Interview with Matthew McDonnell – International expert in Employee Engagement and Experience

Could you introduce yourself briefly to the readers?

My name is Matthew McDonnell, I am a chartered Business Psychologist specialising in Employee Engagement/Experience across GB and CEEMEA with 20 years experience.

What are some recent trends in employee engagement that you could point out?

2 topics really stick out.  One is the transition from Employee Engagement to Employee Experience.  So Engagement has become increasingly , seen as a must have  “outcome measure”, done once a year primarily so leaders can see year on year, whether actions taken in relation to the previous survey are having an impact.   It tends to be a point in time view, typically done annually. Employee Experience comes at this from a different place.  It’s a bottom up view of “what is it really like to work here” from the employee point of view and lives across the whole employee life-cycle, essentially treating Employees as Consumers.

People have more and more ways to express their views on what’s its like to work at a company ,through social media tools like GlassDoor, so there is no hiding behind a glossy brochure or careers web page.   Employers realise in this age of intense competition for top talent, delivering a great employee experience is crucial and is continuous, from pre-recruitment, through to onboarding, development, performance management all the way through to leaving the organisation.

The second big trend we are seeing is Well-being.  Particularly mental well-being, where we have entered an era of higher work stress than in the past, and several large global companies have opened the debate and discussion on this once taboo subject.   So clients want to have a holistic, integrated approach to the Employee Experience, that also supports people in terms of financial, physical, social and psychological well-being.  And the need for this support to be personalised and tailored.  For example, some of our clients are using the Engagement Survey to provide instant feedback to the individual on their own personal drivers, and what they could do to help themselves, through individual “nudges”.

What key areas of employee experience would you highlight for organisations and why?

What seems to happen in a lot of organisations, is that once they get the talent on board, they take their eye of the ball.  So the onboarding process doesn’t match what their impression of the job/organisation before they joined.   Typically they have some training, things are quiet as people still go to the more experienced colleagues, and then suddenly they are thrown in the deep end.  Or promises are made to get them on board, but the reality of the day to day work doesn’t match this and they switch off.  This is why typically we see employee engagement levels drop significantly after 1 year.   We suggest peer to peer interviews and discussions prior to joining so that there are no surprises and the “contract” is one that the future employee expects.

Also, there is an interesting trend whereby high performing companies that have created an excellent and productive culture are putting more and more space between themselves and their peers,  both financially and from a positive culture point of view.   In other words, they are pulling away further from the pack.  They focus on creating an environment that has a strong sense of Purpose, beyond the walls of the organisation, but really understanding the companies contribution to wealth creation, communities and society as a whole. 

People in these companies work in an agile way, with high empowerment, one in which where people can develop, and be rewarded for excellent work both financially but also with interesting opportunities or simple gestures.  They work in a collaborative, diverse and trusting work environment where people feel safe to express their views and expect to contribute value on a daily basis..  We can look at this blueprint and help clients see how they compare with benchmarks so that they understand what is really worth fixing and what is simply a nice to have but will have low ROI.

What is needed to do employee engagement surveys really well?

Employee Engagement surveys need to be adopted by organisations as a business tool and not see as an HR initiative.  This means that managers must take the lead, receive the results directly, and hold themselves to account for these.  Also, employees need to be taking ownership too.  We call it having “personal agency” where employees see it as everyones role not only managers or HR to drive change in organisational culture.  Through 1,000s of micro changes rather than one or two big programmes will have the biggest impact on an organisation.

What would you advise organisations, which struggle to use results of their surveys for improving their business results?

Chances are they are either over loaded with other initiatives, or its seen as an HR owned project.   At the other end of the spectrum, managers try to do too much.  You can have an enormous effect on your culture by focusing on just one core theme, for example this will be the year of “development” or “innovation” and focus all efforts under one unifying idea.

I think it is imperative that managers see the tool as an integrated measure that supplements what they are already doing as leaders.  So I  now have these results, what does this tell me about the direction I am heading, where do I need to course correct or redirect focus.  It shouldn’t be the start of a completely new process or initiative if you are doing it well.

What do leaders appreciate the most about employee engagement surveys from Willis Towers Watson?

What clients want to know really is, well how does this compare to other organisations, and also what are they doing different?  Its human nature to want to compare, compete, and learn from the best ideas.  We enable our clients through our platform to not only compare to relevant and robust benchmarks, but mine our best practice libraries for inspiration on what to do.

And finally, what is your favourite quote?

 “Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating.” John Wooden.  This universal truth has held for my entire 20 years in this field, what leaders pay attention to, are seen to do, and care about will change your culture faster than any change programme you can run.  Leadership “moments that matter” define an organization.  Leaders underestimate how their actions are micro-analysed by employees and infused with meaning, setting the tone and culture for the entire organization.

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