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What do employees really want from their jobs?

What does it take to get employees truly engaged, loving their jobs, earning fulfillment from their work and reaching their full potential? How about a workplace wellness program? Flexible hours and work-from-home? Sure. Those are all good ideas and they’re fast becoming the norm. But employees are more and more demanding these elements of a progressive workplace in a context of respect: respect for the individual, respect for the work they do, and respect for their accomplishments in the job.

It’s all about “engagement.” A recent report from Psychometrics Canada, an Alberta based consulting firm, really put this in clear terms for me. It defines employee engagement in terms of its results: When an employee feels truly engaged, he or she demonstrates “higher levels of performance, commitment and loyalty.”

In the firm’s survey of Canadian HR professionals, they found that employee engagement was seen as “very important” by 82% of respondents. Interestingly, 69% also said they thought that levels of engagement were a problem in their organizations. Less than one percent said it wasn’t an issue at all.

That makes sense to me, particularly in the context of the millennials who are starting to take over the workforce, and whose standards and expectations are very different from those of the baby-boomer generation. (Personally, I can see where millennials are coming from, but it is still a two-way street: a workplace should be able to engage employees, but each person still has to make the choice to engage with the job if they want to be successful.)

The most important benefits of an engaged workforce, according to the HR professionals surveyed, were as follows:

  • Willingness to do more than expected (39%)
  • Higher productivity (27%)
  • Better working relationships (13%)
  • Satisfied customers (10%)

I thought it was particularly interesting that the surveyed HR professionals were also able to identify pretty clearly what they saw as the effects of having a disengaged workforce (and remember that 69% of them said that engagement was a problem in their organizations, so they have a good idea what they’re up against).

  • Dysfunctional work relationships (29%)
  • Lower productivity (25%)
  • Unwillingness to go beyond the job description (17%)
  • Turnover (8%)
  • Absenteeism (7%)

The authors of the study draw attention to the relatively low numbers for turnover and absenteeism – 7% and 8%. Disengaged employees, they say, “do not leave their organizations; instead they stay and damage both productivity and relationships.”

Frankly, I’m not so sure about that. Maybe it’s a generational thing, and I wonder if many of those “disengaged” employees are actually feeling trapped in their jobs – the “golden handcuffs” we are starting to hear about in large bureaucratic organizations – think civil service – where good pay and great benefits prevent people from leaving jobs they don’t find fulfilling.

That would also explain a lot of what I’m hearing from millennials in the workplace, who are looking for quality of life in their workplaces, and why a lot of employers are scrambling to improve the working environment through wellness programs, flexible hours, telecommuting options and so on. I think it may well be that millennials are not represented in the “turnover” numbers because they never took those disengaged jobs in the first place. (But that’s a topic for another blog!)

But I’m back on side with the study when it comes to what HR professionals identified as what’s required to bring their people on-side and engaged:

  • Control over how each person does his or her job (in other words, freedom and responsibility in how the job is done);
  • Opportunities to use their skills (which lines up nicely with “going above and beyond,” the key description of the engaged employee); and,
  • Good relationships with management and leadership (which I think has to include recognition for a job well done).

It takes a commitment from the top to make these things happen. A big majority of the HR professionals, 84%, said it was up to senior leadership and managers to create the conditions that result in employee engagement. The top three things they identified as things that organizations can do to improve engagement were, again, consistent with the findings throughout the survey:

  • Communicate clear expectations;
  • Listen to employees’ opinions; and
  • Give recognition.

What it all boils down to for me is pretty simple. It’s really all about respect. People want good jobs, they want to be able to do a good job, and they want the rewards and recognition they deserve for doing it. Building the environment and culture where that becomes the norm, as I’ve so often said in this blog, starts at the top with leadership that “gets it” and is committed to making it happen.

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