There’s no denying that the phrase ‘employee engagement’ is bandied around most HR departments like it’s going out of fashion at the moment. But what is it really all about, how can it be achieved, and has the penny finally dropped that happy workers really do drive profit?

One thing is for certain, when it comes to engagement, one size most certainly does not fit all. It’s a deeply personal and emotional thing and requires different approaches at different organisations. It’s about finding a tailored solution that’s right for your place of work.

However, as Gallup’s recent research on employee engagement demonstrates, engagement is much harder to deliver in a downturn. Stephen Bevan, Director of Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation, agrees. “Despite all the jaunty rhetoric about employee engagement, the morale, engagement and wellbeing of much of the UK workforce has been severely challenged in recent years,” he explains.

It’s perhaps for this reason that some forward looking businesses are investing in a dedicated ‘employee engagement’ resource – whether through an external consultancy or in house resource –  which has experience of running programmes during times of economic uncertainty that result in real and lasting cultural change.

Yet no matter how well thought-out the strategy, once a project does get underway, change is often slow to happen. People are creatures of habit, and it takes time for them to replace these old habits with new ones.

Loudhouse takes an innovative approach to engaging a workforce to change mind-sets from the outset.  It starts with a series of coaching interventions for employees with the fundamental objective of creating ‘employee ownership’. In order to do this, Jamil Qureshi, who heads up the engagement arm of Loudhouse comments:

“It’s often about changing the way people think about their jobs and what they can achieve. By giving your employees real ownership, they will become more engaged and consequently more motivated, attentive and vigilant. They will personally “own” the results of their work and that of the organisation. Above all, they will care about the needs of their colleagues and want the organisation to succeed. Ultimately, it’s about creating an emotional connection for the employee between their role and the purpose of the organisation.”

In order for employee ownership to work, companies must ensure that they have inspiring leaders who give their employees the opportunity to live up to their maximum potential. Strong leadership is essential for providing a clear narrative on the strategy of the organisation to employees, and empowering them to work towards it.

Shirley Engelmeier, Founder and CEO of InclusionINC, says:

“The permeation of technology into the lives of employees, the innate DNA of Gen Y, and ever-increasing globalisation make it absolutely imperative to create an inclusive environment which allows each employee to give their maximum potential each day.  The most successful companies at doing this are those that recognise the need for inclusive leaders – that is, leaders who implement specific behaviours that give their employees the opportunity to bring their best selves to the workplace each day.”

Engelmeier believes that inclusive leaders are those that welcome new ideas, manage their own egos and are intellectually curious. “Inclusive leaders have high emotional intelligence, meaning they have the ability to perceive, reason with, understand and manage their emotions. They recognise the importance of empathy as well,” she explained.

Good employee engagement is also about creating a good team spirit. If your staff enjoy working for your business, and feel that the leadership team listens to them and considers their needs, they are more likely to feel valued. Helping employees to tailor their jobs to suit them and their lives outside of work is a fantastic way of creating goodwill and gives you a strong advantage over your competitors when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. This approach is particularly important as Generation Y begin to make up an increasingly large percentage of the UK workforce. Gen Y are looking for more than just a desk job and a healthy pay packet – they are much more inclined to accept a lower salary than previous generations in return for a better work/life balance and greater investment in their careers and lives.

Women are another key demographic in the workforce who often long for a better work/life balance. Research shows that 80% of highly qualified women wish to work part-time, with three days a week cited as ideal. Sara Hill, Founder of Capability Jane Ltd, finds the rate that high performing female talent is leaving the UK workforce alarming. She believes that the ability to offer a reduced hours working week is a critical factor for the retention and progression of women into senior roles.

“In an increasingly 24/7 working environment, employers can find it difficult to agree to practical solutions for reduced hours that are both sustainable and commercially competitive,” she says. “Part-time arrangements can struggle to deliver the productivity that businesses are looking for, but there are ways of making it work. We recently undertook a research project which found that two thirds of senior women surveyed would like the opportunity to job share, and this can be a very successful solution.

“Job sharing will cost the business more, but employers can reap the rewards in terms of retention, guaranteed full-time cover, enhanced productivity, greater engagement and commitment, and the benefits of having access to different perspectives and working styles.”

Of course, if you are investing in a major employee engagement project, you need to be able to prove that it’s having results. Luckily, this is becoming ever easier with the creation of new technologies to collate and analyse employee data.

Firstly, you will need to work with the wider business to identify the major issues that you’d like to address. Ensuring that the HR team are able to attend business review meetings can be a great way to identify the priorities, and there are a wealth of new tools and methods which can help you to actually do the research and analyse the results. Through the use of data, HRs will be better equipped to make informed and strategic decisions about employee engagement, and therefore improve the results they achieve for their business.

In summary, employee engagement is a hot topic for good reason. Happy, committed employees are crucial to productivity and business success, and in our post-recession economy, expectations are beginning to increase again. Getting employee engagement right involves identifying exactly what you want to change, empowering employees to support the project, and regularly checking in to ensure that your plans are having an effect. It will take some time to change habits, but the results will be worth it.

This topic and others will be debated as part of the ‘Engaging Your Workforce’ track of this year’s HRO Today Forum Europe.

Faye Holland, Managing Director of SharedXpertise, owners of the HRO Today Forum Europe.