephen Lehane from Boots talked with good humour about the linkages between CSR, Wellbeing, engagement, customer conenctedness and good business. As a CSR practitioner in a previous life I’ve always seen this stuff as a vital part of the engagement mix so it’s good to see some connected thinking emerging here.


We were then invited to turn out chairs and have a short conversation with some neighbours about what we felt is working and what needs to be done. This simple act created an abundance of energy in the room. People felt that integrating different groups in the room had worked. There had previously been a lot of siloing and I think lots of us enjoyed seeing that breaking down. Fun and humour are a vital part of the mix and kudos to Raffaela Goodby for making that vital point (I would have but I was too scared someone would laugh at me – geddit?). We would like to see more sharing, more use of social tools, better distributive leadership at work, and of course, more interaction, this last session was just so lively!

Immediate Aftermath

It’s no secret I regard myself as a critical friend of this movement, a position I’m very comfortable with. And I freely admit that on the way to the session I called it wrong this time. I left with a sense of progress and some renewed optimism, laced with concerns that some of the age old problems are as talked about and as stuck as ever.

So if you’ve made it this far – well done! And if you were at the event what did I miss? And if you weren’t, what do you think about what I’ve shared? It would be good to hear and learn from you.



photo c/o czoper

The Urban Dictionary defines headbanger thusly: A guy who listens to heavy metal while vigorously nodding his head up and down. Ideally throwing his long hair back and forth for added effect.

I’ve been to a few heavy metal gigs in my time (the Motorhead Merry Bastard Christmas bash in 1989 stands out as a quality affair) and though I often enjoyed the music and the atmos and all that, I define the act of headbanging itself as repetitive, painful and ultimately pointless.

Next week the employee engagement task-force group rolls into town again. As regular readers will know I’ve been blogging about my thoughts on this group since it emerged blinking into the light about ten months ago. For the brave among you this marathon starts here, then goes here and here before taking the summer off then reappearing here and here.

Many of you have already contributed to the engagement dialogue in previous posts and messages and you are of course welcome to comment and suggest further. I’ve tried to represent your comments and suggestions and feedback into the group. I’ve made specific offers of help to the group and vague ones too. So far – nothing concrete (or even vaguely solid for that matter) has emerged.

I may be wrong, I often am, and I’m going into next week’s session with a sense of impending headbanger. Don’t get me wrong, I still like Motorhead I’m just not sure I could manage a whole concert.

More to follow?

Employee Engagement Taskforce

These notes are my recollections and scribblings from the latest engagement taskforce (gg) meeting. If you really want to know what (gg) means, go here.

Warning – this is a pretty long post. Coffee or other stimulation may be required to get to the end. Good luck!

Part One

engagement taskforce meeting slide one

In groups we were asked to consider the ‘bigger picture’ shown above and to discuss what the taskforce should seek to achieve over the next 18 months.

At our table the conversation started around shareholder value, profit, productivity etc and then we quickly shifted, these things are old talk, and yet we recognise that they are often what the CEO and board is measured against. A CEO will (nearly) always think survive first, thrive second, particularly when times are tough.

A lot of folk still see engagement as HR’s job. How we manage is important. Actually it’s not about management it’s about consultation and involvement. It’s about ongoing simple dialogue, understanding what better work means for everybody. There was a sense that the senior management (sorry but I will not use the term C-suite, these are people not furniture we’re discussing) might agree with the principles and don’t know how to implement. This emerged from observations that all too often we ‘blame’ layers of management beneath the top team when of course there is responsibility for the most senior teams to engage directly with others too.

We talked about the need for some faith, and trust. Familiarity is important, and this could be gained through being more visible. The open door policy is patronising and out of date. No one should have an office enclosing them. Private space is readily available for sensitive meetings, conversations etc. as needed. O2 were held up as an example of this – the CEO sits out in the open, well done! In conversations later that day I learned of two more accessible senior management examples at Yellsites and LBi. I think we need many more.

Who people are is important, behaviour matters and we talked about how, when driving people to meet KPIs and targets, there is little or no acknowledgement of this. Despite the fact that some organisations may try to measure the behavioural stuff using Myers Briggs and other tools, we don’t seem to acknowledge the differences when people are managed.

