by Emma Birchall, Head of Research, Future of Work
Roger Trapp has just published a great article referencing our recent inclusion and Diversity and events on the Forbes blog. Entitled Four Ways Leaders Can Energize their Employees, it covers issues of life stage diversity and career customisation that are facing all workers and employers today. As Roger points out, although often clustered under the diversity category, these challenges are actually about collaboration: “Suddenly, fostering collaboration and engineering serendipity are the watchwords for organizations looking for a competitive edge over their rivals.” It’s true that most organisations now recognise that collaboration is key to their success – but they are coming to this knowledge at the same time that their workforce is starting to diversify in ways they simply never imagined. As a result, there are still a lot of questions around these issues waiting to be answered. Business leaders may be the ones urgently looking for solutions, but it’s up to all of us to ponder them and come up with answers.
A few months ago, two survey companies had a violent public debate about the merits of measuring engagement as an indicator of performance. On the one side, Gallup argued that engagement (which it defines as 12 specific elements) predicts performance outcomes. On the other, Leadership IQ claimed that there is often an inverse relationship between engagement and performance, meaning that engaged people can still be low performers.
This debate hit the pages of the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review, but for me the debate seemed to be missing the broader and more urgent point: that surveys and the companies that advocate them are missing a huge shift in the way that
There is no doubt that engagement has some effect on employee productivity. Gallup and Leadership IQ agree on that much. However, administering yearly surveys to measure and benchmark engagement is no longer revealing insights into how people want to
work. When talking to companies on the topic of engagement, there is growing indifference and even resentment towards the yearly grind of administering, analysing and reporting on abstract and aggregated engagement scores. The
employee engagement survey is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was.
A social approach to engagement
Organisations are inherently social constructs. Traditionally, the sheer scale and complexity of many global organisations has led to the creation of hierarchies of command. The engagement survey reflects this hierarchy, being sent from the top to gauge the sentiment of those further down the line. Yet we all know that technology has now evolved to such a point that work no longer relies on hierarchies and the simplifying constructs of command-and-control. The complexity of global organisations can be mirrored and enhanced by complex self-organising online communities. In this context, the idea of employee engagement surveys seems anachronistic, and should give way to something that is not only far more collaborative, but also something that is instantaneous.
We’ve been working on FoWlab for five years now. What started off as a simple online forum for our Future of Work Consortium members to come and discuss our research has since become a world-class platform for conducting online “Jams”. Though we never set out to create an alternative to employee engagement surveys, we think we may have created something that augments, and most probably succeeds the traditional survey in the field of engagement.
FoWlab, as the soft-spoken woman in our video will tell you, is a guided online conversation that harnesses the collaborative intelligence of an organisation’s employees to find solutions to its complex challenges. At first glance, FoWlab looks like Facebook or Yammer. But it’s not a platform as much as it is an online event. And it is more a research tool than a social hub. It runs for just 72 hours, and is constantly facilitated by a global team of researchers.
In the last three years, we have conducted FoWlab Jams for many of the world’s largest companies, and the most interesting thing that has come out of the experience is that it delivers many of the same insights as employee engagement surveys, but in a way
that itself creates engagement rather than simply measuring it. Part of this is down to the fact that it builds on many-to-many relationships and interactions, rather than simply being a one-to-many consultation. FoWlab encourages participants to ask their own questions on subjects that they feel passionate about, and develop the ideas of other participants in an open and truly collaborative conversation. Engagement surveys, limited as they are to predefined questions that tend to be sector-agnostic, have a tendency to miss vital information.
A great example of this came out of a FoWlab Jam we ran with PwC’s millennial population. Dennis Finn, Vice Chairman and Global Human Capital Leader at the company, said that “by encouraging our employees to freely discuss why they chose to work for PwC, and how their working lives could be improved, FoWlab was great at delivering unexpected insights that the survey would never have touched on”. The Jam ran parallel to a broader company-wide survey and, in addition to confirming many of the results that came out of the survey, FoWlab revealed that a great deal of millennials at PwC were fixated on their physical wellbeing and thought that the ability to spend time at the gym was a crucial factor in their engagement levels at work. The issue of physical wellbeing wasn’t covered in the survey, nor do many other engagement surveys ask about it.
A common criticism we hear laid against surveys is that they tend to confirm what you already know. You can feel when your employees are unengaged at work, and putting a percentage against that feeling isn’t going to do much. But running a FoWlab jam not only helps organisations diagnose problems that you may not have preempted in a survey, it can also help generate solutions to those problems. Of the three days that FoWlab runs, one day is dedicated exclusively to action steps, asking “how can we turn the insights discussed over the past 48 hours into tangible solutions?”
So while Leadership IQ and Gallup continue to argue about the meaning of engagement, we at the Future of Work Consortium are building the future of engagement by involving the people you want to engage in a collaborative discussion about the future of the organisation.
- The Definition of Employee Engagement and Why Worker Engagement is Important (greatwithtalent.me)
- What is an Employee Engagement Survey? (greatwithtalent.me)
- Most American Workers Are Disengaged. Why? (psychologytoday.com)
- Employee Engagement Delivers Positive Returns (domo.com)
- Employee Engagement: Initiating for the Uninitiated (hrschoolhouse.com)
A theme which many academics – including the Hot Spots Movement founder Professor Lynda Gratton – are thinking about the moment is that of generational diversity. In light of this, I thought it would be interesting to share some of the ideas and findings discussed at the mid-way workshop of our Inclusion & Diversity Research Consortium and what they mean for organisations.
