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Employment relations and employee engagement
Employment relations and employee engagement

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4 Employee engagement in times of change

Historically, organisations were concerned with the maintenance of structures, systems and performance. However change has now become regarded as normal or indeed a desirable organisational state. Organisational change has been largely associated with downsizing and delayering as firms seek ways of cutting costs to improve financial performance. Taking labour out and extracting greater labour effort remains a focal point of restructuring activities (Thompson, 2011). As a consequence, dominant growth strategies for firms in many sectors prohibit continuity and employment stability. The impacts of organisational change on employee engagement is relatively under-researched, however it deserves consideration here.

In many sectors there is a fear of being left behind as organisations face the challenges of globalisation, technological advancement and economic turmoil. Both the pace and scale of change are increasingly creating a challenging context for organisations and their leaders, managers and employees. As a result ‘organisations are a cacophony of complementary and competing change attempts’ (Dutton et al., 2001, p. 716), so perhaps it is not a surprise that some figures suggest that less than 30% of organisational change programmes achieve their stated objectives (Todnem By, 2005).

Change in the twenty-first century is complicated by the increasing connectivity within and between organisations, so that change in one area often results in a ripple effect. Indeed the relationship between organisations and their environment is never more pertinent than when considering issues of organisational change.

The range of change initiatives and drivers in contemporary organisations is increasingly complex, whereby the nature of work has undergone significant changes leading to a need to reconsider old command and control modes of management. Associated with such change, contemporary organisations are increasingly placing a greater emphasis on the voluntary forms of cooperation associated with employee engagement. The main changes within organisations are highlighted below:

  • Changed work organisation – people are increasingly working in widely dispersed groups and in flexible work arrangements, including working from home, remote working, virtual working and working non-standard hours. This spatial and temporal dispersion of work renders traditional control and monitoring unviable, and implies the need for a new type of both interdependence and cooperation between workers and managers.
  • Diversity – people are also working within a diverse workforce across different geographical locations both nationally and internationally. As with the point above, a dispersed workforce requires a new type of interdependence and cooperation between workers and managers. Moreover, the increased diversity within the workforce leads to the need for people to be able and willing to trust people with very different backgrounds.
  • The design and content of work – rather than routinised and simple tasks, jobs are increasingly focused around a strong customer service orientation, as well as ‘knowledge work’ and intellectual labour. Each of these types of work depends heavily on high levels of engagement and voluntary cooperation in work.
  • Structural change within organisations – hierarchies within organisations are increasingly being replaced by lateral alliances and social relations (Sheppard and Tuchinksy, 1996). Flatter hierarchical structures mean that people are working in teams, with responsibilities shared across group members, and within matrix structures with different managers for different tasks. Against this backdrop, formal controls and sanctions are minimal, and relationships between co-workers and management can be complex. It has been argued that employee engagement (and indeed trust) become paramount.

In the remainder of this section we consider different types of change before looking at the importance of communication.