Welcome to the new normal, where workers struggle to care about their jobs and walk the extra mile. Here we discuss some solutions to this corporate crisis of today.

Employees who exert Discretionary Energy work harder than they have to. They do so because they are engaged in their tasks, motivated, and tend to be emotionally attached to their organisation. But the benefits of Discretionary Energy manifest in other ways, too. Employees are more proactive in seeking new opportunities and persist in the face of challenges. Organisations have lower turnover. Safety outcomes and customer satisfaction improve. Many companies however, don’t put employee engagement on the top of the strategy list and end up turning off employee enthusiasm and consequently harming the bottom line.

Our employee engagement data shows that more than 40 percent of workers don’t feel as if their company is creating the right environment or offering the right incentives to keep them motivated. When you consider that such a high percentage of your employee population are not engaged, there is a lot of energy being wasted. This represents a serious energy crisis for organisations.

This is a crisis that Bob McGrath never had to deal with. McGrath is a former sales manager for IBM who retired after a 16-year career with the company in the ’60s and ’70s. He knows better than anyone how good employees used to have it. “We had good benefits, like free life insurance, and we even had country club memberships if you lived near an IBM plant. If you flew over a certain number of hours, you flew first class …”. He says that the benefits were great, but they were enhanced by the fact that “back then, IBM did not lay off anybody.” He remembers that there was “very little competition at the time,” and that today’s typical business concerns, such as worries about a company’s cash flow or balance sheet or even whether the company will exist tomorrow, simply didn’t come up when you worked for IBM.

Because of this warm work environment, McGrath says he was fully motivated. “I felt loyal to the company.” Many employees today don’t have the same praise for their employer. Companies have had to change gears since the days when McGrath was employed. Few can afford the benefit packages they used to. Market deregulation, globalisation, the global economic downturn, increased competition—these are some of the elements that contributed to companies having to shrink their budgets and do more with less.

Employees also had to adapt to this new reality. A Korn Ferry research of talent acquisition professionals shows that many workers are opting to work as independent rather than as full-time employees, often on a contingent basis. Many candidates today are also looking at organisational culture and quality of life when determining where they want to work.

So, what can companies do to navigate these new tough times and keep their employees motivated? Keeping up with a changing global economy might demand that companies adapt their engagement approaches, their reward strategies or even their organisational design. But more than anything, the solution might lie in creating a change in the work climate itself.

How companies can keep employees motivated in tough times? The answer might lie in creating a change in the work climate itself.

For some, that change begins at the top. Kurt Graves, is the CEO of Intarcia Therapeutics and had several high-level stints at large outfits like Novartis and Merck. He says that over his career, he’s seen companies get tripped up by their own managers, who drive down employee motivation. “There are a lot of mediocre companies with a lot of people who are stuck and lost because their leadership is stuck and lost.”

Professor and director of research at Harvard Business School Harvard, Teresa Amabile, couldn’t agree more. She points out that her study of 12,000 employees on worker engagement for the book “The Progress Principle”, found that only one in seven companies has managers that “paid sufficient attention to whether people in the trenches had what they needed.” On the other hand, she notes, one company was experiencing a “positive spiral,” where employee motivation led to progress that led in turn to benefits for the company. The secret: managers who were paying attention to giving people clear goals, sufficient autonomy, adequate resources and both help and time when they needed it. In short, she says, the managers were doing “very ordinary things you would think any manager should know they should do.”

Graves adds that creating a sense of purpose can help drive employee motivation as well. “Once you can get everyone connected to a purpose in your business and everyone is behind it, then that is the most powerful thing you can do.”

Today, more and more companies are using social responsibility programs to help foster a sense of meaning, and thereby motivation, in their employees. These firms are not only interested in turning a profit, they also care about increasing the welfare of society. But the trick to getting the most out of social responsibility programs, and in turn, out of employees’ motivation, might be in getting management involved. According to a study by the marketing firm Edelman, 55 percent of global consumers believe that CEOs themselves should be the ones publicly making a long-term commitment to addressing societal issues. Allowing their employees to get invested in that vision might in turn be the key to restoring energy in employee motivation.

But how do you engage an increasingly diverse, multi-generational workforce in the age of the gig economy? Join our webinar: The Future of Employee Motivation and Retention, 3 May. Register here.


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About the contributor

Chris Mayler is a Senior Client Director for Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia. For the last 15 years, Chris helped organisations maximise the potential of their workforce to drive business performance.

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