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14 MAY 2011
How to get fully engaged employees
Many firms express the desire to have every employee ‘engaged’ in its mission and vision. Yet, as executives often concede, getting every employee fully engaged is a major challenge. Simon Caulkin and Julian Birkinshaw encountered a team of Roche employees who believe that the quickest way to get employees engaged is to have them meet a real, live customer.

Employee engagement is, as they say, a no-brainer. There are stacks of literature showing that companies with committed employees who feel strongly about their organisation do better financially than those with indifferent employees – although, as with all such correlations, it’s hard to tell what is cause and what is effect.

In many cases, too, improvement is actually quite easy to achieve. For example, in many product-based companies the proportion of employees outside sales and marketing who have some relationship with the end customer is tiny. Most people work in silos, with deep functional expertise, but with no line of sight to the individual or organisation ultimately buying their product. Yet it turns out that exposure to the customers who use the product, particularly if it’s something that makes a difference to their lives, can be a powerful source of insight and motivation.

That is, indeed, what pharmaceutical giant Roche found when a team devised an experiment to put the engagement proposition to a test. But, in the end, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. In fact, some of the most thought-provoking learnings from the engagement test turned out to be different and less obvious than originally imagined.

“What do we do?”

The Roche team – consisting of Rob Rylance, Peter Braun, Sebastian Werner, Friedrich Honold, Christiane Schumacher and Vesna Cisej – represented multiple countries and multiple areas of expertise. They realised it would be easy to get stuck at a high level of abstraction in a study of this type, so they focused on a simple straightforward hypothesis: that a deeper emotional understanding of the company’s real value to patients and society would deliver extra engagement among employees.

The starting point was that premise, although the team believed that employees were already highly engaged and well informed (“People who work for Roche absolutely love it and get a great deal out of it.”). Yet there was a fuzziness about the company vision. Compared with the famous NASA janitor who, when asked what he was doing, replied, “putting a man on the moon”, Roche employees sometimes have a less clear line of sight between their day jobs and what they were meant to achieve. Says Rylance, Marketing Projects Manager in the UK, “If you ask people, ‘What do we do?’, you’ll get the answer that we are a commercial organisation that makes life-saving medicines that have a massive impact on people’s lives. But when you start peeling that back, is this actually resonating emotionally with people or resonating as emotionally as it can?”

The unspoken answer to the last question was ‘probably not’. And the persistent follow-up thought was that, if patients and patients’ experiences could be brought into the organisation (particularly for those who rarely had direct contact with them), it would help those employees to not only focus their daily priorities and actions but also give them a better sense of the company’s guiding mission.

What was the best way of doing this? Among a number of possibilities – hospital or hospice visits, meeting doctors or scientists, reading articles and testimonies – the team quickly decided on the simplest and most direct intervention of all: getting a single patient to talk face-to-face about his or her experience of illness and treatment. The experiment would be attractively direct. Two similar groups of around 30 employees, most of them from non-customer-facing departments, would complete a straightforward, 17-question engagement questionnaire (consisting of statements such as I am proud to work for Roche, I feel a strong sense of commitment, I am willing to go beyond the requirements of the job, The Roche vision is meaningful to me in my daily job – and so on). One of the groups would then meet the chosen patient and watch a marketing presentation on the implications and dynamics of his or her disease, after which both the control and interventional groups would answer the engagement questions again.

Avoiding backfire

Actually, it turned out that the experiment wasn’t quite as straightforward as it first appeared. To make sure the results were clean, it was clearly essential that the nature of the intervention should not be revealed beforehand. When the intervention group was confronted with the patient – a Roche employee with direct experience of using the company’s cancer drugs – two issues quickly emerged.

One issue was that people had very different levels of comfort with such discussions. Some employees were happy with and receptive to the recounting of intimate personal experience; others were much less comfortable. Potentially more damaging was a second issue: the risk of upsetting the sensitivities of those who might be suffering (or whose families might be suffering) from a similar condition. Of course, these difficulties would not arise in a post-experiment programme in which there was no need to keep the nature of the meeting under wraps. But it was a warning that an experiment is not just a design problem: even if it is conceptually simple, it needs meticulous consideration of every angle if it is not to backfire.

