What are we talking about when we talk about Engagement?

Employee engagement is a hot topic right now, but what does it mean? What role does Global Mobility have to play within it?

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The global mismatch in talent supply and demand has not only disrupted business as usual for organisations, but also served to shift the balance of power from the employer to the employee. The traditional models of measuring engagement are therefore no longer applicable to this brave new world. It is not the employee who questions their role in an organisation, but rather the employer who must be prepared to adapt in order to keep their best talent. So, what was employee engagement and what now is it as we look toward 2016?

Employee engagement was defined as a workplace approach designed around measuring the commitment employees have toward their companies goals and values, their motivation to contributing to overall organisational success and, at the same time, their ability to balance their personal well-being. As the business landscape has changed, this model has become outdated. It is no longer about committing the employee to the business, but about the business flexibility to champion the unique needs, wants and goals of their employees.

At first glance this would appear to place the power in the hands of the employees, but that is a superficial reading of this powerful transition in business. This transformation, in reality, gives the business more oversight than ever over their employee populations and their unique demographics. It further allows the business to better manage their best talent while also identifying the staff who may be struggling with various parts of their roles, whether it is in performance or circumstance.

Employee engagement must, now, in 2016, be seen as the process in which a company identifies the motivators, goals and support requirements of their staff, in order to then develop their talent through a series of actions benefiting both the employee and employer.

The expansion of the partnership between human resources, global mobility, talent management and the wider business as a result of the worldwide talent shortage and employee retention crisis has been the driver in this relationship change between employee and employer.

Employees are more aware than ever of their strategic value in the success of their enterprises, particularly those who have been identified as future leaders and strategic investments. Companies succeeding in the face of these critical issues are those which are opening channels of on-going communication between the business and the employee.

By not just involving the employee in the discussion around their career, performance and development, but instead enabling them to drive and lead the conversation, these companies are setting best practice and reducing the cost to their business through engagement talent retention which brings another set of challenges.

“The word ‘engagement’ is both vague and limiting” says Damian McAlonan, Engagement Specialist and Managing Partner of the Boost Partnership.

“Business leaders understand that engaging people is one of their biggest competitive differentiators, they just don’t know where to start. I also notice real frustrations for boardroom executives when discussing ‘engagement’, as there’s a feeling it’s got too many definitions, lots of ‘initiatives’ and not enough bottom line measurement.”

So we asked is there a way to cut through this?

Damian continues; “I find what works best is to create a clear strategic and realistic approach to engagement with defined goals that are highly bespoke because often reasons for low engagement within organisations vary wildly.”

Talent management programmes are not new; however, what is new is nonconvoluted software, streamlined processes and powerful, robust tools for both the employee and the employer that allows both stakeholders to feel their wants are being governed accordingly. Too often programmes designed to assist with talent management skew toward the employee or the employer and while these programmes can and are useful, they often alienate the other user.

With employees, tools used for talent management can be viewed as a means to capture data with no actual realisation of the effort they put into answering, leading to perfunctory answers. For employers, tools that focuses on the employee journey can be seen as encouraging discontent and, when not ‘actioned’ in a period acceptable to the employee, further leading to disengagement with the company.

Damian points out; “A big mistake that’s made with ‘engagement’ is the belief that it’s what you do to people rather than with them. Understanding this approach can immediately shift the focus from a company doing lots of initiatives and buying different pieces of software to a company that spends time focusing on building an exciting, meaningful, environment and filling it with people who share the same values.”

Software is embracing the transformational business landscape and seeking to bridge the gap between employee and employer through continuous conversations, on- going performance review and robust reporting on employee goal setting and employer tracking. As part of his remit in advising companies Damian assists FTSE 100 clients to procure the right engagement system for them;

“Businesses operate in a technology-based, data-rich environment and that provides significant opportunities for companies to add their engagement strategy to the mix. Whether you’re interested in tapping into the mood of your workforce, increasing transparent two way communications or reviewing individual performance there’s software out there that can help.

To over simplify the process you must first understand your specific engagement challenge, including the outcomes you want, explore the market, review and then make decisions that will impact the business for the next three to five years”.

