COMMENTARY

Want to boost productivity? Engage your workforce

MOST business leaders implicitly understand that employee engagement is an important driver of performance and productivity, and is an invaluable contribution to reaching an organisation's full potential. Getting the formula for engagement right gets employees excited to come to work with the energy they need.

For Singapore, improving employee engagement continues to represent a significant opportunity - not just for businesses but also for the economy. As then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had noted in his 2014 Budget speech: "Raising productivity is at the centre of our economic agenda."

With this multi-year, multi-pronged undertaking, policymakers are shifting their focus to more progressive areas, such as digitisation and the development of stronger human capital. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated recently in a National Day dinner speech: Productivity is imperative to the economy, and even though we are starting to see a slight improvement in the area of productivity among Singaporeans, there is much to be done.

ENGAGING TALENT

The best way to optimise talent is to ensure that it's engaged. Although this seems obvious, many organisations still struggle to build the work environment they need to fully realise engagement in the workplace.

Engagement is defined as a three-legged stool: "Committed" or wanting to stay with the organisation and feeling passionate about its mission; "contributing" or motivated to help the organisation succeed; and "captivated" or feeling energised and looking forward to coming to work.

With a mission to find out what engages people at work, Mercer studied over 40,000 employees in Singapore, and its recent study, Singapore Employee Engagement Index: Insights to Enhance Workforce Productivity, discovered three key findings:

  • Singapore continues to struggle with engagement, showing a consistent decline over the last three years. This is in stark contrast to the upward trend observed in employee engagement across the globe. The priority for addressing the decline is to innovate more effectively and develop more compelling career paths.

Although there are many challenges, Singaporeans see a meritocracy at work, feel involved in decisions that impact them and see leaders with clear strategic intent.

  • Growth and reward: Mercer's research shows an increasing number of employees in Singapore are not getting the right opportunities to learn and grow. Twenty per cent of employees in the workforce say they are not receiving the necessary feedback from their immediate managers to improve themselves. Even more worrying is that one in three feels that personal career goals are difficult to meet in his or her organisation. At the same time, 95 per cent of employees in Singapore want to be recognised and rewarded for a wider range of contributions.
  • Empowering employees: Many organisations strive to provide a culture and environment that continually improves the way work is done and cultivates new ideas to set the pace for future success. They understand that people want to contribute their ideas and opinions, and feel listened to.

However, business leaders struggle with this. Although 85 per cent of employees are proud of the products and services they currently offer, 30 per cent don't feel their organisations are continually innovating these products and services. Notably, one out of every three employees feels that the company doesn't support the development of new ideas.

  • Doing well on employee involvement: Attitudes towards employee involvement are more positive in Singapore than the global average: seven out of 10 employees feel they are sufficiently involved in the decision-making process on matters that may affect them compared to 67 per cent globally.

Although there are challenges, the research did highlight some key strengths for Singapore.

Compared to the rest of the world, employees in Singapore are more positive about three specific areas: confidence in senior leadership; clarity of the link between reward and performance and level of involvement in work decisions. Immediate managers play a critical role in this perception, with 80 per cent of employees saying their immediate managers notify them of important information related to their work.

CLEAR ON EVALUATION

Additionally, Singaporeans are clearer on what's being evaluated in terms of their performance - four in five employees say they understand what they are being evaluated on at work and 70 per cent say they receive recognition from management for doing a good job.

There is no denying though, creating a culture of engagement requires a multi-stakeholder approach, which includes employees, their immediate managers, the human resources department and sponsorship from senior leadership. Employee engagement in Singapore can increase, resulting in improved productivity. So what's needed to engage employees?

  • Ensure that leaders understand their roles: Employees will feel they have a shared future (in terms of career and development opportunities) when they believe in the strategic direction of the company. Leaders should communicate with employees regularly and update them about the organisation's development and visions, and encourage employees to give feedback.
  • Create a positive daily experience: This is especially important for Singaporean leaders to focus on, as it fosters a climate of partnership and trust. The feeling of "we're in this together" can be a strong one in terms of employee engagement. In addition, a culture of high performance, openness and learning can help boost employees' feelings of involvement and promote career development.
  • Address employees' core needs: At the heart of HR policies are treating employees fairly, with respect and integrity, and giving them opportunities to achieve and be recognised for their efforts. Above all, employees must feel they are part of a team that values their contributions.

Although engagement is a major part of performance, there are other elements that need to be considered, such as setting clear goals, structures and accountabilities. Additionally, leaders and managers need to live the values and cultures they're trying to create. Ultimately, engagement needs to be in the context of the organisation's strategic performance goals.

Specifically, for employers in Singapore, there may be a significant opportunity to provide a sense of empowerment and belonging to the workplace as a way of fostering a stronger employer brand, one that truly resonates with the values of the workplace so that employees are proud and motivated to work with their employers. Ultimately, motivation needs to lead to efficiency and innovation gains that will enhance the productivity of the Singaporean worker as the nation prepares for its next leap into the future.

  • The writers are respectively CEO of Mercer Singapore and growth markets practice leader of Mercer Sirota