Watching for and noting such issues, the team went ahead with the experiment as planned. After the patient had spent an hour talking and answering questions about the experience of having the disease (as opposed to the characteristics of the medicines), the group heard a presentation about the demographics and incidence of the disease to give them some broader context. The groups re-sat the questionnaire and two months later gathered for a feedback session to hear the results.

Statistically, the impact was detectable but small (bearing in mind that numbers involved were small, before-and-after times short and people already highly engaged). Even so, on the questions involving pride, passionate belief in Roche’s intentions and the meaningfulness of the company vision for daily work, the intervention group scored more highly than the other group and more highly than its own scores before the patient meeting.

However, the verbal feedback was much stronger. One set of findings recognised the power of patient stories to generate emotional reactions, put a context around dry facts and figures and generate personal insights on where individuals and the company can make a difference. But another set, interestingly, channelled disappointment with current internal communication, which was perceived to be lopsided, privileging scientific and especially financial information over the patient agenda and experience.

To that extent, as far as participants and sponsors were concerned, the engagement hypothesis was ‘proved’: hearing patients tell their stories did underline the meaning of the job, the positive role of the company and the connection between the two. But, in a sense, that was obvious from the start. For many people, highly engaged already, it didn’t need proving. “It’s something we faced all along;” recalled the design team, “lots of people, including senior management, were saying, ‘Guys, your hypothesis is a no-brainer; of course it will work.’”

But – and here comes the twist – that realisation unexpectedly opened up a completely different management issue, perhaps even more significant than engagement: if everyone agrees it’s both important and obvious, why aren’t we doing it already? Why is it so difficult to turn a really powerful insight into something that actually changes behaviours? Pushing it further, why do companies find it so hard to do things that they know are necessary, sensible and right?

Creating new norms

The fact that the answers are known does not make the practical solution easier. It is not that these things are hard in themselves – how hard is it to get a patient in front of already committed employees? The trouble is that these things are often ‘important’ rather than ‘urgent’, ‘unmeasurable’ rather than ‘measurable’, about ‘improvement’ rather than ‘efficiency’, ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’. To be sure, in any corporate contest, it is the second in each pair of words that is squeezed out.

Organisations are routinely hit by bureaucracy and form-filling, which make it difficult to protect time for perceived non-essential activities. For all employees to come in contact with customers, top management support and drive are essential so that such events “become more of a way of life rather than a project,” says the team now. “It’s got to be ongoing and continual. You can’t do this once every 10 years if you want to get any benefit from it – it’s got to be part of what happens to you in your working life.” But top management time is limited, and the calls on it limitless.

In short, inside most companies, ‘hard’ trumps ‘soft’ every time. As noted, scientific and financial data is often communicated widely – but not the customer experience, a decidedly soft management practice. Yet soft management that is directly tied to people and relationships is where the majority of the money is spent. So, it is also potentially the place where the scope for improvement is greatest. What if some time and money were set aside to take patient-centricity seriously? For example, the company might give every employee a day or two a year to do something from a menu of activities around patient engagement – helping out in a Marie Curie centre or accompanying a rep or doctor on a field trip. The team has been mulling such prospects. And the team has already drawn some conclusions about whether Roche should commit to making sure that all employees have the chance to experience customers regularly.

The team acknowledged that establishing such a new norm would have its costs. “This is a huge financial commitment; but, do you know what, you’d get the benefit back in spades, you really would….” And the team averred that putting every employee in the customer loop on a regular basis could strengthen the entire culture of the company.

If customer-centricity became a new norm, the team said that employees at all level would say, “Hold on, the company’s very serious about this in term of giving something back.” And the payoff from the team’s perspective? Every time a Roche employee met with a customer, the employee would leave more engaged in the work of the company. “You’d have to be pretty cold-hearted not to walk back into the office a little more proud, a little more engaged, than you were before.”

Simon Caulkin (www.simoncaulkin.com) was named UK Columnist of the Year at the 23rd Workforce Media Awards in January. He is the former management editor at The Observer.

Julian Birkinshaw is Professor of Strategic and International Management, Senior Fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research.

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