Why firms need to move beyond employee engagement surveys

16 April 2019 Consultancy.uk

Employee engagement surveys can be a mixed bag. On one hand, they are a relatively simple and quick way to gauge employee satisfaction. On the other, they can be inaccurate if people feel they cannot speak freely, or if they feel the process is a tick-box exercise. Annual surveys can also be left to gather dust after completion, with firms failing to act on them or create long-term change. Karina Brown, co-founder at GroHappy, reflects on why firms need to move beyond employee engagement surveys. 

Taking action on surveys is imperative – such surveys are increasingly becoming a hygiene factor, and many organisations have realised the need to overhaul their employee engagement. Some are moving towards more frequent ‘pulse’ surveys which are shorter and more frequent. Yet, the value of surveying teams still lies in drawing insights from it and taking effective action. 

This is something that FinTech investor and venture builder firm Anthemis uncovered when it recently carried out an employee engagement survey. Results were mostly positive; however, it found a gap between colleague expectations for career development and learning opportunities, and what the firm was providing.

“We created a heat map from the results of our eNPS engagement survey,” explained Briana van Strijp, COO at Anthemis, “and the results were pretty black-and-white." Anthemis was doing well in engaging its team, with a clear opportunity: to establish a robust and compelling career development and growth framework to further boost eNPS results.

Development and employee engagement

This closely corresponds with the finding that learning and development is the top driver for employee engagement. It has consistently held the top spot since 2011. For most firms, the traditional vertical career path has largely meant this drive to learn new skills and develop careers has been simple to fulfil. Employees could often expect challenging projects to learn on and have a clear pre-determined career path to follow.

Why firms need to move beyond employee engagement surveys

Now, however, career development has become more complicated. Vertical progression is not the only option available. The norm used to be for employees to be promoted every couple of years and climb up the ladder towards making Partner. But technology and the drive for flexible working has changed this. Individuals expect to craft careers that suit them and their strengths. Enabling them to do this is a critical part of the modern-day employee experience.

Office perks used to be a gym membership and healthy snacks. Now it’s engaging employees with development opportunities aligned with their career goals. 

A flatter structure emerging

This rings especially true at Anthemis, which is moving towards a flatter organisational structure compared to other firms. Since they employ investors, along with designers, technologists, specialists and traditional consultants, Anthemis has had to consider different career paths and how its people progress in different areas. 

Indeed, one of the areas that Anthemis are exploring now is how skills development can inform how people progress in the firm to visibly demonstrate the value placed to learning and growth. Again, this echoes a wider industry change. Most professional services firms are grappling with the fact that they need new skills, including data science, blockchain advisory and digital transformation. This presents both recruitment and re-skilling challenges, since simply hiring for these skills isn’t possible. After all, the digital skills gap is growing, with almost 3 million jobs potentially unfilled by 2030.

A mindset shift is needed

For those still rooted in the old ways, emerging divisions and roles can come as a culture shock. There is always a risk of ‘overchoice’ – where someone becomes stuck analysing all their different career options. “We were very aware that working at Anthemis offers a myriad of choices, so we wanted to craft a framework that centres around the growth of an individual, and supports them in the kind of career that they want to develop,” states van Strijp. "This was evidenced by the desire for more development and learning support uncovered in Anthemis’ employee survey and aligned to our intention to develop a robust, flexible and inclusive team.”

The company looked to improve individual ownership of learning and development and empower its employees to grow their careers. This took the form of technology-enabled coaching and peer-to-peer mentoring sessions. 

“It was what we did after the employee engagement surveys that really improved the bottom-line for the firm.”
– Briana van Strijp, COO at Anthemis 

How to achieve this

Technology to boost learning and development

Anthemis used technology to help its employees identify and work towards their career goals in bite-sized activities. It broke career development down into a series of simple steps that was not as time-intensive as traditional training and away days. Apps and cloud-based systems helped employees complete tasks when travelling between client meetings or on their commute. These were then supplemented by in-person career coaching and mentor sessions. 

We also saw this approach used by one of the Big Four firms, to improve employee engagement scores amongst a group of junior employees who had declining scores. Low engagement hit retention, with many in the group leaving after gaining their qualifications. The firm used a technology-based approach to help the group understand what fulfilling careers were offered by the company and to better support them at this critical career juncture. As a result, 84% of employees in the programme felt clearer on their career goals and 52% were more likely to remain with the firm for another year or more. 

The power of peers

Peer-to-peer coaching can also be beneficial in facilitating career conversations in firms. As long as people have been trained in asking the right questions and staying impartial. It can provide a ‘safe space’ for employees to explore their career goals without the pressure of engaging with a Leader or Partner. Peer coaching can also assist in shifting the cultural mindset of a firm to consider other opportunities beyond making Partner.

Anthemis realised this opportunity during its development programme. “What we found with peer-to-peer coaching was that it offered everyone the chance to develop the quality of a coach and to support each other. It became a vital outlet for our employees and a way for people to explore their career growth in a different way,” van Strijp adds. 

Rotating assignments

Another way for professional services firms to engage their employees with alternative career pathways is to offer stretch assignments or rotations in other areas of the business. A Service Performance Insight (SPI) report found that leading professional services firms dedicated more time to learning and development, often offering rotational assignments. Within Deloitte Digital, employees are encouraged to speak up about their interests and offered projects that align with those when they become available.

Still a place for engagement surveys

Ultimately, employee engagement surveys still have an important role to play in the toolkit for improving retention and employee experience. But alone, they are not enough. There is a lot more that firms can do to keep their employees happy and working effectively.

As Anthemis discovered, “The survey was really a starting point for us to begin working on a whole lot more and the insights informed where we needed to invest, based on what our team cared about most. Without it, we wouldn’t have identified areas for improvement. But had we left it, and not addressed employee feedback by implementing more career development tools and support, the survey would have been pointless. It was what we did after that really improved the bottom-line for the firm.”

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Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019 Consultancy.uk

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.