McKinsey agrees, with its survey showing that the most successful employers are striving to build trust by listening to their workforce. “An engaged workforce is the difference between an average business and an exceptional one,” said Julia Walton.
“But workforce demographics vary considerably, and what employees want will always differ from individual to individual. The trick is to engage continuously to identify commonality. Don’t guess or assume: ask the audience. The best approach is to run anonymous employee engagement surveys with your teams to find out what they want and then look at how you can provide it. It’s an old approach, but it’s still the most effective.”
Four core challenges
Staff retention levels in pharma are generally pretty good, with comparatively moderate movement across the industry each year. This suggests that companies are on the right track when it comes to employee engagement. But there’s still much to be done.
“The core challenges of employee engagement are the same today as they were 12 months ago, but the pandemic has brought them into really sharp focus,” said Petra Battersby, Chief People Officer, Envision Pharma Group. “First, a lack of alignment can sometimes constrain employee engagement. When companies are aligned on their culture, values and vision, employee engagement is often much stronger.
“Individuals understand how they contribute to the bigger picture and enjoy autonomy and opportunity to make their mark. As a result, people feel more engaged and more emotionally invested in their company. The second challenge is communication. Sometimes, communications channels get saturated, which can become a barrier to healthy engagement. This is particularly relevant at the moment because remote working has amplified virtual communication but diminished face-to-face. Clear lines of communication are vital.
“Third, leadership is crucial. ‘Engaging’ leadership behaviours don’t come naturally for everyone, and remote working has only exacerbated the challenge. It can be hard to feel that you’re engaging ‘authentically’ when you’re doing it over video. Finally, perhaps the biggest challenge as an employer is understanding your workforce sufficiently to bring the organisation along with you. This has always been complex but COVID has taken it to another level.
“Every employee has their own personal challenges and circumstances that shape their everyday experience. A good employer engages employees in ways that are mindful of those human challenges – but must strike the right balance between supporting the individual and maintaining their responsibilities to the wider organisation. The pandemic has created a different dynamic that’s made this more challenging.”
“A good employee engagement strategy, said Petra Battersby, is business critical: if companies look after their people, their people will look after their business. “Strategies will inevitably be nuanced, but the best depend on getting close to employees, understanding what makes them tick and establishing clear parameters that allow people to work autonomously, collaboratively and effectively.”
Is remote a red herring?
Despite the current focus, the principles of employee engagement are well established and haven’t really changed. So is the idea that COVID should be a catalyst for change actually a red herring? Not quite. A virtual workforce certainly dictates a different approach, but the old rules of engagement will still apply.
“The logistical considerations of whether we work at home or from the office are a distraction from the real issues,” said Alex Davies, Senior Director, Hanover Communications. “Where you work should not matter. But what you do – and why you do it – is all important. Keeping employees engaged fundamentally depends on understanding what you are as a business – and being crystal clear on where you’re heading and why.
“As individuals, we all want to feel that we’re part of a team that’s heading towards a clear destination. It doesn’t matter whether that team is all housed under one roof or spread across multiple places, we want to feel that we’re part of something bigger, something important – and that our contribution makes a difference to reaching that goal.
“‘Purpose’ has become an overused word, but it’s the key to employee engagement. Businesses start to lose people when no-one’s quite sure where a company’s going. It’s a popular misconception that constant change often leads to employees feeling disengaged. I don’t think that’s true. If a change is done with a clear destination in mind you can bring people with you. But when employees aren’t clear on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and where they fit in, they slowly disengage.”
Pharma, said Alex Davies, is lucky. “It’s hard to think of an industry with a better purpose. And I’m yet to meet anyone in it who isn’t motivated by the prospect of improving patient care. In fact, this is the most exciting time to work in medicines. We are at that tipping point where AI and digital tech is helping pharma bring through groundbreaking treatments that can transform health.
“Looking ahead, it’s perfectly reasonable for pharma companies to aspire to be like Google or Apple, but with products that have a greater impact on people’s lives than the latest smart device. However, getting there means taking risks and mobilising teams for fast-paced change. It requires an engaged workforce that understands where you’re heading – and has the motivation that comes from knowing how they can play their part. Fundamentally, the pandemic may be shaping the tactics of employee engagement, but purpose is the strategic glue that binds everything together.”