Happy days: why engaged staff deliver better business results

Improved staff engagement levels can be a real revenue booster – and there’s opportunity for the professional services sector to get on board. Here’s how to start building a happier, more productive workforce. 

By

A happy worker is an effective worker. And that’s good for your business. Workers are 13 per cent more productive when they feel happy, according to 2019 research by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.  

A happy workforce also experiences less turnover, which translates into a cost-saving for employers. According to Deloitte, staff turnover costs Australia an estimated $3.8 billion in lost productivity and $385 million in avoidable recruitment costs each year.  

When it comes to employee engagement in the financial services industry, there’s room to improve. A 2020 Deloitte Access Economics survey revealed that 75 per cent of employees in Australian financial services reported ‘average’ levels of engagement, and only a small proportion – just 15 per cent – reported above-average levels.  

So, what can organisations do to invest in staff happiness to improve engagement? 

 What gets measured gets managed 

Daniel Spitty is CEO and co-founder of Everperform, an intelligent performance platform that uses data and insights to improve productivity, relationships and wellbeing of individuals in professional services. 

Among Everperform’s data-collection methods are pulses, a mini-survey or feedback request sent to employees that asks questions such as, ‘Am I feeling good or energised?’ Respondents answer on a scale from one to five. “We take that subjective feeling and turn it into a number that can be used as an indicator to trend throughout the year,” Spitty explains.  

Data and insights can then be used in conjunction with annual employee engagement deep dives to set KPIs for managers around metrics such as employee turnover and satisfaction. 

Made-to-measure makes workforce sense 

According to PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2021 survey, 72 per cent of workers now want a mix of remote and in-office work, with a further 19 per cent happy not to return to the office at all. Many organisations are exploring a hybrid model as staff return to the office after working from home during lockdowns in 2020.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the employee value proposition, says Chris Greenwood, Joint Global Lead of Organisation Design at PwC Australia. “If you’re in Melbourne, you spent half of last year locked away from the office and you came to new patterns and ways of working.”  

Many people discovered they preferred working from home – once schools re-opened – over “rushing to drop children off and make the bus”, Greenwood adds. Now that the lockdown has lifted, “they’re inclined to hold on to some of those benefits”. 

A personalised work arrangement requires high levels of trust. It’s like the dress policy, says Greenwood. “If I trust you to provide advice to clients about how to run their business, I probably don’t need to tell you how to dress.  

“Work with your team, work with your clients and work out the right way forward. Don’t benefit at the expense of a colleague but find accommodations for each other.”  

Personalisation increases complexity, but it also boosts productivity. As the COVID lockdown shows, says Greenwood, “people were happier” and “discretionary effort went up”. 

Organisations can do their part by redesigning physical spaces and investing in the digital technology and collaboration tools required to make a distributed workforce operate seamlessly.  

 

 Invest in relationship management  

The assumption that work must be meaningful to make us happy overlooks a critical contributing factor to our sense of happiness: relationships. Rob Cross, writing in the Harvard Business Review, observes that “people whose work is mundane or demanding are just as likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled as those with fun or inspiring jobs if they proactively invest in relationships that nourish them and create a sense of purpose”. 

One of the most important workplace relationships occurs between an employee and their immediate manager. In 2020, despite the huge disruption to business-as-usual, engagement scores went up. One study in the US found that employee engagement reached a record peak of 40 per cent in July 2020, a surprising result in the middle of the pandemic year.  

Greenwood attributes a similar rise in Australia to an increase in hands-on management caused by the lockdown.  

“There was a recognition that people were balancing kids and caring for others,” he says. Employees developed “very personal relationships with managers, who were checking in that they were all right”.  

Organisations must equip managers with the skills and capabilities they need to manage teams, such as empathy, communication and conflict resolution. “People are often promoted on basis of their technical capability,” Greenwood says. “You have to remember that management is something broader than that. Just because I’m a good consultant doesn’t mean I’d be great at running a consulting practice.” 

 Coming up for air 

Managing stress and burnout is a critical element in overall staff happiness. The ELMO Employee Sentiment Report found that in the first quarter of 2021, 34 per cent of Australian employees felt burnt out, a trend that can result in high turnover and reduced productivity.  

Spitty says that the 300,000 ratings Everperform captured from 50 firms in the past 12 months showed “there’s a strong correlation between going out for fresh air regularly and having a positive impact on your clients”. 

This is where co-creation can play an important role. Leaders can use engagement and happiness data to have meaningful conversations with staff and tailor wellbeing program to their specific workforces. “No two people are the same,” says Spitty. “Happiness and wellness have a different strength of correlation to performance when you compare one person to the next.” 

 

Show me the money… or not 

Remuneration may seem an obvious route to a happier workforce but pay poses only part of the answer. “Wealth does generate happiness, but for many, only to a limited point,” writes Roger Martin in The Power of Happiness. “Once a person passes the point of being able to afford ‘the normal cost of everyday life’, more wealth can increasingly be accompanied by less happiness, not more.” 

 It’s a view supported by the findings of a 2015 survey conducted by employer-review platform Glassdoor. Yes, salary affects job satisfaction, but more influential are factors like opportunities for career progression, competent leadership at an executive level and positive workplace culture. 

 In summing up what makes for a happy workplace, it comes full circle to engagement – that is, it requires a business actively engaged in its employees’ happiness.