Engaged employees drive innovation

Engaged employees drive innovation

KEWAL HANDA Managing Director


Many people associate innovation with big transformational ideas that are created in moments of sheer inspiration. But more often than not, innovation is the product of a multitude of small ideas, small changes across an organisation. Innovation is typically a bottom-up process.

The two concepts – bottom-up and process are equally important for innovation to happen. Innovation is not an end in itself; it is an ongoing process, a continuous quest for improvement. And it is bottom-up because it is creativity and enthusiasm at the grassroots that drives innovation at higher levels.

Innovation can come from any source: a scientist in a laboratory, a sales representative in a doctor’s chamber or a clerk in an accounts office.

Understanding this is the key to unlocking innovation in an organisation.

In an industry as knowledge-intensive as the pharmaceutical industry, innovation is not just an abstract, fuzzy concept pinned up on office walls. It is both a business imperative and a social responsibility.

To thrive in an increasingly globalised market place and tackle the enormous healthcare challenges that mankind faces, pharma companies must drive innovation in areas as diverse as product development, drug delivery, R&D, operations, sales and patient education.

To do that, we have to build systems to share knowledge across the value chain, create an environment that sparks creativity, and put in place mechanisms to harness the collective potential of our people. For, ultimately people are the prime drivers of innovation.

The drivers of innovation

Few will dispute that it is employees who drive innovation. But what motivates employees to innovate, to find more creative solutions to problems, to think out of the box? Or, to put it differently, what is the kind of employee who is most likely to be innovative? The simple answer is an engaged employee.

This raises two more questions: Who is an engaged employee? And how do you create employee engagement.

In his book, Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, author Tim Rutledge explains that truly engaged employees are attracted to, and inspired by, their work (‘I want to do this’), committed (‘I am dedicated to the success of what I am doing’), and fascinated (‘I love what I am doing’).

Engaged employees constantly seek ways of improving performance, share information with colleagues, go out of their way to meet customer needs, focus on business results, have a greater sense of commitment to the organisation and are better team players.

According to a recent Gallup Management Journal (GMJ) survey, engaged employees are most likely to contribute to innovations. The survey found that engaged employees are more productive, profitable, safer, create stronger customer relationships, and stay longer with their company than less engaged employees.

The survey found that 59 percent of engaged employees strongly agreed with the statement that their current job ‘brings out [their] most creative ideas’. The study showed that engaged workers were more likely to react positively to creative ideas offered by fellow team members and that that workplace friendships play in promoting innovation.

The survey also investigated the effect of employee engagement on customer service innovation. It found that nearly nine in 10 engaged employees (89 percent) strongly agreed that ‘at work, I know where to go with an idea to improve customer service,’ contrasted with only 16 percent of actively disengaged employees. Engaged employees also involved customers in the innovation and improvement process.

Creating engagement

It is clear that engaged employees bring more passion and a deeper sense of ownership to the work they do. They are receptive to new ideas and tend to collaborate better with their team-mates. Engaged employees constantly seek ways to do the work they do more efficiently and productively.

What is not so clear is what creates employee engagement? Do higher pay packets and better perks lead to engagement? Or does an inspirational manager bring it about? Or does engagement result from being part of well-bonded team? Do the values and ethics of an organisation contribute to engagement?

Employee engagement is a product of a variety of factors. No single factor can create engagement by itself. To create engagement, companies must connect with employees at multiple levels: professional, personal, emotional and intellectual.

I will briefly touch upon some of the factors that can go a long way in creating engagement.

Make employees feel they are valued: Many things define an employee’s sense of worth in a company. Financial rewards such as salaries, perks and bonuses are clearly one aspect. But companies must have a system of recognition and rewards that go beyond financial incentives.

These could take many forms; from simple letters of appreciation to organisational awards to well-designed performance appraisal systems. Such recognition not only makes performers feel valued, but also has a demonstration effect on others.

According to a Global Workforce Survey the number one driver of engagement is a belief amongst employees that their leaders are sincerely interested in their well-being.

Provide opportunities to grow professionally and personally: Stagnant employees are neither engaged nor productive. Ensure your employees keep learning new skills by instituting a proper training and development framework.

Employees must have ample opportunities to grow vertically, not just in terms of salary and position, but also in moving on to more challenging assignments. Encourage cross-functional movement so that employees develop more all-round skills.

Companies are increasingly encouraging employees to participate in initiatives beyond work, such as in corporate social responsibility programs. Such measures help develop more holistic individuals, and create stronger bonds.

Encourage independent and out-of-the-box thinking: A classic, and highly successful, example of this is the ’20 percent time’ offered by search engine Google to its employees. Their engineers and programmers are allowed to take 20 percent of their work time (one day of their five-day week) off, to work on something of their own design. There are no strings attached, no results expected. Some of the company’s most innovative products are an outcome of this initiative. Helping employees give free rein to their imagination is one of the best ways to keep them engaged.

Get rid of obstacles

To be at their creative best, employees need to focus all their energies on the job at hand. Companies must create an environment that allows employees to work freely without distractions. To harness the full potential of an employee, companies must ensure that they are not bogged down by bureaucratic hurdles, unnecessary paperwork and formalities.

Create a sense of ownership

The most engaged and innovative employees in any organisation are usually those who have a deep sense of ownership and belongingness.

To instill that, you must empower your employees. Give them responsibility along with accountability; seek out their ideas, give constructive feedback and reward the good ideas; treat employees as partners and equals.

At a personal level, find ways to involve their families in the organisation and help them tide over crisis. These measures will create more lasting connections between an employee and a company.

Create a sense of pride

If employees have a sense of pride in the company and the work they do, they are likely be more engaged. Companies must help employees understand the impact their work has for the customer, the company or even society at large, particularly in the case of pharma companies.

People will take pride in work that they believe makes a meaningful difference to the world around them. Employees also care a lot about the values and ethics of a company. An ethical, value-based company that encourages integrity and transparency will easily be able to instill pride in its employees.

Listen to employees

Employees are brimming with ideas, thoughts, suggestions and complaints. And they want to be heard. Organisations where communication across levels is open and seamless tend to have more innovative and engaged employees.

Create forums and platforms for employees to express themselves freely. Encourage discussion and sharing of ideas. And, not just that, make sure that they know their opinions matter.

Communicate to employees

Companies have to communicate with employees at many levels. At the highest level, there must be a clear articulation of the vision and values of the company; this will help employees align themselves with larger organisational goals.

At the individual level, each employee must be clear about their roles and responsibilities, and the expected outcomes. People perform best when they know what is expected of them.

Finally, in many companies, employees are often the last to know about developments within the company. This can have a big impact on employee morale, and, in times of crisis, even breed insecurity. Companies must have a number of institutional mechanisms to communicate information about developments and events to employees, and put forth its perspective.

Find out what they are thinking

Till you know what employees think and feel, you will not be able to create programmes that increase engagement.

Surveys are a good way to understand what employees think about a wide range of issues. Are they enjoying their work? Are they happy with their colleagues? Is the work environment congenial? Are they learning and growing? Do they have a sense of ownership and belongingness? Answers to these questions can help companies improve their programs.

Employee engagement, like innovation, does not happen overnight. It’s a mix of the organisation’s culture, values, vision, and programs that drive engagement. But there is little doubt that to drive innovation a company must first create engagement.

The Gallup study summed it up succinctly: ‘Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.

They drive innovation and move the organisation forward.’