Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 23, 2023.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Laura Gassner Otting, author of "Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life," offers four suggestions to help employers re-engage and retain staff members who are unhappy in their roles.
Infographic: Don't fall for these myths of staff engagement
Throughout 2021 and 2022, workers left their jobs in record numbers—sometimes before they even had another job lined up. In particular, the average resignation rate among mid-career employees aged 30 to 45 was 20% higher in 2021 than it was in 2020.
"But the problem isn't just confined to this age group or pandemic dissatisfaction," Otting writes. In a survey of over 5,600 respondents from various industries between January 2019 and December 2021, Otting found that worker dissatisfaction started as early as age 25—and it has been around long before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down.
Otting's data found that just 38.2% of workers aged 25 to 45 claimed that salary was the most important factor in their job satisfaction, even though her research found that it was the most common managerial response to the news that an employee was leaving. Ultimately, "[i]f managers want to keep employees from leaving, throwing money at the problem is a band-aid solution at best," Otting writes.
"More than anything, these employees told us that they crave work that inspires them and creates harmony between who they are and what they do," Otting writes. "This makes them more engaged, more productive, and more loyal. They want to feel like they're working toward something larger than themselves — and understand how their day-to-day job makes that happen — with autonomy to shape their role in it all."
For leaders who want to re-engage their employees, and give them the "alignment, inspiration, agency, and insight" they really need, Otting offers these four tips:
1. Focus on work-life alignment
Typically, employees aged 25 to 45 are in the most rapid trajectory of their careers, while also undergoing an expansion of personal responsibilities. "It's difficult to achieve the ephemeral work-life balance when you are getting married, having children, taking care of aging parents, attending networking events and professional development conferences, and serving on community, nonprofit, or school committees," Otting writes.
Instead of aiming for work-life balance, these workers are searching for work-life alignment. According to Otting,"[i]t's not just about the time they spend at work, but about how this work augments or detracts from the time that they spend away from it, too."
To provide employees with work-life alignment, Otting suggests asking employees how their daily work helps them achieve their career advancement goals, nurture their growing families, or manifest their values so that you can work together to address their needs
2. Figure out what drives your employees
To better understand what drives your employees, Otting recommends asking them what drew them to their job, cause, team, organization, or paycheck—and whether that still motivates them.
"Be open to their answers," Otting writes. "What you hear might surprise, excite, or confuse you, but it will help you to understand your team better. As you learn more, you can assign them to projects that are meaningful to them and reshape their daily, weekly, and quarterly goals accordingly. You'll also deepen your understanding of what inspires them so that you, in turn, can better draw a direct line (for them) towards the company's work and their personal needs in the future."
3. Loop employees into the recruiting process
"For many employees, recruiting feels like something that happens to them and their team, not with them, leaving them feeling less involved, less influential, and less important," Otting writes.
However, Otting argues that the recruiting process can provide an opportunity to take in fresh talent and perspectives, while offering a space to engage current staff.
4. Emphasize the bigger picture
In Otting's survey, only around 50% of workers ages 25 to 45 said they felt like they could connect their day-to-day tasks to their organization's larger, strategic initiatives. Of the 5,600 respondents, 92.4% said they produce higher quality work when they understand how much their work matters to the big picture.
"Consider your role in this process," Otting recommends. "Rather than simply passing along larger organizational imperatives, how can you connect the dots for team members who are wondering, 'How does any of this affect me?' Help them see direct lines between their day-to-day, weekly, monthly, or quarterly work and the company's overall long-term goals."
Instead of idly standing by while your best employees contemplate resignation, Otting urges employers to offer an alternative path workers will find personally compelling. "By giving people more agency, re-engaging them, and re-inspiring them, you can create work environments that help them feel like the best versions of themselves," Otting writes. "When this happens, they reinvest themselves into their organizations and amplify their own team-building behaviors." (Otting, Harvard Business Review, 5/19)
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