Engaging employees the creative way

Employee engagement is a must for today’s businesses, says Brett Smyth of Consultancy company EngageME
By Neil King
Wed 31 Jul 2013 01:26 PM

How can a workforce survive without communication? How can a workforce perform at their optimum without caring about, or even fully knowing about what they do?

The answer, quite clearly, is that they can’t. Dialogue is one of the key components of a successful business. It’s a vital aspect of the employer-employee relationship, not to mention company-client relationship. Put simply, you need to engage.

The importance of engagement is what drove South African business consultant Brett Smyth to set up EngageME - a creative employee communication and engagement consultancy which aims to use innovative techniques to get the best results for clients.

Having launched earlier this year, Smyth’s own experience in the UAE led him to identify a need in the region for a new type of dialogue within companies.

“I’ve had a long association with the region,” he says. “My folks lived here when I was at university so I came here during my holidays.

“I had worked in South Africa and London as a consultant and loved it. I really got a good idea of what was working for some companies and what wasn’t working for others.

“My whole family was here so I joined a consultancy company here. I worked on a project to communicate a client’s strategy to all its staff, but I was told there was only one way of doing it. Every creative idea I had was shot down. I just thought there were so many opportunities to get it right, but I wasn’t allowed to do any of them.

“So I took time away from work to do an MBA, which really gave me the time out that I needed to think about things properly, as well as teaching me a lot about business. That time out let’s you think about what you want to do and what you’re excited about.

“I didn’t go into it thinking about EngageME, but I wrote the business plan one evening, and when I went back to work I told the company that I was going to resign.”

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What Smyth had put together was a business model that took communication back to basics. Stripping away the Powerpoint presentations and corporate hierarchies, he decided to set out on a mission to give companies their identities – something he believes is missing from the vast majority of businesses in the region, and something which is stunting engagement.

He says: “The best example I can give to explain engagement is the school environment. The good schools have a sense of culture, tradition and history. You go to schools knowing what they are offering, how to dress, and so on.

“It creates a culture, but here it’s so different because every business is so young and there’s such a churn in staff that even if you get something establishe, next year they’ve gone and you have to start again.

“It takes time to build up a culture, and who we are and what we are.

“Companies need to do that, and we’re here to help them.”

Studying the working environment in Dubai, Smyth says people hold a certain expectation when they start work in the emirate. But he adds that when they start their job, many people feel lost.

“The companies don’t help them settle in,” he says. “Partly because the companies themselves are still grappling with who they are.

“We hope to help companies find their identities, to find their own voice. We want to infuse traditional values – that’s so important to having a sense of community, and it’s been lost. We need to go back to what we stand for as a workforce.

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“Take our branding, for example. We use the image of two tin cans. So many people in communication use speech bubbles but we wanted something different. You can take two tin cans and make it mean so much. It’s not all about going over the top, it’s often about bringing things down to basics.

“You can take two cans and make them a telephone. It’s basic, but it’s brilliant. It’s a nice way to bring the brand to life. It’s about doing things simply but with a bit of creativity, and making the ordinary extraordinary.”

After testing his concept behind the scenes over the course of a year, Smyth was ready to go live with EngageME and help improve businesses from the inside out.

And the initial signs were good.

He says: “So far people have been really excited about the concept and we’ve been invited to work with a lot of companies. They see the need for what we do, both on an emotional level and a financial level. A more engaged workforce is a happier, more productive workforce, which means better output.”

As a case study, Smyth explained how he and his team dismantled a series of slide presentations to give one company an off-site weekend the likes of which they had never seen before.

“Most people spend a fortune on hotels and so on, but a lot of the time the off-site doesn’t really work,” he says. “We tried to do things a bit differently, and people really responded to it.

“For the final session, we had to deliver the entire company strategy so that the employees could take it away and remember it. We didn’t want to go through the slides they’d drawn up, so we thought about how we could break it down. We had to get 50 slides down to one summary, so everybody could go away knowing what the strategy was.

“What we came up with was paint by numbers, so that the whole team could paint the strategy to life.

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“We created a huge paint by numbers board and they filled it in. They absolutely loved it! Ultimately people want to have fun. Everybody got involved from top to bottom, which was great.

“We recently did a survey to see if they remembered the strategy, and they pretty much all did. They felt like they had brought the strategy to life themselves.

“Pictures and other creative means can be a simple way to create a simple message.”

Creativity is clearly an important part of what EngageME do, and Smyth gives much of the credit to the company’s creative guru, Bug, who designs the business’s visual content.

She says: “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to be creative. You can always come up with ideas with what you’ve got in front of you.

“We’re creating an environment we love to work in which means we’re going to do a better job for our clients. We’re doing the job we want to do, but we also feel we’re doing work that’s important.”

Smyth adds: “If we’re advising people, we have to reflect what we’re preaching. Everything we’re doing internally with the way the business is set up, the social media, the website, and so on.

“We have fun doing it, and we’ve actually got such good feedback for the website. It was a bit of a gamble as it’s quite zesty and fresh, but part of Engage and part of being an entrepreneur is creativity. If we’re not screaming that ourselves, then what does that say about us?”

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The idea of using creativity to improve communication and foster engagement is one which runs through the whole client-facing aspect of EngageME, right down to the payment of the invoice.

“It’s hard to get people to pay sometimes, so we send a little collection can with a description of the project inside it, just to be a bit cheeky but also a bit fun,” says Smyth.

“It’s a relationship, so you’ve got to be able to communicate, and sometimes it’s better to be a bit fun, a bit cheeky. There’s also a professional side to it, of course. We’re having fun but the professional element is always there.”

Tackling the subject of engagement and communication is, but the Engage team’s own admission, a huge task. But rather than become overwhelmed, Smyth says they will take things one step at a time.

“There are so many elements to tackle in this pie. There are lots of different nuances, so rather than try to take a bite out of every one of them, why not start with the basics? Let’s just get people communicating, let’s get teams talking to each other, and get managers to mix with employees. That would be a great start.

“It’s not just us that’s trying to improve things. There’s a real movement at the moment, and that’s what we want to tap into.”

Part of the EngageME website addresses this movement. The Inspiration Nation page delves into the wider community, finding, sharing and celebrating inspirational businesses, people and ideas across the UAE in a bid to help foster a culture of unity.

“The region is growing and this is reflected in things like organic markets and craft markets.

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“The community is nurturing itself in the way it wants to be nurtured. You can see a lot of things happening – a lot of groups and communities building their own history and traditions.

“That’s what we want to tap into. People have said it’s too big a goal, because there are too many topics to tackle, but what’s important is that we make a start.

“It’s partly about showing people – especially Emiratis – that things are happening in their area, and they can be a part of it.

“People need to reflect on what they want to create in their lives. It’s not happening enough at the moment, and hopefully we can change it.”

Engaging employees and engaging communities is certainly an ambitious aim, so how do we get started?

“Things have got to be home grown,” says Smyth. “Everything that happens here has got to be built for the region and not cut and paste from somewhere else. I’ve had experience in the region, and I think the UAE can grow things organically. It’s going to take time, but it can happen.

“Inspiration is a core element, and companies can be at the heart of it. They can help employees get back into the community.

“We all want to work for the good guys, but for a long time that idea was ignored in the region and it was just about making money. But there’s been a change recently, and the companies want to help their employees do more than just earn a paycheck.

“That contributes to the fact there is so much potential here and so much passion among the people who live and work here. It’s just about working hard to make things happen.”

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