The conversation around engagement must be focused on performance development. What must be accepted is for employees to remain engaged they must be given more than just financial compensation. They need to feel their value is being recognised by the business and encouraged.

Reward and benefits, though powerful motivators, are not enough to keep your valuable talent. The new employee, particularly the Millennials entering the workforce, are keen to see their future and to work for organisations which demonstrate a commitment not just to their workplace values, but to their personal development and learning.

Annual reviews have their place, but validation of work should be consistent and scored as performed. The ability to track your identified future leaders is critical. Is a dip in performance indicative of trouble? Not necessarily, but it can enable HR to ask the question of how they can support the employee. The modern employee is not expected to typically fulfil one role. As performance increases and people establish themselves into their positions, new niches are carved and career goals can shift to accommodate exposure to new parts of the business.

Without a lens into this it becomes impossible for businesses to harness the best of their employees, leaving employees to feel frustrated at lack of growth or opportunity. Enabling them to engage with the business through a continuous process that is seen as healthy, not as performance review requirement is where software has excelled.

Still can a piece of software be enough?

“Software is an enabler, it’s not a final solution,” says Damian “The irony I face working within engagement is learning that organisations have invested thousands of pounds in specific engagement software only to find their people hate the software and won’t engage with it. There’s a really quick and easy work-around this problem which is often overlooked”.

What does this have to do with global mobility?

In order to address the needs of their global presence, more businesses are embracing the global mobility professional and, in turn, new ways of moving talent between locations. The result of this has been seen in human resources and global mobility over the past five years with the emergence of new policy types and the shift from traditional long-term assignments to shorter arrangements tailored to the needs of the employee and their families.

Global mobility programmes have, in many ways, become the incubator of employee engagement. They are increasingly being relied on to provide accurate reporting on employee satisfaction and, all too often, held accountable when assignments fail. The global mobility professional has to balance the business requirement with the employee’s need and do so in a way that is agnostic to both stakeholders. This position often puts global mobility in the position of being the “no” man, whether it is to the organisation or to the employee. The oversight required from global mobility professionals is a demand that scales with growth: as programmes expand as the result of business success, the modern mobility professional is expected to offer reporting on more than just cost.

This position can be tricky for global mobility. While it underscores the importance of a robust global mobility programme and highlights the strategic partnership of mobility to the business, it also exposes mobility programmes to an increased demand on their time. The reporting the business often requests is time-consuming and detailed, often difficult to produce in a way that still allows for business as usual to occur. Where a single assignment value, and failure, can cost a company upside 1,000,000 USD, does global mobility have the ability to take on talent management as another function? And what of the employee’s who are not on assignment, should the monitoring for assignment selection fall to taxed mobility programmes?

"I think we can agree no one person can carry engagement and culture in a company, but as engagement gets bigger it’s going to need some form of ownership,” adds Damian. “I honestly believe global mobility professionals are uniquely placed to own the future engagement agenda and I’d urge them to do so.

"Just think about it, you already have first-hand practical knowledge on several of ‘engagements’ main touch points such as; re-designing roles, changing work environments, developing people through learning, having one to one connection with the people being assigned and also adding to or refreshing benefits.

"‘Engagement’ also lands Global mobility professionals at the very heart of HR, talent management, benefits and business strategy”.

As the war for talent deepens, mobility programmes must be able to work closer with the wider Human Resources function. Mobility is increasingly being relied on to identify the right candidates for an assignment based on: learning and development criteria, aspirations, competencies, values and cultural readiness. It has been said that assignment selection software is the gap, but is it needed? Global Mobility is, at its heart, a people-driven strategy. Choosing the right individual is more than “critical skill gap to be fulfilled” because without an engaged employee going, likelihood of failure climbs.

How can Global Mobility professionals work with the business to identify candidates for successful assignments? Well, to start, the five following identifiers should be considered from the point of assignment requirement:

  1. Employees who want to go on assignment;
  2. Employees who think an assignment would improve their business value;
  3. Employees who want to develop their career in a way an assignment is conducive to;
  4. Employees who are interested in development aligned with the assignment role; and
  5. Employees who have the competencies required for the assignment role.

