Geoffrey Matthews believes keeping engagement in the HR sphere is preaching to the converted; instead line managers need their support. He talks to Peter Wilson.
Peter Wilson: Companies talk a lot about engagement, but what does it actually mean?
Geoffrey Matthews: It’s a term that is used an awful lot without being clear as to what it refers to. When Linda [Holbeche] and I researched this topic for our book Engaged we found that what was consistent was that it was first and foremost about an attitude of mind. It’s really about creating that environment where people feel committed, where they positively identify with their work and their organisation, and when they are really ready to go the extra mile.
PW: It seems a large call to get the whole organisation as engaged as this. Do you see certain job roles scoring higher engagement levels – and what can we learn from this?
GM: I don’t think you can say that certain jobs lend themselves to engagement. I think everybody can feel engaged.When people feel a sense of connection with the organisation and they feel they are contributing to the bigger picture, they are engaged and involved.
PW: Why is employee engagement important – can we draw a direct correlation with increased productivity?
GM: There’s loads of research out there that shows a positive correlation between engagement and organisational performance. Engaged organisations tend to grow faster, be more profitable and more effective.
PW: Is the importance of engagement permeating executives’ consciousness?
GM: It depends on the organisation. There’s no one situation but I think there is a growing consciousness among managers that this is a business issue and that’s one of the key reasons why Linda and I wrote the book. What we were really trying to do with our book was show managers how they can practically move forward. When we looked through all the data we found there were some common threads to engagement that the manager can focus on.
PW: What can HR do to spread the engagement message and support managers in their endeavours?
GM: There are some particular solutions that will fall into the HR domain but there are a number of things about engagement that can be purely in the management sphere and there’s a lot HR can do to support managers. They can act as a coach – it helps if managers can have someone they see as a sparring partner to challenge them and make sure engagement stays on the management agenda. HR managers can also be the subject matter experts, helping to interpret survey data.
PW: Is communication, or a lack thereof, a common thread in engagement?
GM: There is a need for more effective communication but if you have line managers that are comfortable and effective in communicating, that’s going to make the difference.
PW: Stress in the workplace is a much talked about issue in Australia – is this the case in Europe and what are some of the ways of coping with that?
GM: I don’t think it’s unusual. Ten years ago in Europe you would see wellness and work-life balance as much more of a US topic but it’s now certainly coming up more in Europe now. In Engaged we write about what managers can do to combat stress; they do much to create tone in the workplace and if they foster an environment of presenteeism, that will obviously permeate through the organisation.
PW: Do you think the drivers of successful talent outcomes have changed much in the past 10 years?
GM: I think there’s been some superficial change but the underlying drivers are pretty much constant. There’s a nice quote from US journalist Studs Terkel He says work is: “a search… for daily meaning as well as daily bread; for recognition, as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short – for a sort of life, rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” I think that’s as true today as it was back in 1974.
About Geoffrey Matthews
Matthews is an experienced HR executive with an extensive background in employee engagement, organisational development, rewards, and international HR. He is co-author, with Linda Holbeche, of Engaged: Unleashing Your Organization’s Potential Through Employee Engagement, published by Jossey-Bass in April. He is vice-president of HR Strategy for Merck KGaA, a leading DAX 30 European chemical and pharmaceutical company. Before this, he held senior HR positions in a number of major companies including Hoffmann-La Roche and Hewlett-Packard. He is a Fellow of the UK Chartered Management Institute as well as being a member of the CIPD, SHRM and World at Work.