Interview with James Murphy by Sheelagh Caygill

Defining employee engagement

Let’s start off with a definition of employee engagement, James. There are dozens of them out there, so how do you, as founder of Engage International, define employee engagement?

An engaged employee actually cares about their work and their company. They work because they believe in the purpose and goals of the business.

Why does employee engagement matter?

There are countless stats showing that employee engagement is beneficially to a business. Less sick days, better productivity, better customer experience, ultimately these reasons mean it is better for the bottom line of the business.

But these stats are mainly for the business so I think it is also important? So I think it is important to ask Why does employee engagement matter for the employee? These will be more human reasons. Such as increased sense of purpose, a better work life balance and increased well-being.

I know that you are enthusiastic about improving company culture as a method of really enhancing employee engagement. What is a workplace culture like where employees are actively engaged, and how can organizations create a this kind of winning culture?

All cultures are different so it’s about working out what your corporate culture actually is and then looking to improve it. Take ideas from other businesses but don’t try an replicate another culture. A clearly defined purpose makes it easier to develop a winning culture. We need to work towards a culture where everyone shares a common goal and understands how their role affects success of the business. Rather than focusing on performing activities team members are aligned and focused on achieving goals.

Successful engagement is about listening

Some employees are quite cynical about employee engagement efforts, viewing them as a way to get more effort/work out of people. Granted, this is a cynical view, but for some organizations it’s not an unfair assessment. For businesses embarking on employee engagement for the first time, how can they avoid misperceptions and achieve strong results?

It is very easy to be cynical about initiatives that are under the banner of employee engagement. I would be cynical about employee engagement myself, if the process didn’t make me feel more engaged and enthused about my work.

Unfortunately, the simplest things are often the easiest to get wrong and this is certainly the case with employee engagement.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have given us proof that one size does not fit all and we need to remember this when thinking about employee engagement. You could begin a gym membership as part of a well-being strategy, but if you don’t enjoy the gym’s environment then that’s not going to help. The more flexibility an employer can offer, the better results will be. Trying to move towards what your employees want is imperative.

Finally, not everyone wants to be engaged. I’m an enthusiastic advocate for employee engagement, but I would not advocate forcing people to follow an engagement strategy against their wishes.

How does employee engagement impact the bottom line?

This is one of the key questions. A company that invests in employees’ culture and engagement is clearly a company that is forward-thinking, and there are many stats that show that companies who value employee engagement do perform better.

A company investing in employee engagement will also invest in marketing, customer engagement, learning and development, and more.

I like to isolate areas related to employee engagement like staff turnover and sick days if these have been reduced that can be attributed to better employee engagement or better well-being. You can then workout the impact this has had on the bottom line rather than saying employee engagement is responsible for all the increase.

We’ve been reading for some time now about the challenges posed by the Millennial demographic when it comes to engaging and developing. What can organization’s do to win over this demographic’s hearts and minds and get them to stay awhile?

Aim to create a business that has a great culture, more flexible working and autonomy, but don’t hold back employees and don’t resist change and embrace bringing in new and fresh ideas.
Research suggests that more than 50% of Millennials would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good (source
Millennials tend to change jobs every two years. Perhaps the grass is always greener, and this may be a more relevant factor than salary. Businesses that can offer change to their employees will certainly have a competitive advantage given this trend.

A good corporate social responsibility program will significantly improve this, and effective learning and development is key. This shouldn’t mean we stop investing in millennials, far from it.

Here is a common discussion in the c-suite. CFO: What happens if we train them and they leave? CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

Perhaps it’s about realizing that they will leave. If that is a growing trend, rather than resisting it, try to embrace the trend and use it to give you a competitive advantage. If you give the skills to an employee that enable them to go on to better things, what better advert is there to recruit great new talent?

Millennials will share experiences on social platforms such as Glassdoor and you want them to show your business in a great light. Negative employee experiences can be really damaging to a business.

How can smaller companies, such as start-ups and creative agencies, pursue engagement?

Firstly, embrace your culture. You probably have some great forward-thinking members of your so allow them the platform to share these great ideas. It will boost engagement and will be a huge asset to your business. Smaller business can be more fluid and agile adopting new ways of thinking and working with innovative technology.

Don’t be scared to fail. Embrace your mistakes and learn from them.

Engage International

What trends and issues do you see arising in employee engagement in the coming years?

More compassionate leadership. Employees may be fighting personal battles you know nothing about. Businesses should understand this and allow as much flexibility and support as possible.

According to the U.K. mental health charity Mind, 56% of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff well-being but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance. Starting a conversation about mental health doesn’t have to be difficult. There will be many employees that can relate to such issues. Striving to create a culture that allows this will do wonders for staff well-being.

Immersive training is another exciting area for the future. Virtual reality and immersive learning environments (ILEs) are learning situations that are constructed using a variety of techniques and software tools, including game-based learning, simulation-based learning and virtual 3D worlds. We actually did a session on this at my last event so I got to see first-hand how it can be used.

Finally, Collaboration. It has been mentioned that I am passionate about collaboration. I think successful businesses will promote collaboration within their organisation this will help break down silos. Also collaborating and learning from other businesses can really help we should be more open to this but we need to make sure these businesses are the right ones for us.

Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and your approach to your work?

My wife Sarah has taught me so much about engagement. She is a primary school teacher so she has to keep 10-year-olds engaged all day, largely through creating an engaging learning environment. It’s actually like stripping engagement back, taking away gimmicks and creating a culture that naturally engages people through the shared purpose of what you are trying to achieve.

I try to look at things in a holistic way. The values that came from my parents and grandparents have shaped my life and attitude towards everything I do. It’s about fairness, respect and creating lasting relationships.

Working with Engage International partner Damian McAlonan has been great. We share similar ideas but I am always learning from him and hopefully we will continue to spread the word through Engage International.

Something that has influenced me more recently is learning how to deal with failure and the people that have shown faith in me despite my own failures have inspired me to continue following what I believe to be right. This has taught me that failure can and will bring positives in the end. This seems the perfect opportunity to finish with a quote from another huge influence on me Johnny Cash:

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”