How Empowering Employees Creates a More Engaged Workforce

When companies empower employees to manage their work and their professional growth, they get a more engaged, loyal, and productive workforce.

Business demands, along with rapid technology advances, have disrupted the workplace in significant ways. Companies are challenged to maintain a competitive workforce in the face of constantly shifting priorities. Meanwhile, workers must continually adapt their skills to fit into new roles as they take charge of their own careers.

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These trends, combined with attitudes toward work and personal interaction shaped by the Internet and social media, are shaking up the traditional relationship between employers and employees. People want as much flexibility, freedom, and control at work as they enjoy in their personal lives. They’re choosing jobs based on whether employers provide these things – along with opportunities for growth.

We gathered a panel of experts to discuss the ways that empowering employees to manage their work and their professional growth can lead to a more engaged, loyal, and productive workforce.

The traditional employment model, which slots people in defined jobs and assigns managers to monitor them, is becoming obsolete. How can business leaders engage people in more flexible, collaborative ways?

Brigette McInnis-Day: You have to be able to build teams without constantly changing everyone’s leader, their performance review, and/or their compensation plan. We have to think about where the work is happening – how we engage with our customers, our partners, and our ecosystem – and structure the organization around that, rather than around who owns the headcount, revenue, or budget.

Jacob Morgan: The management structure has to evolve and embrace the idea of customized work – that is, allowing employees to shape their career paths within organizations. We have to move away from focusing on inputs and concentrate on outputs. The idea of a manager right now is akin to a general who tells people what to do, and that is not effective. Instead, managers need to be more like facilitators, guides, and influencers.

Gabriel Wiskemann: That’s right. People need direction, but we have to lead differently. We have to learn how we can empower the team to make them successful. Do we need to look at their skills, for example? Or give them resources? That’s the first thing managers need to ask employees, not about progress toward the current target or the status of their milestones.

Don Tapscott: And that’s important because social media is becoming a new means of production. It’s fundamentally changing the way that we orchestrate the capability to do things in society and in business. This is leading to a very profound change in the corporation and its deep structure and architecture because the Internet radically drops transaction and collaboration costs. That means peers can now come together and collaborate.

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We see from surveys that many employees say that their employers don’t make good use of their talents, or that they don’t care about their development. What advice do you have to keep people engaged?

Tapscott: Working, learning, collaborating, and enjoying yourself should be the same thing. I was doing an executive briefing, and we had a panel of young people. One of the execs said, “What could we do to make our company more attractive to your generation?” And one of these new employees said, “The first thing we should do is make this place more fun. It’s just not fun to work here.”

Morgan: The notion that work is unpleasant is embedded in how we talk about it. If you look at synonyms for it, you get struggle, drudgery, stress, and daily grind. Nobody should be surprised that workers are sleepwalking through their jobs. Employees don’t work the way they want to work. They’re not empowered to make decisions. They have to commute for an hour each way to come to work and sit from nine to five.

You have to change the way the organization works. Focus on what people produce, and allow them to work where they want, when, and how. You can allow people to create their own career paths. See what employees care about, and find opportunities to grow and move into those areas.

McInnis-Day: If people don’t understand the business strategy or don’t trust the leadership, and the culture doesn’t fit their beliefs, it’s an automatic recipe for disengagement. But you also have to know yourself and what makes you tick, and own it. I find that people who say they need a career path and that they don’t know how to advance also don’t know what they want. Employees have to be able to articulate what makes them thrive, or the leader is shooting in the dark.

But the goalposts are always moving, aren’t they? Rapid shifts in business demands and technology keep changing the work – or making it disappear.

McInnis-Day: If you always have a mind-set that you have to continue to reinvent yourself, that helps you with your career. I think we underestimate people and their ability to rise to the occasion. You see companies go outside to hire for a specific niche skill because they think no one internally could ever learn it, rather than putting money toward growing people.

