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Engaging workplaces for a sustainable future

On Monday scores of people working on and interested in employee engagement came together for an Engage for Success conference called Engaging Workplaces for a Sustainable Future. The event aimed to bring together practitioners, policymakers and academics to debate and discuss how employee engagement can contribute to ensuring the sustainable performance of organisations.

It was a collaboration between the ‘Engage for Success’ Guru Group, and the Economic and Social Research Council’s seminar series focusing on employee engagement that has been running for the past 18 months. Kent Business School in Canterbury, UK, hosted it and Hayley McGarvey of The Communications Lab has kindly written a guest article to share her thoughts with you. My thanks to her for keeping us updated, over to you Hayley.

“Our currency is belief and energy”: Engaging Workplaces for a Sustainable Future
Arriving at the Engage for Success conference at the Kent Business School, UK, I collected my information pack and a very strong cup of coffee. I was immediately struck by the number of people in the room, and was told by an employee of the University that over 150 people had signed up for the event.
Weaving through the crowd, a series of quick hello’s and nice-to-finally-meet you’s  told me two things; firstly, that I know far too many people ‘virtually’ who I hadn’t yet had a chance to meet in person – it’s amazing how social media has transformed the process of getting to know someone, isn’t it? Secondly, a swift lap of the room saw apples of every variety bobbing to the surface – from Consultants to Lecturers, HR Managers to PhD Students. With such an eclectic mix of E4S fans, the conference was certain to tease out some interesting questions from hungry delegates.

After a welcome from Professor John Baldock (Pro-Vice Chancellor Research, University of Kent), David MacLeod and Nita Clarke talked us through the progress and successes of the Engage for Success movement so far (see infographic).

Embrace innovation
David reminded us of the importance of transformational engagement over transactional engagement, and Nita raised an interesting question around innovation – ‘normally innovation is a value, but what happens when something goes wrong?’ I’m sure this is something we can all relate to – no one enjoys seeing their ideas fail, especially if it means you’re in the doghouse at work simply for piping up and being innovative. Nita encouraged us to embrace innovation – and to be prepared for both successes and failures.

Later that morning, Dr Ian Dodds chaired the Practitioners Forum. Examining the key components of employee engagement that work in practice, the speakers included Karen Bowes (HR Director, Capital One), Sharon Darwent (Head of Employee Engagement, BT) and Kirsteen Coupar (Employee Relations and Employee Engagement Manager, University of Greenwich). This was a highlight of the conference, and I particularly enjoyed Sharon Darwent’s talk, entitled ‘Making Employee Engagement Better at BT’.

One of the focal points of this talk was the importance of tailoring language, to ensure that everyone is on the same page – even if it’s a language that you’re unfamiliar with. For example, she told us that her initial approach when presenting her research findings to the board was to outline the employee engagement figures for certain areas; if one area had significantly improved their score, she’d take great pleasure in expressing these successes to the board.

However, she quickly noticed that a few people took little notice or interest in these figures, so she decided to take another approach. If people weren’t concerned that 34% of employees were disengaged, she’d simply speak in a language they might find easier to digest – by translating these figures for them. Perhaps they’d understand this:  34% of disengaged employees = up to £2 billion in salaries paid by BT.

Power of language
I found this interesting because I’m passionate about language and the way it’s used, interpreted and translated in business. Although I understand the value and merit of academia, I’m also a believer in straight-talking; language has the power to involve and engage, but also to exclude and isolate.  If people are spoken to in a language that fails to engage them, the process is stubbed out before the spark has a chance to ignite. In encouraging accessible language around employee engagement, we encourage a larger number of people to understand it, and to want to be involved.

Karen Bowes from Capital One gave a great talk on the successes of the company. In just three years, employee engagement was turned on its head, rising from 26% to 83%. Karen showcased the Vision Day & Vision fest organised for employees. During Vision Day, employees were encouraged to make YouTube style videos advertising the company, helping them to unveil and connect with the aspects of the business that they believe in. The Vision Fest was an opportunity for musicians within the company to showcase their talents, and gave employees a chance to let their hair down alongside their colleagues. Here at The Communications Lab, we were really proud to be Capital One’s partner on this fantastic and exciting piece of work.

Karen shared a quote from one employee, providing a shining example of the effect employee engagement can have on both professional and personal lives:

“Capital One is part of my life, not just a place I work. I love it and it’s made me a better person.”

A series of other speakers followed; we heard from Harry Donaldson (Regional Secretary, GMB Scotland) on why workers should take an interest in employee engagement. Following lunch, Dr Kerstin Alfes (Kingston University), Dr Mark Gilman (University of Kent) and Professor Clare Kelliher (Cranfield School of Management) discussed how academic research could benefit practice, chaired by Mike Emmott (Advisor, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, CIPD).

Peter Cheese (Chief Executive, CIPD) presented his thoughts on what engagement can contribute to economic growth and prosperity later in the afternoon, and was met with some challenging tweets (see #e4s). The conference ended with the Engage for Success guru group panel, answering questions from delegates on the future of employee engagement.

Some of my favourite tweets from the day, presenting some interesting arguments and questions are below:

  • @grafrost: We have to show people a new way of leading – BT at #e4s
  • @miss_commslab: #e4s brilliant to hear BT taking a strengths based approach to engagement
  • @rebeccapain: @Dilysrobinson: Russell Grossman, BIS: in times of change, “you cannot over-communicate”
  • @bobnhughes: Interesting how often the concept of fairness comes up in impvorin engagement. Different from quality #e4s
  • @grafrost: People are solutions, not problems
  • @berghindjoseph: Engaged employees help improve organisational performance
  • @bobnhughes: Leadership is not about what people do when you are there: it’s about what they do when you aren’t there
  • @jododds: Remember the 20-50-30 rule and focus on the 50% in the middle, not the 30% disengaged – Harry Donaldson
  • @rebeccapain: People used to be hired and fired for behaviours, now hired for behavious and trained in hard skills

Thank you for capturing your thoughts from Monday and sharing here Hayley. What do you think of what you’ve read? You’re welcome to comment below or tweet her @PottsMcG. Did you attend the event? What was your view on what was shared?

Further reading
You can find a list of upcoming Engage for Success events at the bottom of the E4s website homepage. You’ll also find a wealth of tools and resources relating to employee engagement for you to read, download and discuss, Rachel

Post author: Hayley McGarvey


  1. Graham Frost says:

    Great post and much more succinct than mine on the same topic. I loved the Capital One presentation too, because it made me want to go and work there. Oh, and thank you for ‘favouriting’ some of my tweets 🙂

  2. Hayley McGarvey says:

    Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Your tweets were very worthy of favoritism – I’d have replied to some of them on the day, but my phone failed me and left me stranded without Twitter!
    I visited the Capital One offices a few months ago, and it’s a truly amazing place to be…

  3. Steven Halton says:

    I would just like to give a shout out to Headlines Corporate News who designed the info graphic.
    Apparently it went down a storm at the conference.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Good shout Steven, you can indeed credit Headlines. The full details behind it are here:


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