How important is employee engagement in the business world?
An interview with Thom Janssen
Senior HR Consultant / Practice Leader at Towers Watson
In modern management, employees remain at the core of any companys strategic development. To talk about the issue of employee engagement and its importance in growing businesses, Middle East Business had the pleasure of speaking with Mr Thom Janssen, employee engagement studies, organisational surveys and insight expert at Towers Watson in Dubai.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was brought up in a small village in The Netherlands but have lived in seven countries over the last 15 years. I have always worked in a research environment and particularly in engagement.
Employee psychology is such a complex and intriguing field that is continuously developing and poses us – me – with a challenge to continue to learn about it and align strategies accordingly. I find my work particularly rewarding as we help companies invest in their employees so that they are happy and engaged, enabling them to perform at their best.
Why is it so important for decision makers and business people to link survey results with their action plans?
Organisations use surveys as a channel to understand the sentiments of employees. In addition surveys will provide a ‘health-check’ in terms of direction, performance and sustainability of the business. Understanding is only the first step; just measuring these parameters will not change things. It is the follow-up process, where action plans are developed for key areas from the results that will impact upon business performance going forward.
In cases where this procedure is not taken into consideration what might the company or organisation risk?
Naturally, the obvious risk for any organisation that does not take action according to their surveys results, is that the organisation is not performing at its optimum level, whether due to loss of employee performance, business alignment or efficiency.
A secondary point that often gets overlooked is that employees are making the effort to share their opinions and do so with the expectation that their voice is heard and taken seriously. If management is not seen to follow-up on the survey, then there is no incentive for employees to participate in new initiatives.
You have worked in many European countries, and now live and work in Dubai. How do you evaluate the communitys cultural influence on employee engagement in their business surroundings?
I have worked with large global organisations and with small local firms in primarily England, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and now across the Middle East. I find that employees from different geographic locations and cultures answer in different ways and it is particularly interesting here in the Middle East to understand what drives employees from different nationalities as the Middle East has such a diverse workforce – creating a corporate culture is very difficult.
Some key business differentials such as ‘efficiency’ are less affected by culture and can be aligned more easily on a global level.
Many companies are family businesses in the Arab world and particularly so in the Gulf countries. What advice would you give them to keep their employees motivated, especially with so many of them being relatives?
I find that engagement is even more important for family businesses; we often see that due to the family nature of the business there are greater challenges to communicate openly and recognise imperfections.
A survey is a great tool to collect valuable insights in a secure, confidential and non-confrontational environment. Towers Watson provides leading market data that benchmarks survey results with peer organisations thereby providing a neutral, third-party assessment on what the key priority areas are for family businesses. In this way, we can keep all stakeholders moving towards a common goal of improving business performance.
What should companies do in order to optimise employee engagement and ensure effective results?
In our experience ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every day’. Strategies can be copied, software can be bought … but culture is unique to each organisation.
That is why regularly running an engagement survey provides you with vital insights into how corporate culture is developing and whether it is supporting the overall strategic agenda of the organisation.
Most Arab enterprises are SMEs and in some cases cannot afford the expense of conducting market research. In your opinion, how important is research for small enterprises?
As with family businesses, SMEs ( What was the nature of your participation in the HR Employee Engagement Forum?
It is important for organisations to realise that there is a bigger picture beyond employee engagement, which combines employee programmes under one common Employee Value Proposition (EVP). This in turn supports an organisation to communicate and advertise their HR programmes in a consistent manner. The benefits are that employers with a clearly defined EVP are more effective at attracting, engaging and retaining employees.
You have a pragmatic management style; can you tell us more about this?
Any theory – whether it be on engagement, EVP or organisational health – is only as effective as the implementation plan that gives it operational traction. I have a very practical approach to business and I always say to prospective clients that if they are not ready to commit to the follow-up process then they should not do the survey at all. I guess the stereotype of Dutch people ‘telling it like it is’ is true in my case, and I find clients appreciate my openness and honesty as it helps overcome some of the political barriers in board meetings.
Finally, what is your advice to companies who want to expand into other markets in the Middle East?
I believe expanding into markets in the Middle East is no different to moving into different markets in Europe or the US. First and foremost, you need to understand the market and appreciate that what works in one country may not work in another. Aside from legislation and processes, every organisation needs a strong workforce and the only way to achieve this is by listening to and investing in your employees.