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It's (Still) All about Engagement

HRE's latest "What's Keeping HR Up at Night?" survey finds employee retention and engagement remain the top concerns for HR leaders, a trend experts predict will only intensify as the economy slowly regains steam.

Thursday, July 17, 2014
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Scanning the results of Human Resource Executive®'s latest "What's Keeping HR Up at Night?" survey, it's easy to spot a common thread running through the 400-plus responses to our 2014 poll.

When asked what they consider to be the three biggest challenges facing their organizations today, participants most frequently said "ensuring employees remain engaged and productive," at 36 percent, followed by "developing leaders," at 28 percent. "Retaining key talent as the economy recovers" was cited by 24 percent of respondents.

So, it would seem that keeping employees engrossed in their work is a top priority for HR leaders in 2014. This year's findings paint an uncannily similar picture to that of our 2013 poll, when "keeping employees engaged and productive" led the list of biggest HR challenges (as it did in 2012), with 35 percent of respondents citing it as their biggest concern. The second- and third-most common responses in last year's poll were also "developing leaders" and "retaining key talent as the economy recovers," at 28 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

http://www.hreonline.com/images/177713299HRupatnightM.jpgThese numbers should come as no shock, and the anxiety over retaining and developing talent only figures to grow as the economic recovery gradually takes hold, says Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of the knowledge organization and human capital practice lead at the New York-based Conference Board.

"There is no greater challenge than the need to have high-performing, engaged employees and effective leaders to deliver on a business strategy," says Ray. "This is the same in every region, in every market, in every industry." 

So, with employee engagement and retention once again HR's biggest concerns, what are companies doing to keep people not just on board, but happy and productive in their work?

"Increasing communication with employees is the lever most people pull," says Brian Kropp, managing director of CEB, an Arlington, Va.-based membership organization providing advisory services to executives at mid-size and large companies.

Indeed, 54 percent of respondents to our survey cited "increasing employee communication" as their primary approach to improving employee retention in the days to come.  

The problem "is that most pull it the wrong way, increasing the volume of communication with the idea that more communication will engage employees more," says Kropp.

For example, some organizations rely on companywide emails detailing the firm's financial performance in the most recent quarter as a way to connect more frequently with workers, he says.

The reality, however, "is that most employees don't understand what any of that means," he says. "They don't pay attention, and those emails get deleted. It's not about increasing communication volume. It's about providing more context around the information you're providing."

For instance, a company may be better served explaining why the organization performed the way it did in the previous quarter, and how employees affected that performance, he says.

SquareTwo Financial, a Denver-based asset and recovery and management firm, recently introduced a number of initiatives designed to communicate with employees in a multitude of ways, says Kristin Dickey, the company's senior vice president of human resources and organizational development.

"From intranet blogs to town-hall meetings to small-group executive-summary sessions to ‘breakfast with the CEO,' we try to carve out new opportunities for employees to receive information," says Dickey. "We also formally and informally solicit feedback from our employees as to areas of interest, ways to improve our culture and areas where we are performing exceptionally well."

Such efforts could fall under the umbrella of "employee relations," the area where the most respondents (38 percent) report spending the majority of their time at the moment. Employers are dedicating similar energy to finding and developing the next generation of workers as well.

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Indeed, "recruiting," at 33 percent, and "leadership development," at 32 percent, represent the second- and third-most frequently cited areas in which HR leaders are focusing most of their time.

Leadership development, in particular, is "one of the key reasons I stay awake at night," says Margaret Spence, member of the Society for Human Resource Management's HR disciplines panel and president and CEO of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Douglas Claims & Risk Consultants Inc.

"This is a huge issue," says Spence, "and mentorship and sponsorship are the keys to [developing leaders]."

More important, however, is providing employees with frequent chances to show their abilities, and showing them how to navigate the corporate structure, she says.

"For example, what does it take to become a division president, and how [would an employee] map his or her career accordingly? These are the key issues—having an open pipeline process so people can prepare to take over leadership roles."

Interestingly, 29 percent of HR leaders chose employee benefits, including healthcare and retirement, as the area in which they are spending most of their time—the fourth most-common response this year, but a 6 percent drop from 2013.

While understanding and complying with the Affordable Care Act is certainly still a priority for HR, the level of concern around the ACA "likely peaked a couple years ago," says Kropp.

"I think most HR and benefits professionals have done what they need to do to prepare, made the decisions they needed to make. Now it's a question of execution—how do you handle enrollment and benefits administration? I think many HR leaders feel like the ACA is no longer a headache, but just part of their jobs now."

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