Keeping employees focused on performance is more important than ever in tough times. The Birmingham Post hosted a round table event with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, employers and employees debated how do this. Anna Blackaby reports.

This summer, the MacLeod Review, an independent report for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, released its findings on how businesses large and small can better tap into their staff’s potential in order to benefit both the employees themselves and UK companies.

The report, called “Engaging for Success”, examined the role that employee engagement can play in improving performance, productivity and, ultimately, profitability.

It concluded that involving employees fully in the future of the firms they work for will be fundamental if businesses are to innovate and take advantage of new opportunities.

David MacLeod, co-author of the report came to the Birmingham Post’s offices in the city to introduce the report to local business leaders and debate the practicalities of implementing its findings.

“We spent ten months going around the country exploring this topic with a whole range of organisations, to understand its relevance and benefits to business” he said.

He gave an example showing how simple changes in the way businesses interact with their employees can have far-reaching effects on their productivity and performance.

“I met a woman in Wales for instance who worked for the same organisation for 20 years and for the first 15 she was known as a bit of a rebel. Then new management came in and the woman’s behaviour changed. She said now when she makes a suggestion, she’s listened to and she feels more valued.”

There was general consensus around the table that treating employees with integrity, respect and honesty as well as keeping communication channels open was a key factor in motivating employees.

David Munton, senior partner at Grant Thornton, said ensuring employees knew what the organisation was trying to achieve helped to keep people enthusiastic.

“I have a simple motto – when people get out of bed I want them to feel as if they want to come to work and not as if they have to come. Engagement is critical.

“They need to understand where the organisation is going. Communication is very important and consistency of that communication is important as well.

“If you firmly believe in where your organisation is going, you need to continually reinforce that over time. “Then the team around you starts to believe in it and they start to buy into it.”

Matt Taylor of Headline Communications agreed.

“Now more than ever employees need to feel engagement. It comes down to three things – trust, honesty and respect, but communication all the way along,” he said.

The recession has brought the issue of employee engagement into the spotlight as increasingly businesses are aware that in order to keep productivity high and innovation bubbling up within the organisation, staff need to feel they are a valued part of the company.

David Hymas, a partner at Cobbetts, said companies should be realistic about the potential for keeping staff happy all the time at work and balance this with keeping the business on track to meet its goals.

“I’m pleased if staff are happy, but they need to be happy whilst achieving the objectives which we have set ourselves and we have to deliver,” he said.

“We are coming through very difficult times and happiness has not been at the forefront and may not be for a little while longer.”

Niccei Castanheira, human resources manager at manufacturing firm Instarmac, said keeping staff informed while the business was going through tough times was an essential part of employee engagement.

“In a recession, if for example you can’t have a Christmas party this year because funds aren’t available, get the employees on board so they understand the reasons why.

“I think sometimes the unhappiness element is because staff don’t understand and it has not been explained to them.”

Phillipa Hart of Hart Recruitment said one difficulty in a recession was holding on to the most talented staff members.

“Particularly this year in challenging times, even though companies have had to make redundancies, they are also very aware that they need to keep hold of good people. Good companies are maintaining more effective practices like one to ones and coaching and are using that as a part of their recruitment.”

West Midlands policy manager for the Federation of Small Businesses Denise Craig said SMEs were often better at engaging employees than their larger counterparts.

“Because the businesses are so much smaller the integrity and trust elements are vital in small business,” she said. “If you try to pretend things are different to how they actually are in small businesses, employees will know - they know for example when sales aren’t as good as they should be. I have often heard managers talking about their staff as part of the family.

“They are utterly involved in the success of the business and communications are very good and are often done in a very informal way, which is often the best way.”

Phil Pemble, PR manager at Pertemps People Development Group, said it was vital to recognise talent and potential within the business.

“We are always looking for people who we can bring through the company. Eighty per cent of our managers are recruited from within.

“Going back to the family concept – we are very much a family. Also there is an idea that everything has to be top down but we have inverted that triangle. The most important people for us are the people at the coal face.”

The debate turned to practical steps companies could take to increase employee engagement, such as keeping staff members informed of how the company was performing in order to motivate staff.

David Munton said: “The most effective companies I have been to are those companies in the manufacturing sector who have bar charts showing how the organisation is performing.”

Advantage West Midlands skills director Pat Jackson agreed, giving an example of a leading company she had recently visited.

“A year ago they didn’t have any key indicators they were sharing. Now the charts are all over the place and managers hold their Monday morning meetings walking round the building so employees can see what is happening.”

Bournville College funding manager Jenny Stokes said employees were more driven to help the business succeed when they were actively involved in decision making.

“It’s about collective responsibility and about involving everybody. If people are very clear about their focus, that’s when ideas and engagement comes in and we can look to see how we can find solutions to the problems that are occurring.”

Advantage West Midlands director of business support and enterprise Debra Blisson said: “I’ve seen employee shared ownership plans or employee schemes where they can buy into the company which gives people a stake in the company.”

Instarmac finance director Tim Boniface added: “We have put everyone on profit-related pay. Everybody from the cleaner to the director feels a lot of ownership because everything they do can contribute to earning more money.”

Matt Taylor suggested small things like giving employees birthdays off could have a big impact, as well as ensuring staff knew that companies were flexible to reasonable requests from employees.

“Treat people like human beings – if they have to come in at ten o’ clock that’s fine as long as they get their work done.”

Summing up the debate, Denise Craig said: “If an employee feels they are part of something and that their contribution is acknowledged, that will make them happy.”

* For further information on employee engagement or to have your say on what resources would help you more effectively engage with your employees, you can follow the campaign at Twitter.

Additional practical support for employers – particularly SMEs – will be placed online early next year.