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Why 2020 is all about people tech

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bbernard / Shutterstock)

It’s going to be an interesting year.

We’re almost four years on from the EU referendum, and we still don’t really understand what our business relationship with our closest neighbours will look like. PwC, the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies all broadly agree that growth will be slow in 2020, and not much better in the medium-term.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the UK was a humming engine of productivity, but we’ve struggled to find our way back to the levels we saw before the financial crisis of 2008. There’s considerable debate about exactly how and why this is the case, but the facts seem undeniable: we just don’t get as much done per hour or per worker as we used to.

Some point to a bright, tech-driven future, and there’s merit in this. We have a great history of innovation, particularly in the tech sector, and we still produce more (and more valuable) start-ups than anywhere else in Europe. A recent McKinsey report singled out the UK as being well-placed to take advantage of AI developments in comparison to its EU neighbours. But start-up growth won’t benefit everyone. Shiny new tech is brilliant, headline-grabbing stuff, but it’s not always obvious how a fantastic development in, say, fintech affects factory workers in Macclesfield or borough council employees in east London. If we want to get ahead in these straitened economic times, we need to take everyone with us. And the one asset that everyone uses, irrespective of sector or size, is people. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at another statistic that drives productivity: employee engagement.

A better predictor of task and team performance

Traditionally, the UK doesn’t rank particularly highly for engagement: Gallup’s most recent “State of the Global Workplace” highlighted just 11 per cent of UK workers as being highly engaged in their jobs, compared to a figure closer to 35 per cent for the USA. Why does this matter? Because engagement is one of the engines of performance. And here’s the thing: we’re not really engaged by perks. When organisations try to improve engagement, all too often they base their initiatives on experience in the workplace: better coffee; more activities; a nicer working environment. But when you ask people what truly engages them, the answer is nearly always the same. It’s the work. It’s the tasks that we do. If we make the work better, we help people to perform better. 

We’re talking here about work engagement - our relationship to the tasks and goals we do every day. And research by - among others - Wilmar Schaufeli at the University of Utrecht tells us that work engagement is a better predictor of task and team performance than any other factor: almost three times better than transformational leadership, for example. 

But everyone’s experience of work is different. That’s why we need employee-centric tech to surface those experiences and identify the areas we need to improve or double-down on. The annual engagement survey can’t do this, for two main reasons: firstly, they’re nearly always anonymous, which means you’re dealing with aggregated data; and secondly, they’re conducted (at most) once or twice a year, which only gives you a snapshot of how people are feeling on a particular day. And that opens you up to factors outside your control. You can’t cater for a dreadful commute, or a sick child, or a morning argument with a spouse.

The best technology has a human heart

But if you look at engagement in a continuous way, you remove that problem. This is what we mean by employee-centric tech: the ability to identify engagement barriers at an individual level while retaining the anonymity that is so important if you want to get meaningful data. By using technology that helps employees to reflect on their own energy, immersion and purpose at work, we can help them to identify their motivations and offer smart nudges to help them raise those issues with their manager. And this is where the loop closes. Engagement then becomes part of performance management. We create a virtuous circle whereby the barriers to engagement get discussed and acted on as part of the employee-manager relationship. It’s about listening to people, understanding their concerns and taking meaningful action. Do all this and we improve their experience of work, their engagement and - by extension - their performance.

This approach is both inclusive and democratic. It’s for everyone. Why wouldn’t you want to improve every person at your organisation? Think back to the bad old days of performance management, where everyone got their annual score out of 5 and the lowest-ranking ten per cent got fired (yes, “rank and yank” really did happen). This is the diametric opposite: the chance for the entire organisation to develop and improve using the most important working relationship there is: the one between manager and employee.

The best technology has a human heart. It understands how people behave. Historically, business tech has struggled to deliver this (in contrast to consumer tech, which lives or dies on its ability to insinuate itself into the flow of our daily lives). To cite research from PwC, 90 per cent of CEOs say that they pay attention to human needs when introducing new technology. Barely half of employees (53 per cent) agree. Of course, businesses can impose tech on their people, but poor design or poor understanding of human behaviour will impact adoption, which will ultimately impact the value of the data you capture.

It’s about improvement

Tapping into work engagement and using it to inform performance is a simple, elegant solution to a very human productivity problem. And it doesn’t require massive investment or fundamental organisational change. It’s about having better conversations. It’s about talking to your people more often and more productively. It’s about taking the time to understand what they need to do their jobs more effectively.

For something with a human face, this sort of thinking has a rigorous focus on the bottom line. It’s about improvement. It’s about development. It’s for everyone’s benefit, sure. But ultimately it’s about benefiting the organisation: ensuring that people contribute to their best of their ability; drawing out their strengths; giving them clarity and purpose so they know what their priorities are. This is the real value of people-centric tech: people actually use it, which gives the organisation the data it needs to keep evolving, refining and growing.

Stuart Hearn, Founder & CEO, Clear Review

Stuart Hearn is Founder & CEO at Clear Review – the performance management company that enables more meaningful and continuous employee feedback.