According to Lynda’s research, diversity agendas are currently changing in two vital ways. Focus is shifting away from gender diversity towards generational and life stage diversity. Essentially, with many Baby Boomers planning to work beyond the age of 65 and Gen Z-ers fast approaching the age where they will start to enter the workplace, organisations are facing the issue of generational diversity for the first time. Beyond this, there is also the question of life stage diversity. As people’s life spans
lengthen, life stages become more a more important differentiating factor. In fact, life stage diversity is on the brink of becoming the most important workplace diversity issue – far more so than gender or generational diversity – and yet it is something that few organisations are currently prepared to deal with. Is this because addressing this appropriately would require a profound review of the career concept?
Age as a prism
These issues are informing the research paths of many leading academics. For Professor Jacquelyn B. James*, Director of Research, Sloan Centre on Aging and Work and Research Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, life stage diversity is of such importance that it will come to inform recruitment, engagement and retention processes.
According to Jacquelyn and her team, whereas in the past workers of a similar age were most likely to be at a similar life stage, today their circumstances could be very different. Their research focuses on how we think about demographics in a society where some 40 year-olds are embarking on parenthood while others are becoming grandparents. As a result, age is becoming a prism where how old or young you feel depends on your life stage and the point you have reached in your career rather than your chronological age.
It follows that in order to nurture and support talent at all life stages, business must ensure they factor life stage diversity into their processes. And to do this, they need to completely reassess the way they think about some familiar issues. Dr Hans-Joachim Wolfram*, Lecturer in Occupational Psychology and Research Methods at Kingston University is doing just this, and in the process is turning many of the diversity field’s most familiar hypotheses on their head. According to Hans-Joachim, when it comes to the work-family interplay, it is in fact job role importance rather than family life importance which increases the propensity to take up flexible working options, and it is those who place greater importance on their job role who experience greater positive spillover between their work and family life.
What these overlapping research streams demonstrate is that the field of diversity is becoming – somewhat ironically – ever more diverse. Organisations will face a steep learning curve as they come to terms with the vastly divergent needs of their employees. The ideas discussed in this post reveal is how much value academics have to offer in this field. One of the reasons we at the Hot Spots Movement are so passionate about running research consortiums is that they provide a vital opportunity for research academics and business practitioners to come together to find effective ways of tackling such issues.
- Diversity Has Its Challenges (business2community.com)
We’re always interested in the latest game-changing research, which is why we were so excited to have Hans-Joachim Wolfram, Lecturer in Occupational Psychology and Research Methods at Kingston University to speak at our recent workshop. Hans-Joachim turned many of the diversity field’s most familiar hypotheses on their head with some surprising findings from his research of surface- and deep-level diversity.
According to Hans-Joachim, when it comes to the work-family interplay, it is in fact job role importance rather than family life importance which increases the propensity to take up flexible working options, and it is those who place greater importance on their job role who experience greater positive spillover between their work and family life.
If you’d like to discover more about this fascinating area of research, watch the video online.
What does it take to ensure your child has a successful career? According to Hilary Levey Friedman’s blog post in the HBR Blog Network from 3 September, it appears many parents in the US believe that being competitive, organised and little neurotic are key to success. This belief is particularly strong when it comes to their daughters – leading many to enrol girls in competitive sports from a young age in order to prepare them for a competitive future in the workplace.
Hilary studied 95 families with elementary school age children as part of research that led to her book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She identified five skills and capabilities that parents hope their children gain from participating in competitive sports: (1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, (3) learning how to perform within time limits, (4) learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and (5) being able to perform under the gaze of others. Interestingly, these desired skills mirror the aptitudes required to reach the top of the ladder in business.
At the same time, Hilary observed a group of mothers who were very diligent in the way they planned their daughters’ activities, studying the best upbringing by participating in parenting groups. In essence, these parents micromanaged their daughters’ lives the way they manage(d) their professional projects.
Hilary’s writing prompts several observations and questions:
As one would expect, these parents all want their children to be happy. What’s more, the five skills and capabilities Hilary draws attention to make sense. For example, as Lynda Gratton commented during our recent Inclusion & Diversity workshop, all the evidence we have now indicates that the workers who reach the top of their organisations will be those who work continuously rather than those who take advantage of flexible options. But while being competitive and hard-working is undoubtedly vital to success, it’s worth questioning whether it takes being neurotic to master the necessary skills, or whether they are just as attainable for those with a more balanced approach. For example, one could ask whether parents who exert total control over their children’s choice of sports activities are ensuring their performance, or simply depriving them of an early introduction to making decisions around which skills they want to develop. Choosing which sporting activity to pursue is a great opportunity for this: in my experience, even young children have ideas of what they like to do, and that there is no right and wrong when it comes to choice of physical activity.
There is also the question of whether a seven year-old with a diary worthy of a CEO will really blossom into an adult with the drive and creativity to be one. It’s easy to ignore the benefit of “unstructured time,” but this is something which is considered valuable even in some workplaces because it fosters creativity and innovation. In many cases, creativity, innovation and imagination can actually come from being bored and having to figure out what you feel like doing because nobody tells you what you must do. While access to online games and activities may have greatly reduced these periods of boredom over the years that increases the need for parents to ensure their children have access to unstructured time that allows them to develop their creativity in unexpected ways.
Yet another thought-provoking aspect of Hilary’s research is the trend towards the ‘professionalisation’ of child rearing. Professionalism has its place at work, but is it really appropriate in the home? Are such parents really experiencing positive spillover between their professional and personal lives, or are they in fact failing to effectively separate their work habits and family habits? Ultimately, this trend may say more about their own relationship with their working lives than it does about their aspirations for their children.