Not every candidate will fulfil the five points to ensure engagement, but there is where the role of global mobility cannot be underestimated. Global Mobility professionals have a unique lens into their population. There is an inherent understanding of why past assignments have failed and what the typical wants are from each individual. While each move is specific, policy and process guidelines assist in delivering a transparent experience. No one understands the demands of a mobile workforce and their requirements than those running the programmes supporting them.

Still should it be Global Mobility undertaking employee engagement or does this represent the growing talk from leading organisations that the future of Global Mobility is actually in talent? Does that represent the shift professionals have been talking about for the past five years of global mobility going from an administrative function to a strategic partner?

We know the talent crisis and, as a result, retention of future leaders is only going to worsen in the coming decade. The new population of employees from emergent nations will require time to train and develop into the workforce of tomorrow. As other organisations continue to build their learning and development programmes into career progression plans with realised goals and actionable objectives for their employees, the companies which do not will see a continued rise in attrition. The popularity of companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter as employers is not only for their free lunches, but for the passion the companies put into their people. Those who wish to emulate their success in not just retaining their talent, but attracting the best will want to evaluate and adopt the manner in which their wider HR teams connect with their employees.

In a world of digital connectivity, the “share” button is used for more than just photographs: conversation around personal and professional success, achievements and problems are interwoven seamlessly into a rich tapestry. When an employee goes on assignment, their social media presence often shifts into something of a requirement: it allows the individual to retain a feeling of connection with their life in their home nation, either with friends, family or colleagues.

For the mobile workforce, connecting with management and the organisation might not just happen cross-borders, but outside of working hours. The traditional 9-to-5 model is being slowly replaced by flexible arrangements, allowing the employee to set their hours of productivity in a way that supports both the business and the employee’s needs.

These channels have become powerful for praise and complaint. Engaging your employees in a way that they feel supported is one which will be shared. This can, in turn, draw in from their own internal networks the talent they know. The reality is the marriage between life and work is becoming less of a balance and more of an alliance. Employees are being given more remit to structure their time and workdays to reflect the total hours required in a week. Employers are beginning to accept flexible arrangements as viable options for individual success and the organisations which enable this are finding retention issues to diminish.

It can be difficult for employees to have conversations about their work hours and arrangements with employers and that is HR tools are critical to uncovering individual requirements and interests. By giving employees an area where they can work out their own motivations, goals and interests, global mobility teams can tease out the best possible way to enable their success.

So what should you? You need to examine how employees are engaged by your organisation. Do you have plans in place for employee career progression? Is your mobility programme aligned with your talent agenda in a way that precludes successful assignment selection? And, more importantly, is organisational alignment to the employee’s goals your objective or is it the alignment of the employee to organisational culture? Can you achieve both? Damian believes you can.

“Creating high performance environments and great places to work is a complex challenge for every business and engagement is not a silver bullet.

"No one can retain people, but you can attract them. No one can train people, but you can lead by example and develop them. No one can essentially make you engaged, but you can create support and inspiration. Companies who are doing this are succeeding , companies that don’t won't be having conversations about thriving; it will be about surviving.”


Damian McAlonan is a multi-award winning communications specialist with +20 years of experience in the field of Advertising, PR and Marketing. What distinguishes him in the field of ‘People Engagement’ is his passion for keeping things simple and understanding what motivates and drives change in people.

Based in London he works with The Boost Partnership and their FTSE 100 clients who, like him, are determined to uncover the secrets of how to create more productive, engaging and great places to work. When not advising on engagement he writes for leading HR and Management Press and is a proud Business Mentor for His Royal Highness the Duke of York’s Enterprise Unit.

Go to the profile of Courtney Ellis-Jones

Courtney Ellis-Jones

Courtney began her career in global mobility nearly a decade ago. She originally began her career working in the in-house HR function, but transitioned to a role with a destination services provider inside the business development remit. Courtney has focused since on high level transformation of mobility programmes, including policy reform, process improvements and academic research. Her career has led her to touch all sides of the global mobility function from working as a supplier to delivering in-house mobility services. She has worked across industries and regions, having lived in the United States, France, Hungary, Estonia and the United Kingdom and has been with FEM since October 2015.

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