Want to enhance employee performance? Productivity is only part of it...

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The pandemic lock-down has taught us plenty about remote working, new digital tools and the benefits of automation. Businesses that gain long-term will look beyond raw productivity – and focus on employee engagement as the secret to improved performance.

We’re not short of data on the impact employee engagement has on organizational performance. Gallup, which has been researching the topic for well over a decade, estimates that actively disengaged employees cost US firms around $500bn in lost productivity each year.

Conversely, highly engaged teams deliver better customer outcomes, lower staff turnover and more disciplined approaches to systems and processes. Result? Highly engaged business units deliver, on average, 21% greater profitability.

That got us wondering: what’s the impact of Intelligent Automation on employee engagement? It’s one thing to measure the benefits of automation programmes using metrics, such as time saved in transaction handling or reduced headcount. But if the result was a decline in employee engagement, perhaps we’d need to recalibrate the approach.

So, let’s pick some well-used statistics around employee engagement – and work out how automation can help.

“55% of employees say, ‘the work I do’ is the strongest factor when it comes to influencing loyalty.” (Addison Group)

For many employees, the very idea of ‘engagement’ is rooted in non-routine jobs and the human interactions that give their day texture. When we ask employees after an automation project how they feel, we often hear the term ‘released’ – they feel freed to dispense with rote work.

Human and digital integration is the key here. There’s a huge overlap between the kinds of tasks that machines can’t do well – involving emotional intelligence, for example, or relationship building – and those that raise engagement levels among human workers. Integration allows automation to work hand-in-hand with humans, not just replace them.

(Interestingly, many employees don’t even think of it as ‘bots’ taking on the work. They just see it as a smarter system having been rolled out to help them.).

Intelligent Automation’s role is to solve people’s problems; increase the focus on teamwork; and create an opportunity to acquire new skills. That’s often acutely felt in back-office teams who can feel neglected – and that processes are dumped on them, rather than them being able to contribute to enterprise performance.

“Highly engaged business units achieve a 10% increase in customer ratings and a 20% increase in sales.” (Gallup)

In contact centres, employee engagement is even more important than in the back office. Front-line agents want their interactions with customers to be positive and creative. Slow systems, excess data entry and laborious processes aren’t just frustrating for customers, they leave employees feeling exposed and subject to negativity.

Where agents can easily navigate every part of the enterprise to find the right answers – from operations to manufacturing to sales to shipping, each with their own services, systems and processes – they’re not only able to satisfy customers, they’re also in a better position to apply the skills they were hired for… personality, problem solving, communication and even upselling.

Flip it around: if systems and processes are siloed and force agents into laborious and repetitive tours through complex databases, not only will you lose customer satisfaction, you’ll end up driving down employee engagement. Then agent attrition climbs fast.

“48% of workers left their job because it wasn't what they thought it would be… 73% of Gen Z respondents left a job for not meeting their expectations.” (ThriveMap)

In one financial services business that rolled out Intelligent Automation for just 20 processes, we found that 88% of employees said their engagement had risen. More importantly, that shift was most keenly felt in job satisfaction – and almost two-thirds of employees were keen to find new processes to automate after the roll-out.

Drilling into the survey also revealed something fascinating: it wasn’t just that the more mundane or repetitive parts of their jobs had been siphoned off. For many employees, the really engaging part was the freedom to question processes and task rationale before anything had been automated.

This is a theme we come back to time and again. Intelligent Automation is a transformation project, not just a technology one. And asking ‘why is this the way we do things around here?’ is a crucial first step. It’s a process that gives employees permission to map out a way of working that much more closely aligns to their career expectations.

“Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.” (Salesforce)

Asking the question is only half the mission, of course. transformation programmes generally, and automation projects in particular, have to address reality on the ground.

So, learning from those ‘in the know’ – from front-line staff who have faced and overcome the challenges in the systems and processes they use – is priceless. And when those workarounds and frustrations are clearly being heard and acted upon, engagement shifts dramatically.

That not only makes people feel that the organisation is becoming more dynamic, addressing issues that had maybe nagged at them for a long time. It also means they get a say in how things might work in the future, with the freedom to probe how other tasks are being done – even ones not being considered for automation.

“Managers account for a 70% variance in employee engagement.” (Gallup)

Empowering employees, then, depends on middle and senior management who have that capacity to listen, the willingness to remodel processes and the drive to change.

We often hear about companies embracing a caring culture, prioritising training and development or communication – values that become even more important once standardised tasks are automated. Teams newly able to focus on more interesting work must have licence to explore, be listened to and get useful feedback.

Covid-19 has heightened the importance of good management. In many organisations, extensive remote working has forced managers to find new tools to monitor and build employee engagement, and more employees are making creative use of their time. Ally that to more value-adding jobs, and engagement can grow strongly even (and perhaps especially) during lock-downs.

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No wonder one of the phrases we hear a lot around automation is ‘stakeholder alignment’. It has to start early – in the first identification phases of a programme, where employees can be instrumental in spotting and re-engineering the processes they’re closest too. They need to feel part of the roll-out, understand what’s happening and how that will affect their future.

In other words, automation can help us get better at building hierarchies designed to optimise collaboration and engagement, rather than hierarchies of power.


An automation project that simply aims to ‘suck the robot out of the employee’ and replicate it with software risks failing on three counts. It’s a missed business transformation opportunity; it’s a potential IT headache in waiting; and it risks leaving employees demotivated and disengaged.

Combine all these factors – more positive, attentive management; freedom from drudge work; the ability to delight counter-parties; a sense of control over their work – and it’s not surprising that employee engagement rises. And then new opportunities emerge.

For example, with the technology in place to distribute work remotely and highly motivated employees, it becomes much easier to manage high volumes of interactions by dynamically assigning calls workers keen for overtime. Better still, with complex processes run by bots, training becomes a lot quicker and easier, enabling companies to offer more varied work to employees and more quickly roll out new products or services.

Far from being a drag on engagement, then, Intelligent Automation can become a highly effective recruitment, retention and productivity tool – and create a virtuous circle of continuous improvement.

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