Wiskemann: I need to be loyal to my employees if I want to have loyalty from them. Employees have to be responsible for their own development; they shouldn’t be waiting for someone to tell them, “Here’s some training, you should go.” But companies have to have the willingness and the capacity to provide people who want to learn with the opportunity. Businesses won’t be successful if they stop investing in development when they have a bad quarter and want to save some money.

Do companies need to approach training and development differently, then?

Tapscott: First of all, we can use computer-based learning for anything where there’s a right or wrong answer. To have someone lecturing you when there’s a right or wrong answer isn’t an effective model for a generation that’s grown up learning through collaboration and interaction and that wants customized learning experiences.

Second, if working and learning are the same thing, why don’t we develop training strategies that improve the learning component of work? At my company, our training strategy is three words: Everybody must blog. That’s it.

McInnis-Day: Giving people experience is the right way to give them the opportunity to advance. Leaders need to explain that it’s a development opportunity. It doesn’t have to be in a system that says, “I have my development.” You tend to see how much you have learned when you take a new role and can look back at how valuable the experience of the new role was.

Morgan: Anybody can teach anybody else and learn from anybody else. If I, as an employee, have something I want to learn, I can leverage the collaboration environment and say, “Hey guys, can you show me how to do this?” A lot of learning isn’t necessarily up to management anymore. But you need to have the technology and a corporate culture that allows employees to do that.

You can also think about transitioning existing programs into something more digital and collaborative. Instead of having people watch an online video and answer questions, there can be a video with an online discussion group afterward.

Wiskemann: HR has to create opportunities and provide tools for managers so they can empower employees, and the whole employee lifecycle has to become a target for talent management. This includes integrating the relevant educational institutions into the company’s ecosystem and taking a broader approach than, say, technology training. We should involve students in the company before they join it, and maybe not only at universities.

It’s unusual for companies to establish relationships with potential employees. Most don’t even make an effort to keep up with workers who leave on the best of terms.

Tapscott: Most companies today think that talent is inside their boundaries; it’s that expression, “Our most precious asset goes out the elevator every night.” But the boundaries are becoming more porous, and talent can be outside. For the generation coming of age in the digital world, you don’t recruit them. You build relationships with them at an early age and then, when it’s time to bring them into your company, it’s a boundary decision.

Wiskemann: We should use mobility internally as a talent management tool and a career development tool, and then adapt this idea when an employee decides to leave the company and come back in a year. They are more committed because they’re coming back. With some people, maybe you need to have a more flexible relationship because they want to decide to be with you project by project.

McInnis-Day: Having better data can help with this. Recruiting knows people, but if their network is not diverse, we aren’t finding the best talent. It’s pretty hard for a manager to find out about people who want to go to another country or do something different. Leaders need to ask their people, and employees need to say whether they are willing to relocate. Also, having mobility information with our talent data via technology is a game changer.

How do these trends and developments we’ve talked about contribute, ultimately, to empowering employees?

Tapscott: This new generation wants freedom of choice. They’re innovators. They’re collaborators. They want things to happen fast. We need real-time, innovative, collaborative, responsive, customizable organizations where people have freedom.

Morgan: Organizations that stay focused on command and control are going to go out of business because nobody is going to want to work there. Employees are going to go to organizations that offer a flexible work environment and give them a voice. Empowering employees isn’t a “nice to have;” it’s a competitive advantage.

McInnis-Day: A flexible, open environment is almost a staple – you have to do those things to be competitive. People need flexibility and the ability to speak up in order to thrive, regardless of their generation. Everyone wants to add value.

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There’s More.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS NETWORKS, READ THE IN-DEPTH REPORT BUSINESS NETWORKS: THE PLATFORMS FOR FUTURE INNOVATION.

The SAP Center for Business Insight is a program to support the discovery and development of new research-based thinking to address the challenges of business and technology executives.

About the author:

Brigette McInnis-Day is EVP of Human Resources, Global Customer Operations, SAP.

Jacob Morgan is principal with Chess Media Group.

Don Tapscott is CEO of The Tapscott Group.

Gabriel Wiskemann is VP of Global Total Rewards, SAP.

Elana Varon is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology, leadership, and business innovation.

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