07 December 2016

The Hidden Workforce

In 2014, I walked the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain. I started at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the south of France – which gave me the challenge of crossing the Pyrenees on the first day or so, which is a ‘rapid start’ to say the least. After the first day, you’re into Spain and onto a more level surface, which makes the going a lot easier.

What struck me was how – at the same time – I could be both alone and yet also feel so connected to the millions of travellers who’d walked the same route over the last 1,200 years. All that connection, without a mobile phone or tablet computer. Just walking and connecting with people. Amazing.

It’s this experience that got me thinking more about connected versus engaged people at work. For example, I like to think about a coach and look at the distribution of passengers. About 12% of them are up at the front, near the driver, actively involved in the journey, what’s going on, where they’re going, how they’re getting there, etc. The other 88% are simply not engaged. These figures are typical for western European countries. However, this isn’t the full story. The unengaged majority further divides into those who are simply ‘along for the ride’ and approximately 10% who actively conspire against the journey. If you draw the picture, you end up with near enough the same number of people engaged in the journey as are against it, and a big majority sitting in the middle not doing much.

The situation is very different in the USA, where those up-front, near the driver, number between 30-35%. This is a massive difference – and it’s one which contributes more to their lives and also more to the company. But these figures are the same in Australia, Denmark and the Philippines. How so?

The benefits for the engaged people are that they suffer less from work stress. Their more positive view delivers more positive energy and feedback and as a result, they have more fun.

And that word – fun – is a good substitute for engagement.

One clear result is an increase in personal productivity, connected of course to increased company profits. Alongside that, is a significant decrease in absenteeism and presenteeism – about 25%, which is amazing.

Think about how companies focus on negative measurements, such as absenteeism. It’s understandable, because it’s easy to measure. However, we know sick leave accounts for only 2% in an organization and the rest has to do with culture, the unwritten ground rules of the organization, as Stef du Plessis calls it. When people don’t feel happy, they suffer more stress and stress can develop into an illness. They end up taking sick leave and then staying away for a long time. The more we can do to prevent this, the better.

For me, health promotion is critical and I like to picture a layered pyramid. The bottom layer contains absenteeism and presenteeism.

By the way, Australian studies show presenteeism to be five times higher than the absenteeism rate, so that’s a serious number that shouldn’t be ignored. The next layer up is health promotion and illness prevention. These represent solid, basic policies and practices that all good organisations should already have.

The further up the pyramid you go, the more subtle the layers become, and the greater the reward and distinction they can bring to the enterprise. The subsequent layer is employability: how companies can help their employees be in the right job at the right time.

When you have these foundations in place, you can really start considering engagement and given the focus I place on it, you might think that’s the top of the pyramid, but there is one more layer. Right at the top is accountability – the action of getting people to be accountable for what they stand for, what they really believe, and what they are going to do.

I’ll revisit this pyramid in further articles, discussing how it relates to management structure and financial results.

Core Values: What are they and why are they needed?
Minimising Staff Turnover