It was off to Canterbury in the Garden of England yesterday for the ‘Engaging Workplaces for a Sustainable Future’ Conference at the University of Kent Business School. I was struck by the fact that there were ‘real people’ directing us from the car park to the conference venue and that they had real smiles on their faces. It’s always great when you turn up at a conference about employee engagement and the people at the venue seem interested in helping you – it certainly created a very positive first impression for me.

After a welcome from Professor John Baldock, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research at Kent University (whose boss was in Australia – why did he tell us that?) it was over to two people who have become familiar to me over the past few months that I have been involved with the Engage for Success Movement. David MacLeod and Nita Clarke are a great double act. They have a huge enthusiasm for the topic of employee engagement and that is infectious. I knew about employee engagement before it acquired that ‘tag’, but not everyone did, and David and Nita did a great job of reminding us why we were there, and how much work there is still left to do.

Our first speaker was Professor David Guest from King’s College London. I have seen a number of academics speak, and David was up there with the better ones! He suggested that engagement might be the opposite of burn-out – and that focus on job satisfaction alone is not enough. David asked the question: ‘What do you do to encourage employees to be more engaged?’

Professor Guest made reference to the Gallup 12 – the 12 questions we have used for some time now to determine employee engagement levels, and told us that he had come up with ‘The Guest 12’:

  • Clear organisational values about workforce management
  • Select people with a propensity for engagement
  • Invest in human capital and employability
  • Extensive 2-way communication
  • Reward (promote) managers based on quality and management of people with a balanced scorecard
  • Demonstrate positive organisational support
  • Develop and maintain a relational psychological contract
  • Optimise job security and flexible working
  • Promote fairness of treatment and trust in management, including through employee voice
  • Design jobs to build in autonomy, challenge and a full utilisation of skills
  • Promote self-efficacy
  • Challenging but manageable workload

Wow…! You could have a whole week just discussing those twelve points and how to put them into practice in your organisation. I wonder if that’s why we don’t change, because we’re too busy doing things the way we do them to stop and think?

Russell Grossman was our second speaker. He is Director of Communications for The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and spoke about the journey that his Government department is on, doing more with less people. Russell spoke about the core values of Respect – Fairness – Pride – Camaraderie that have been created within BIS. He told us that doing employee engagement well costs no more than doing it badly, in fact, it is cheaper in the long run to do it well. Here are some of the salient points from his presentation:

  • When designing change, publish and keep to milestones
  • Communicate directly with people – you cannot over-communicate
  • Openness, clear communication, flexibility and innovation are key
  • BIS ‘de-layered’ from 10 layers of management to 6 in seven months
  • No-one is more than three levels away from ‘someone important’ (at this point the little voice in my head asked ‘Isn’t everyone important?’)
  • Leaders create energy – is it positive energy?

Next up we had the Practitioner Forum – three case studies on ‘What Works in Practice’. This was chaired by Dr Ian Dodds, CEO of Ian Dodds Consulting. The first speaker was Kirsteen Coupar, Employee Relations and Employee Engagement Manager at University of Greenwich.

Kirsteen told us that she encourages her colleagues to see people as solutions, not problems. She advised us to talk to our people individually, face-to-face, about how they feel about working for you. There needs to be cross-organisational communication, and the values and behaviours of the organisation need to be agreed in collaboration with all the stakeholders. We need to make people feel that they have influence.

Next we heard from Karen Bowes, H.R. Director of Capital One, the financial services company. I have to confess that this was my favourite presentation of the day, because Karen made me want to go and work for Capital One!

In 2009, only 25% of Capital One’s U.K. employees were engaged, so they started a ‘Let’s Make Life Better’ initiative and involved everyone!

Capital One’s core values are: Truly meeting consumer needs – Giving people what they expect from us – Lasting customer relationships – Culture of Innovation

Corporate Social Responsibility links with Employee Engagement

Employees were invited to make a video telling Capital One management how Capital One is already making life better – and they will do it again next year

99% of employees now know why the vision is important

Events run throughout the year to keep employees connected

There are leadership blogs that are accessible to all employees.

