A few weeks ago, Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College published an article in The New York Times entitled “Rethinking Work.” Professor Schwartz begins by citing a Gallup poll from 2014 that found nearly 90% of workers are either not engaged or are actively disengaged from their jobs. “Nine out of 10 workers spend half of their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be,” notes Schwartz.
These findings are even more disturbing because for the past decade so many companies have embraced this notion of employee engagement and have worked actively to enhance satisfaction in the workplace. In companies across the world, scores of surveys have been administered and countless hours spent on programs intended to enhance employee engagement. And yet after all these years and all this effort, Gallup finds no progress — indeed, we’ve lost ground.
Why did these efforts to enhance employee engagement go wrong?
As is often the case, part of the answer may be insidiously obvious — these well-intended efforts to enhance the workplace experience failed because they focused on, well, the workplace.
The Original Hot Workplaces
Fifteen years ago I served as the head of HR for a trendy high-tech company in Silicon Valley. This company had an appropriately hip workplace — there was a curvy yellow slide that carried us between floors, a nap room, pool tables, espresso machines, beer & wine on Friday afternoons, ice cream carts, a fabulous fitness center, etc. Our offices were made of sleek glass, stylish furniture, and bright open-concept work spaces.
Before the Dotcom Bubble burst, many of our employees were actively engaged in the company and their work. They were passionate about the mission of the company and genuinely felt they were making a positive contribution in the still fledging Internet enterprise. But as cool as the office environment was, I believe these high levels of engagement existed because of the meaning of the work itself, not the free ice cream.
Likewise, if the employee engagement efforts of the last decade have failed, their failure is at least in part due to an over-focus on working conditions and an under-focus on the workers themselves.
The Whole Story on Well-Being
While taking a sabbatical, I’ve recently been involved in the Well-Being at Work project (wellbeing.nd.edu) at the University of Notre Dame. This project is a comprehensive longitudinal group of studies aimed at uncovering the fundamental elements of what makes work not just satisfying or engaging, but what makes work an ennobling experience where both company and employee flourish. Professor Matt Bloom and his research team have been conducting scholarly research in this area for nearly five years, and their studies have recently expanded more than twofold.
Part of Professor Bloom’s theory is based on a ‘whole-person’ view of work and workplaces. The premise is that if we focus primarily on the worker-workplace experience we miss an overwhelmingly important part of the employee — that is, the part that resides outside of, but is still influential to, their work. Family, friends, hopes, dreams, illnesses, exercise, homes, vacations, spirituality and many other facets of life swirl around employees each day of their working lives. And yet most workplace engagement efforts take passing notice of these critical life components if they notice at all.
Is it a surprise then that 90% of all workers are disengaged from their companies and jobs when their companies are actively disengaged from large portions of their workers’ lives?
In the NY Times article, Professor Schwartz notes the influence of Adam Smith’s treatise written in 1776 in which Smith suggests that most people are lazy and want to work as little as possible. Schwartz rejects this theory, although he appropriately underscores how influential Smith’s ideas have been on our view of employees for over two hundred years now.
“Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to,” notes Schwartz. He goes on to emphasize that this pervasive view of workers “is making us dissatisfied with our jobs — and it is also making us worse at them.”
Here is a critical point — not only does our limited view of the worker create legions of dissatisfied workers, it also creates scores of underperforming workers. Even the most ruthless and uncaring of organizational leaders must recognize that organizational success will forever be artificially capped if those doing the work are not performing at their highest levels. If 90% of workers are disengaged, than 90% of workers are underperforming — as are 90% of companies.
The Case for Meaning
“Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way,” notes Professor Schwartz.
I couldn’t agree more, and yet having worked for 25 years in for-profit corporate settings, I understand why a concept like ‘meaning’ is elusive — even scary for organizational leaders. It would take a lot of gumption to walk into a board room and exclaim, “Let’s help our employees find more meaning in their work!” I can only imagine the blank stares that would likely be directed back at such a proclamation.
However, finding meaning in work isn’t such a hard or complicated concept. Schwartz points out that it may be as simple as a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems, or a teacher who wants to educate kids, or a lawyer who wants to serve clients with care. But we muck-up these simple quests for meaning by reducing them to a monetary transaction and/or crushing them with a heaping dish of performance metrics.
My own experience back by Professor Bloom’s research supports these views. For example, we achieved high levels of employee engagement at a Fortune 100 healthcare company in part
by connecting employees’ work to helping solve the healthcare crisis in America. This is reminiscent of the old story about the NASA janitor who, when asked what the purpose of his job, responded that he was helping send an astronaut to the moon.
When viewed through Professor Bloom’s whole-person lens, we recognize that while most folks need a paycheck, money is only part of what is really needed from work. Yes, we want to be fairly compensated for our work, but more importantly we want workplaces where we can learn and grow, where we have friendly folks to work with, and where we can derive some amount of importance or meaning.
These concepts aren’t complicated, but providing them in the workplace requires organizational leaders to rethink the way they view success — and to rethink their view of workers in the first place.