Dawn Sowerby, Transformation Director at the Aster Group, will be discussing successful engagement strategies at Symposiums leading engagement conference in March. Here she discusses the link between HR and engagement.

Warning: tough message follows…HR is no longer relevant. Don’t kill me. I love our profession, it has given me a good career and I have worked with some amazingly talented people over the years. But it is time for a new revolution. Within Aster Group, our HR function had become very regimented and although we had our fair share of talent and were delivering a consistent service to business colleagues, we were focused more on following process than on serving our workforce. We had to acknowledge that our efforts were falling short when it came to driving engagement. So it was time for something new.

Aster is a successful organisation. Though our history is rooted in the public sector we are now a thriving commercial entity with c£200m annual turnover, assets of c£1.5bn and a workforce of 1400 colleagues. Our CEO Bjorn Howard is unapologetic about Aster’s drive for profit because all of that profit goes back into efforts to solve the UK housing crisis.

So we could be forgiven for asking the question, if our organisation is so successful, why the need to change al all? Well, like most businesses today we face an uncertain future and a rapidly changing context, so whilst we are thriving now, what we do delivers a real social benefit and we want to ensure that we can deliver that in a sustainable way in to the future. Crucial to that ambition is our ability to inspire and engage our colleagues.

How many times as an HR professional have you seen an engagement action plan, or even developed one yourself and thought ‘yep, we’ve cracked it?’ That satisfying feeling when you’ve had the opportunity to get everything you know about how to engage people down on to a bit of paper that has actually made it as far as the exec suite – it feels good doesn’t it? We’re at the table and finally everyone is taking it seriously,or are they?

Well to be fair, everyone around the table probably is taking it seriously. However, a small but critical point that tends to get overlooked is that engagement isn’t a thing, a ‘product’ if you will and therefore doesn’t lend itself to a transactional action plan. Let’s face it, if it was as simple as planning to do 10 more of X, moving 15 Ys and, I know, whilst we are at it why don’t we create 20 Zs, well we would have all cracked engagement a long time ago. But engagement isn’t a ‘thing’, it’s a way of being and so trying to increase it by using the same tactics as we would for increasing production simply isn’t going to work. It would be the same as using a vegetable peeler on a grape – useless.

Should we really be surprised then when our beautiful action plan has enabled little, if any, traction in increasing levels of colleague engagement? Think of that uncomfortable moment when your survey results 12 months later show a smidgen of an increase and you are desperately trying to pin it down to one of the very many actions that were on your original plan. I’m afraid it’s time for a reality check – your action plan hasn’t increased engagement levels. Sorry guys, but it’s true. If you have seen any increase, it is probably incidental to other changes, for example a couple of new managers and is unlikely to be a sustainable increase.

So if engagement is a way of being and we can’t ‘action plan’ our way through it, how is redesigning the HR team going to help? Well it isn’t the full answer I grant you, but I do think it’s an important starting point and can set the context for a very different way of working.

In Aster we recognised that we needed to find a better way – a new way – and one that was deliberately designed to support increasing levels of engagement. So we asked some challenging questions. Does it really take a qualification in HR to drive a great employee experience? We didn’t think so. Is the biggest people risk being taken to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal? Instead we concluded that the biggest risks are actually around having the wrong people in roles (or the right people in the wrong roles) and having a disengaged workforce.

This is where the redesign comes in. We pulled together IT, Communications, Research, Project and HR teams in to a single directorate and then challenged ourselves not to end up with the same old professional silos in the new team. We knew that if we created the right conditions to enable our colleagues to be the very best that they could be, we could change how work felt not just within our own teams, but across the wider business.

We then shared our idea of workstreams. These would be self-managing, cross-functional teams, with a range of experience and skills, focused on specific value streams: talent; employee experience; learning; research & innovation and projects. We even dared to ask people to choose what they wanted to work on!!! We trust them to use their judgement and discretion in testing new ideas!

It’s early days, but all teams are up and running. There are still core teams in all professional areas to take care of the day to day contractual, compliance based and reactive activity, but these are now smaller teams with a clear customer focus and again working to self-managing team principles.

Have we got it right? We think so, but time will tell. It was time to try something new and the early signs are good, with some previous HR colleagues telling us how great it is not to have to jump through five hoops just to get something done. One person told me ‘I got the Monday morning feeling and then realised that I didn’t have to anymore – work is good again’. It’s a journey, with some people jumping on to the front of the bus straight away shouting ‘woohoo’ and others cautiously sitting near to the back, believing they are on the right bus but still a little uncertain. That’s ok too, because we all move at different paces.