Developing a sense of commitment to each other, to suppliers, customers and other groups is important. There is no mention of community in the diagram yet most if not all felt it was a strong, even vital connection to the world of work. We need to find ways to encourage emotional connections, belief is important.

Looking ahead what would we like to see (comments from our table and the wider group)?

There is a growing expectation for dialogue; a wider workplace acceptance of social tools may be needed

Engagement and Wellbeing appearing on the MBA syllabus

It’s not how we manage – more like how we work (the word manage came in for a lot of stick and several people asked for it to be removed from the diagram – old fashioned)

Stronger connections with community, wellbeing and customer service

We are still doing this to people; it’s not a way of life yet (even after decades of discussion)

We manage too much

Metrics don’t make a story

Leadership (at all levels) means more than management

Creativity and innovation if allowed make a big difference. Few organisations allow for the disruption and mess that creativity and innovation bring so if your organisation punishes mistakes (and many do) then perhaps creativity and innovation are not for you.

Small is significant. No programmes required try some small behaviour changes and see what works.

Part two

engagement taskforce meeting slide two

We were shown these sub groups of activity which the taskforce wishes to develop and progress, and were invited to choose one and have a conversation about it in our groups. We were a little greedy and talked about the barriers to engagement and engagement through adversity.

We felt that how well (or otherwise) redundancies are handled makes a big difference. Bad news is bad enough without it being cloaked in false hope and dishonesty. Be straight with people and tell them as much as you possibly can. Authenticity is partly about sharing pain and discomfort. Big rises in exec pay and huge share options against a backdrop of cuts is disengaging.

We talked briefly about whether current management training schools people to lose touch. We acknowledged that managing beyond KPIs and targets is not easy and the emotional economics of work need to be explored. There should be more acknowledgement of the many differences between us.

A story was told whereby two separate local authorities devised and implemented a parking charges scheme for employees. One was imposed, the other suggested and agreed upon. Needless to say the involving approach worked – people were happy to adopt the scheme and get on with other more important things. In the imposed case, the charging scheme is still causing problems.

Management involves coercion – lead through involvement

Underperformance is not dealt with well, and in adverse times it seems that it’s dealt with even worse (perhaps as companies use underperformance to directly reduce staffing numbers – rather than deal with the root cause of the situation?).

Loyalty and respect have to flow all ways, short termism is a problem. Tough times lead to draconian compliance, fewer chances for self-determination and risk aversion thrives. Be risk astute.

Here are a few other things that buzzed around the room and caught my attention

Work is increasingly no longer at the centre of people’s lives

Innovation is not an ideas box – crowd source stuff. There was talk of other cultures, e.g. China, which has a greater sense of community connectedness, where innovation works better as people are mindful not just of themselves, but of others too.

Over engagement leads to burnout. Wellbeing is partly about sustaining purpose and aspiration.

Community connectedness is important

A results only working environment versus possible unravelling of workplace social fabric

What next?

Folks were encouraged to make connections and get involved with activities they felt strongly about. This is a good thing and I hope it will lead to more focus and less talking and more action. There will be another taskforce meeting next week and more news to follow on that (quickly I hope).

A couple of personal observations

Lots of emphasis on creating a movement not another model. I quite like that. Lots of emphasis and pushing for case studies and evidence. I’m much less keen on that. As far as I’m concerned there’s sufficient evidence that the previous 100 years of management and coercion have produced less than satisfactory employee and customer experiences. I’d rather get on and co-create new ways of working with those people and companies who are interested, and let the rest stumble along until they either realise they need a new direction, or fade from view.

I’m turned off by the apparent need to turn this thing into a diagram. I prefer pictures and stories personally.

At the first of these meetings I observed that almost all the participants were white, seemingly middle class folk. It’s very rare these days that I find myself in a group of that size and think I am one of the younger ones in attendance. I contacted the taskforce team after this first meeting to pass on this and a few other observations. The make-up of the group seems largely unchanged. This taskforce group are the now of work; we are not the future of work. I will ask again that the group be infused with some youth and cultural diversity. The group may well be experienced, and it also has lots to learn I’m sure.

I will be seeking to get more involved in ‘Barriers to Engagement’. I’ll keep you posted. Oh, and if you made it this far, well done!