Capital One is now recognised as one of the Best Companies to Work For in the U.K. and is recommended as a financial services provider by Which? magazine.

I was even more impressed with Karen when she had to leave early to catch her childrens’ nativity – because it told me that she has her work/life balance right!

Sharon Derwent, Head of Employee Engagement at BT was then honest enough to admit that she envied Capital One’s employee engagement scores, and told us what BT are doing in this area. There is no ‘recipe’, just basic steps:

Set clear expectations – Remove barriers – Educate and inform all stakeholders – Emphasise achievement – Embed in everything you do

BT carry out a quarterly survey of all its people. People in BT care about Data – Profit – Commercial

34% of people disengaged correlates to a £2bn. salary bill each year that is being paid to people who are disengaged. That should make the accountants sit up!

  • 33% of U.K. employees actively engaged
  • 7/10 people don’t trust their manager
  • Engaged employees generate 43% more revenue than their disengaged colleagues
  • Engaged employees are 87% less likeely to leave their employer
  • They take 4 days less sick leave per year
  • Your people are your best marketing asset
  • You wouldn’t go to the doctor and accept the medication that they gave the last patient, so don’t expect one ‘engagement tool’ to work for everyone


The final speaker before lunch was Harry Donalsdon, a Regional Secretary with the GMB Trade Union.

Harry reminded us of the 20 – 50 – 30 rule : 20% of people will be willing participants, 50% will be somewhere in the middle, and 30% will criticise. Harry advised us to focus on the 50% in the middle rather than the 30% that criticise.

We need to explanin the rationale for change – everyone wants to know ‘What’s In It For Me’

Be honest – promise problems


Show your commitment

Ensure people are trained and have necessary skills

Adversarial relationships are ‘of the last century’

Employees need to participate in culture change – non-participation is a defence mechanism or ‘refuge’

Employees have to be given a real opportunity to influence decisions that affect them.

During lunch, I was impressed by the efforts of the hospitality team at Kent University to ensure that we were well looked after. I made a point of thanking two of the people who were part of the team – I wonder how many other delegates took the opportunity to do so? Too often, people who work at these events are just seen as ‘part of the furniture’ – catching them doing the right thing is part of employee engagement and those of us who are part of this movement should be setting an example!

After lunch, we were treated to an Academic Forum. I would have preferred something livelier immediately after lunch, but I’m sure others would have felt differently. I found Kent University’s Dr Mark Gilman’s presentation on how they are engaging with SME’s through offering them coaching and mentoring programmes interesting, as SME’s are probably the most difficult audience to engage with on the topic of employee engagement. Dr Kerstin Alfes of Kingston University and Professor Clare Kelleher from Cranfield School of Management also presented – I will leave it to others to comment on those presentations, valid and well-reasoned though they were.

I had been looking forward to hearing Peter Cheese speak, and I wasn’t disappointed. I came across him at a conference I went to a few years ago and was impressed with his vitality and enthusiasm. I think he is just what the CIPD needs in a Chief Executive, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the Institute in the coming months and years.

Peter spoke passionately about the need for performance management, recognition, progression and career management. He is concerned about the dramatic fall in engagement among middle managers and feels that the profession needs to be deeply worried about middle managers.

Peter spoke about Dan Pink’s model of Purpose – Autonomy – Mastery and believes that we need to put people management back at the heart of what we do. We need to be authentic, purpose and values led, and there has to be consistency between word and deed. We need to move from the outmoded model of command and control to engagement and empowerment, and we need to find the ability to manage diversity.

If you want a sustainable business you have got to worry about your people

If I do not trust the leadership, why would I want to engage?

Unfortunately, I had to leave the conference before the final session (and then spent 5 hours in traffic congestion, but that’s another story!)

My impression of the day? Personally, sadness that this is still having to be talked about rather than being done, but pleased that it is officially on the agenda and that people with influence are serious about driving it forward. To conclude, in the words of Peter Cheese:

  • We need to re-examine the purpose of our business
  • Look again at our values
  • Align leadership at all levels
  • Run leadership development programmes
  • Monitor engagement and support leaders and managers to be accountable
  • ‘We have taught generations of managers to be intellectual about management instead of emotional’