Future engagement

What’s the future of employee engagement if employees won’t even be in the same office space?



As an executive headhunter, I am privileged to see inside many corporate cultures, from global Fortune 500 multinationals to smaller, agile agencies.

What each of these organisations have in common is that they’re dealing – sometimes struggling to deal – with a  hitherto unknown pace of change across the board. From sales models, to IT systems, business strategies and recruiting top talent; it’s all changing.

Image: Airbnb won #1 Best Place to Work in 2016, as part of Glassdoor’s annual Employees’ Choice Awards. Screenshot: Youtube.com/Glassdoor

Increasingly, I’m seeing another kind of change as well: a growing number of companies are introducing cultural change programmes to make themselves more future-ready. They know that new technologies mixed with millennials entering the business world means the old ‘9-5, behind-your-desk’ approach is dead and buried. And, if not, it soon will be.

As we move into the future, culture will be the glue that ties employees together – more so than ever before as there may be no one physical location employees go to every day.
This is backed up by a recent survey in the US that showed that 66 per cent of millennials felt an organisation with a flexible, mobile and remote work model has a competitive advantage over one that requires employees to be in the office from 9am to 5pm.

When Glassdoor came out with its top 50 rankings of the best companies to work for in 2016, Airbnb was number one. The company has taken time to develop a future-focused culture that will continue to have relevance and impact. There’s a story that it took six months and thousands of applicants before they appointed their first employee. Why? “Bringing the first employee in is as analogous as bringing in new DNA to the company. I didn’t view this person as someone who would build a few features,” explains CEO Brian Chesky. “I viewed it more long term – there were going to be a thousand people just like him. Yes, we wanted diversity, but not diversity of values.”

Culture at work

Airbnb has also focused on building a workplace that echoes the homes the company promotes rather than a traditional office space – with wide open areas, flex working spots, homely decoration and intimate smaller areas for teams to gather.

Culture will be the glue that ties employees together.”

You could argue that Airbnb is an easy choice when talking about the link between culture and workplace design, because they’ve not been around too long and could start from a blank page. But I’d argue back that where the disruptors start, more traditional organisations will soon have to follow or risk losing their relevance with younger generations of employees. What to do if you’re a multinational with a 100-odd year history? How do you make the change to a more accessible and future-focused culture?  My first piece of advice to any organisation is to think things through carefully. And work out how to involve employees and take them with you on the journey.

As a headhunter, I speak to many people from global companies who tell me they’re unhappy with the way their organisation has changed. For older generations in particular, the move from traditional ways of working with everyone having their own demarcated space in the office to a daily changing spot somewhere in a large office building isn’t an easy one to transition to. They talk about a lack of connectivity with their teams, a feeling of literally being lost, and about questioning whether the old systems and processes still apply – and if not, what does? 

Advice on staying relevant

Having spoken with differing levels of employees involved in these kinds of change programmes, I have five pieces of advice for more traditional, larger, companies looking to make themselves more culturally and workplace relevant. 

1. Involve people in the process rather than thrusting it upon them. Form employee focus groups from all generations and levels and ask them to help you ensure that the changes will work for them. What do they need to feel happy in your to-be workplace? Offer them training, support and assistance as they go through the change curve. Create employee ambassadors – people like me – to tackle tricky issues once change is underway.

2. Train your managers in how to maintain close team ties in this new culture. I’ve seen many companies struggle to keep the team spirit alive when flex working is introduced. Relationships break down if you haven’t established a new protocol for team working or if teams feel disconnected.

3. Traditionally, good employees were seen and heard. And usually promoted as a result. In the future workplace, when employees can literally be anywhere, how can the rising stars build the right profile and visibility? Key performance indicators need to reflect the fact that delivery and output is what counts – and companies that do it well organise regular meetings and sessions between various employee levels for them to showcase ideas and swap experiences.

4. In these new organisations, career paths are becoming fluid, too. Many people are following a zigzag rather than a straight path as many in the past did. The world is less predictable so help employees stay relevant by supporting them in acquiring a portfolio of transferable skills.

5. If employees aren’t always in the same location, what does this mean for employee engagement? And how do you rank managers on their engagement objectives? Managers – many of whom today aren’t part of the younger generations – will need help in understanding the change from this angle. Reformulate the engagement KPIs, train management in what you want to see. Tell them: this is what we want you to do and this is how we will reward you. Educate them on what success will look like in future.

In my experience, the larger the organisation, the more homogenous they tend to be. But the ‘one size fits all’ model will no longer work in the future. Success will lie in understanding that different parts of the organisation may have different needs. Some functions may work very well remotely, for example, while others like Finance may want to retain the team construction. Successful organisations will take time to understand differences and preferences and do their best to accommodate them. That will be the way to build a trusting future-ready culture. And trust is what it will all focus on.

Anita van de Velde

Anita van de Velde is managing director of DeVelde International. With many years working on both the agency and client side in the UK, Anita developed integrated marketing communications strategies for a number of blue chip clients. As a direct marketing expert, she was an early advocate of digital channels. Anita has worked with numerous ecommerce organizations, including Amazon and Sainsbury’s To You. Diversity has been a keen area of interest to Anita since the beginning of her career. In 2004, she was a founder member of the IPA Diversity Committee, responsible for bringing diversity to the fore in the UK advertising industry. She continues to support diversity and sustainability as an executive search consultant. Anita founded DeVelde International following a management buyout of the O’Connell Executive Search business.