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Guest Blogger

By Oskar Palmerot, Employee Engagement Consultant, Spoon London

In the UK, we apparently haven’t had this many people in work for 50 years.

But the sky-high employment rate in 2019 – almost 76%, the highest level since 1971 – seems to contradict an economic picture otherwise characterised by lacklustre growth and stagnant productivity. In addition to that, recent research shows that UK workers are some of the least engaged in the world – only 48%, as compared to 62% in the US, according to a recent survey.

So, what could be behind this contradiction?

Defining low quality work

What the employment figures don’t provide is an insight into the quality of all this work – or the well-being of the workers doing it.

It’s not just much-maligned zero hours contracts or insecure jobs in the gig economy that have a detrimental effect on well-being, according to the latest research. Other common factors in today’s job market – such as low pay, lack of autonomy, poor wellbeing, low job satisfaction and job insecurity – mean an awful lot of workers, perhaps as many as 10 million in Britain, are engaged in ‘low quality’ work that risks their health.

Low-quality work is defined as “work in which someone feels stressed and unfulfilled” by Adam Tinson, a senior analyst at The Health Foundation, which has analysed the prevalence of low-quality work in the UK and its effect on well-being.

In short, there may be a lot of jobs out there, but for many, the experience of work is uninspiring at best and in many cases, outright difficult and unpleasant.

Finding fulfilment

I know from personal experience that effective employee engagement can help improve work environments as well as levels of morale, job satisfaction and productivity.

During my time as the communications manager for the Swedish industrial conglomerate Atlas Copco, one of our big problems was that not all of our colleagues really understood our complicated products, or how we helped our customers.

This lack of understanding made it difficult for colleagues to take ownership in their roles and see how and why their contributions were so important. In response, we launched communications activities to help them understand more by, for instance, explaining how our products were used.

Here’s an example: did you know that nine out of ten of the world’s flatscreen TVs are manufactured with the help of vacuum pumps from Atlas Copco?

By understanding the sometimes-complex products and processes they are a part of, employees are in a better position to see the bigger picture of what they are doing every day – and feel proud of the part they play in it.

One of the most effective ways to create greater levels of engagement is for employers to encourage a collaborative mindset. It can be tempting just to tell people what to do, rather than getting them involved in deciding how things get done. But allowing staff to participate in the development of business processes and making them feel like they’re a part of something – not just cogs in a machine – boosts morale, plain and simple. The more ownership of the activities they carry out, the better.

Consultation with workers about processes not only increases the sense of control staff have in the workplace; long-term, it also leads to buy-in to the wider goals and strategy of the business.

Consultation is also hugely beneficial when employees are going through major change and a rollercoaster of ‘grief’-like emotions as a result. It can mean that employees align their goals with the wider goals of the business more quickly.

Communicating regularly and reasonably transparently about the performance of the business is also important in improving workplace quality. Employees always appreciate being kept in the loop, even if the news is simply that there isn’t any news yet. We’ve seen that an open conversation can help create a sense of job security, an important factor in well-being.

Employee expectations

Like it or not, millennials are becoming the largest group in today’s labour market. This means that traditional engagement strategies – such as providing flexible working – are not so much a “nice to have” as an expected standard.

Another challenge is to become very, very good at managing employee experience throughout their so-called life cycle. This means welcoming newcomers and getting them up to speed quickly and easily – as well as making the leaving process easy and painless.

Why? Well, most estimations put millennials at having between fifteen and twenty different jobs before they retire, making them the most professionally agile generation ever. They may well leave your business – but also consider returning one day, if employers manage their experience well during their tenure. And with millennials becoming a majority in the labour market any day now, they’re not so much the workforce of tomorrow as they are the workforce of today.

Ensuring workplaces foster and support the right quality conditions for this demographic to thrive is key to the success in any business’s future. Environments that offer high quality learning and development opportunities and personalized benefits and rewards will win the race for talent.

Ultimately, the nature of employment has changed and so has the needs of employees. Businesses that will remain competitive will be those that go beyond hygiene factors and ensure that cohesion, career development opportunities, flexibility and the employee voice are integrated into the employee experience.

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