As organisations begin to settle into a new way of working that embraces the increasingly hybrid remote/office workforce, employee productivity is rapidly emerging as a key challenge that needs to be tackled by HR Leaders. 

Whilst many employees might rightly point to the benefits of remote working technology,  the flexibility of home working, or the reduction in day-to-day work interruptions as enablers of higher productivity, conversely those ‘missed conversations’, feelings of organisational inclusion, and the mental wellbeing that comes from real-life social interaction in the office can lead to the opposite productivity outcome. 

In a bid to tackle some of these issues, company-wide programmes to improve employee engagement have taken front seat across many organisations since the Spring of 2020, but to what effect?   A quick Google search for the ‘best remote employee engagement ideas’ is likely to return the usual suspects in its top search results – Virtual coffee breaks, Home Tours, One-on-one video Calls, Team Events and Quizzes…the list is endless. 

Whilst all of this of course helps to build and sustain that all-important company culture, the elephant in the room is finding solutions to solve the more difficult challenge: how can the organisation move beyond engagement, and enable a sustainable transformation programme through effective staff empowerment. 

As stated by Greg Satell in Harvard Business Reviewmost successful transformations have one thing in common: Change is driven through empowerment, not mandated from the top”

In this 6-part blog series, we look in detail at how empowerment, and not change that is mandated from the top, might look in an organisation that embraces bottom-up transformation.

Empowering Change

So how does an organisation go about empowering change?  What does empowerment even really mean?

In the book “Leading Self-Directed Work Teams” (1993), Fisher described four essential components of employee empowerment, as follows:

  1. Authority. Employees need the latitude to take the initiative to solve problems. They need standing permission to improve processes and enhance service within certain parameters, without additional advice or permission from their manager. They must be able to bend the rules creatively within reasonable limits in order to satisfy a customer’s needs. Team leaders must prepare staff to make increasingly more important and responsible decisions.
  2. Resources. A second necessary component of empowerment is resources; that is, employees must be given the means to carry out the authority they have been given. This can include such things as time, training, money in the budget, equipment, and personnel.
  3. Information. In addition, employees require accurate and timely information to make good decisions. For example, to identify team targets for improving customer service, the customer feedback systems must be in operation so that timely data about customers’ perceptions are available. Further, this information must be given to employees to enable them to select these improvement goals that will give the customer the most perceived “bang for the buck”. In addition to customer satisfaction information, empowered employees must have the “business data” in a form they can understand so that they can not only see the big picture, but can also do team problem solving regarding how to contain costs, operate more efficiently, and generate more revenue.
  4. Accountability. A factor which has received more and more attention as teams come of age is personal accountability for work. To fail to hold employees accountable is damaging to the organization and does not promote growth in the employee.

With each of these 4 pillars (which we might consider as the foundational aspects of empowerment)  an employee has the key ingredients to take ownership of work – to do everything in their power to see a problem or opportunity through from where it initially raises its head to implementation, and deliver meaningful outcomes from it.

The Empowerment Lifecycle

Beyond these foundational aspects , the real-life ‘manifestation’ of empowerment might be considered a lifecycle, or a journey, in which those being empowered are able to identify, analyse, tackle and implement tasks and initiatives under their own authority, with full accountability for the results. 

In the empowerment lifecycle, it is crucial that employees have the opportunities, tools and capability to answer the following questions:

  • Where do we need to focus?  Empowered employees (and customers, for that matter) are better placed than anyone to help us spot the most burning issues that face us, or the biggest opportunities in front of our eyes.  Not at the end of the year, or some other indiscriminate point when the leaders decide to ask the question, but right now, tomorrow, and the day after.
  • Why do we need to focus on those things?  No problem or opportunity can be addressed without getting to the root of the issue.  The insight of our people, who deliver (and in the case of customers, consume) our services every day and armed with the right information to identify immediate issues and longer term trends, is key to gaining a deeper understanding of why those problems or opportunities exist. 
  • What are we going to do to address what we’ve found?  Any problem or opportunity has a myriad of potential solutions, and empowered employees will have the opportunity to contribute their own ideas for tackling them.  Beyond the contribution of ideas, an empowered employee will have the opportunity to take ownership of decision-making for those ideas that are within their scope of authority.  For ideas with a wider organisational impact, clear parameters and process for higher level sign-off will empower the workforce to break through what might have been considered as barriers to change.   
  • How are we going to make the change happen?  Not all findings are best addressed in the same way, and empowered employees will have the latitude to tackle them in a manner that will work best to suit their own experience, knowledge and capability, and also the specific ways of working that suit their part of the business.  From exploration of unknowns and uncertainties that might be answered through employee or customer surveys, to implementation projects to get new solutions ready for deployment and/or commercial use, empowered employees must be able to use their own discretion and capability to deliver the end result – with full accountability.

In part 2 of this blog we’ll take a deeper look at the ‘Where’ of empowerment.