News & Views

Activating seeking systems and the benefits of greater worker engagement

What gets you out of bed in the morning? For me, literally, it’s often having to tend to a screaming toddler. Figuratively, my stimuluses are perhaps more complex. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which formed the basis for motivational theory, suggest that basic needs such as food, water and security come first before psychological and self-fulfilment needs. I’m fortunate to now be in a comfortable position in terms of satisfying those fundamental necessities and I’m looking for something more from my career. Perhaps it’s taken me too long to recognise that.

Millennials certainly do, so when it comes to recruitment and retention, as an industry, we are not just competing in terms of formal training opportunities, salary, and reward packages, we are also competing in terms of employee experience. This means that we need to activate part of their brains described by Jaak Panskeep in Affective Neuroscience as the seeking system. When we follow our seeking system it releases a chemical called dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure. We evolved to explore and experiment, but the problem today is that so many of our management systems are designed to control the role of people in our operations. In an industry such as construction this is understandable, given the safety implications of for instance, trialling an alternative technique without a thorough examination of the associated risks. However, we need to find ways of ensuring that employees have an ability to experiment and form a connection with the product at hand. Undertaken successfully, we can drive intrinsic motivations in our teams which can be more powerful that than extrinsic motivations such as financial compensation for the individual and this offers huge potential for business leaders. The enthusiasm and creativity that can be delivered as a result of this exploration can be catalysts for growth too. Through the corporation tax relief scheme for research and development the government offers huge financial incentives for businesses to explore this potential.

So, what areas should we be looking to develop? New, clean, green and advanced technologies are clearly an attraction to a younger generation. Network Rail has understandably been keen to highlight the use of drones to inspect its slopes, bridges, and other assets remotely. The piling industry needs to do the same and can already point to the use of remote rig management software such as Soilmec’s Drill Mate System and remote-controlled plant. Many early career operatives will be excited to learn that funding is being made available to support the use of a simulator in order that hours can be logged before undertaking unsupervised drilling on site. For our designers we can assert that the use of complex three-dimensional building information modelling and geotechnical design software is becoming common place.

Product and system development within our businesses isn’t the only way to provide inspiration. A study by The Boston College of Corporate Citizenship on community involvement showed that nearly 90% of companies who provided employees with volunteer opportunities noted increased engagement in those participating. At Central Piling we have supported charity work that our employees have undertaken by funding annual events such as the three peaks challenge and bike rides. We have also found these to be fantastic opportunities for building camaraderie and effectiveness within our regular operations.

Additionally, enabling mentoring and work placement experiences, for instance, will not only help the mentees but also provide stimulation for those needing a deeper sense of purpose. There are organisations out there who can help facilitate these projects. Recently I had the pleasure of introducing the Construction Youth Trust to the members of the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS). Its mission is to support young people from low income backgrounds to reach their full career potential within the construction and built environment sector. I encourage members and others within the construction sector to find out more about them https://www.constructionyouth.org.uk/ and of course the FPS’ own mentoring scheme https://www.fps.org.uk/news-views/press-release/fps-seeks-mentors-to-support-and-encourage-early-career-workers-and-students/ which is aimed at university students.

As the industry grows out of the slump caused by the Coronavirus pandemic so too do opportunities for personal development. There are many formal mechanisms for this already either in place or being put in place. At operative level the Trailblazer apprenticeship scheme has been established with two colleges. This will be funded entirely by the apprenticeship levy. For designers, a geotechnical engineer level seven degree apprenticeship (Masters equivalent) is being established to sit alongside more traditional academic courses. Furthermore, professional qualifications with for example the Institution of Civil Engineers are also now supplemented by the burgeoning sector specific, Register of Ground Engineering Professionals (RoGEP). This offers fives grades of registrants and enables external stakeholders a way of verifying competence.

I’ve covered a few key areas here but there are many ways to increase employee engagement. One should not overlook the psychological impact of changing a job title or moving workstation. By connecting with our people and equipping them with flexible skills we improve the chances of sustainable employment within our businesses and beyond. As explained by Dan Cable in his brilliant book Alive at Work, “Lots of leaders spend time thinking about their legacy, but really all we have are the positive effects that we can have on each other today. As leaders, we have a chance to make life more meaningful and more worth living, for the people that we lead. This will help our companies stay relevant and agile, but the stakes are much higher than that.”

Steve Hadley, Chair, Federation of Piling Specialists