Companies need to continually look for different ways to engage employees in order to compete in today’s rapidly changing world. Multinational professional services firm EY, which was named Mays Business School’s 2018 Corporate Partner of the Year, uses a number of strategies to involve and retain employees and improve their performance.

As part of Mays’ EY Day on March 22, EY Southwest Talent Leader Allison Allen spoke to graduate students who are studying human resource management.  During her presentation, Allen described the importance of flexible scheduling, mentoring, sponsorships, and employee engagement to EY’s efforts.

Corporate engagement

Allen, who leads a 48-member HR team at the global services company, stressed that the company’s business agenda and people agenda need to be the same thing. “You always need people to drive your business agenda so you need to think like a business person. You need to make sure that human resources is always at the table so that you know what the business agenda is and are able to drive it through your people.”

She is a strong advocate for always communicating the reasons for business decisions to employees. “We often tell people what to do, but we don’t always tell them why it is important,” she said.

Allen noted that the Southwest Region has taken this approach one step further through actively seeking employee feedback and engagement. “When we are developing our HR strategy, we’re going to co-develop it with the people who work for this company and they’re going to help us implement it and we’re going to collaborate,” she said. “The insight that I’ve gotten from that has been mind-blowing in terms of the humility of thinking what I and the HR team would have done on our own if we had not partnered with our clients.”

She credits this level of employee engagement with EY’s Southwest Region consistently having higher employee satisfaction ratings than the company’s other North and South America regions.

Helping employees find balance

One of EY’s primary strategies to energize and retain its workforce is through offering a flexible work schedule. “With the advent of the iPhone and all these devices where you’re always connected, the days when people’s personal and professional lives are starkly different are gone,” said Allen, who has 18 years of experience in HR. “If you don’t allow people to do what they love to do and do it in a way that’s comfortable to them, you’re not going to be able retain them.”

Allen, who was named EY’s 2017 Working Mother of the Year, has personally experienced the benefits of workplace flexibility. “One of the things that really channels me and gives me the focus to work really, really hard is the flexibility that EY gives me to be with my family,” she said. “One of the things that I’ve found in myself and seen in our firm is that when people have the ability to do what they love personally – whether it’s running a marathon, raising children, or volunteering in the community – and you give them the opportunity to do that activity fully, they are so thankful, appreciative, and renewed that they do a much better job day-to-day.”

An empowering culture

Allen also believes that successful organizations offer a sense of belonging and pride for its staff. She pointed to one of her own defining experiences: a college internship at Southwest Airlines. “(I appreciated the opportunity) to work for a company that is similar to Texas A&M in the fact that there is tremendous pride in working there and an incredibly strong culture built on a sense of belonging,” she said. “You are looking at how that culture and sense of belonging empowers people to do the very best job they can do every day. I saw the power of that and what it can do for people.”

She noted that EY is building a culture that not only encourages a sense of belonging, but also provides employees with new professional challenges. “People in the future are going to go to a job based on the experiences they’re going to get; they’re not getting bored because they are challenged and being inspired,” Allen said.

Allen believes that mentors and sponsors are critical in helping employees, especially women and minorities, reach their potential. “A mentor is like a counselor who is giving you career insight and guidance. They are there to help you move through different stages in your career and help you achieve what you want to achieve,” she said. “A sponsor is in a position of influence and is willing to use that influence or their political capital on your behalf.”

She believes that companies need to place more emphasis on engaging sponsors to help employees. “You can give somebody all the great advice, insight and tutelage possible, but if you don’t give them the opportunity to implement that information, then a lot of those lessons are for naught,” she said, adding that sponsors also often can see the person’s talent and identify new opportunities before the employee does. “Sponsors know your worth when you don’t know it.”

A bright future for HR

Allen is optimistic about the future role that corporate human resources can play in making employees’ lives more meaningful. “If we take out some of the mundane day-to-day things that people do, whether that’s data entry or some of the routine things that a software program can do, that actually gives humans the opportunity to do what they were born to do, which is to connect,” she said. “We have that opportunity now more than ever before in the history of the world. What could happen? It’s an incredible opportunity but we will need HR to help guide that level of interaction, to help people rise to the occasion, and to create jobs that we haven’t heard about or thought about.”