An engaged workforce positions a company’s digital initiatives for success.

Digital transformation is multidimensional, involving people, work cultures, and technologies. Transformation programs are complex because they address tangible short-term needs, while at the same time building a foundation for the future, which is by definition uncertain. Inspiring people to work with new technologies in a context of uncertainty is challenging.

This challenge is compounded by the fact that, according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report, employee engagement is low: Only 15% of employees on a global scale are “highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work.” The Gallup study concluded that engagement was much higher when people felt that their input mattered and that they had the autonomy to develop and implement new ideas. How can leaders create this context in their organization? During the past few years, my research has shown the behavior of senior leaders to be the top change driver in digital transformation projects. The question today is what leadership behaviors will inspire people and make them feel engaged in work in our fast-changing, uncertain world?

In my most recent study, I asked more than 300 managers in 27 countries about engagement using the question “How free do people in your organization feel to provide input and challenge ideas, including business models and work practices?” The data broke into three subsets of similar size: high engagement, low engagement, and neutral. When comparing the highly engaged groups with the less engaged groups, there were numerous fundamental differences around work practices and leadership behavior. Three strategic areas concerning senior leaders’ behavior and actions can increase meaning and engagement around digital transformation initiatives, making them more likely to succeed.

  1. Clarify the role of digital transformation within the company’s strategic vision, then walk the talk. Leaders who communicate effectively throughout the digital transformation process build engagement. They can start with these three best practices:

    • Make it compelling and relevant. The “why” of a digital program has to be integrated into the organization’s overall vision and purpose. Digital is often perceived as an unwelcome disruption, just another corporate change program, but some people will realize that the change may affect their jobs and their future. They need a convincing reason to get on board. They need to believe before they will engage.
    • Make it a priority. Competing priorities have long been a top obstacle in digital transformation programs, which are in competition with other enterprise initiatives and as a result are not always sufficiently resourced. By clarifying the role of digital, leaders are signaling the priority level for these potentially unwelcome projects.
    • Walk the talk. After clearly articulating the value of a particular program, leaders need to demonstrate the value they attribute to digital through their own behavior. They need to be visibly involved in digital initiatives, for example, by making progress reports a regular part of executive meetings. They need to be heard and seen on digital platforms when it makes sense — for example, participating in interactive video town hall sessions with live Q&A or writing executive blogs or occasional messages on the enterprise social network. When management walks the “digital talk,” people are more likely to respect and trust them when they talk about the role of digital in the organization and what it means for people.

    These behaviors and actions were found to be much more common among highly engaged managers, often occurring at twice the level of those demonstrating low engagement.

  2. Share decision-making, especially with people on the edges of the organization. Leaders should encourage participatory decision-making. Digital initiatives cannot be defined in an executive black box. The customer-facing workforce, exposed to clients and competitors, is an often-untapped source of information and market intelligence. Their firsthand, feet-on-the-ground views will enrich the input and help make better decisions about strategy and how to implement it.

    When a global 70,000-employee company in the energy, infrastructure, and services sector organized a series of workshops to define its digital transformation strategy and implementation plan, distributed decision-making was a key factor in the workshops’ success. While most of the corporate functional leaders felt they could represent employees on the front lines, one senior leader pushed to invite several operational managers who had direct contact with customers.

    These operational managers’ experiences led to a collaborative definition of the program’s “why” and the definition of first steps to engage operational teams on the front lines. The resulting strategy document had high credibility in the company because it was signed jointly by all the workshop members. They created a powerful vision that inspired the multiyear initiative. Because leaders at multiple levels shared ownership of the program, rollout took place with relatively few hitches.

    Involving people proactively increases engagement. I saw this firsthand: Highly engaged employees included operational staff in their change initiatives three times more frequently than those from the low-engagement group. Interestingly, highly engaged employees come from organizations that are designing strategies with a people focus; nearly 70% of the highly engaged employees in my study reported that employee experience and customer experience were top goals for their transformation programs (versus half or less in the low-engagement subset).

  3. Embed ongoing experimentation and learning in the work culture. Leaders should also encourage experimentation. Many enterprises have taken the cautious first step of creating innovation labs where dedicated cross-organizational teams work on new ideas. The labs become showcases for visitors and internal staff and are intended to show new, innovative ways of working. Some companies have communication strategies to spread the innovative approach beyond the lab by organizing show-and-tell events and creative work sessions in different parts of the organization.

    Communicating is a good starting point, but leaders have to go further. One senior leader positioned the company’s lab from the beginning as an accelerator for the rest of the organization. As projects were developed, people from business units were invited to participate, and once proof of concept had been tested and confirmed, there was a formal process of handing projects off to business units who then took ownership and carried them forward to client implementation.

    A critical component of encouraging this experimental mindset is to break out of bureaucracy. Making processes and policies intrapreneur-friendly is a still deeper change. Traditional bureaucratic processes for getting project budgets are complicated in many companies. Agile budgets, where money is allocated step-by-step on the basis of multiple short-term checkpoints rather than as a preset annual budget, change the dynamic of the project, bringing energy and a strong focus on observable results. Another example of breaking out of bureaucracy is implementing a policy where people are encouraged to develop their own projects on company time without specific permission needed. Nearly half the companies in the high-engagement subset practiced both of these approaches.

    Because digital initiatives explore new territories, experimentation and ongoing learning happen in real time. I found that 70% of the highly engaged managers (versus 40% of those less engaged) feel it is “easy for people to learn in the natural flow of work.” This is an invaluable asset for companies on the transformation path because as projects advance, the skills and knowledge needed will be discovered and evolve over time.

By starting with a clearly articulated vision, including functional and operational leaders in brainstorming and decision-making, and promoting a culture of continuous learning, senior leaders can contribute positively to building an engaged workforce, which positions their digital initiatives for success.