Organizations love the safety of structure. We establish hierarchies, functions, divisions, teams, clusters and groups. We sort workers into classes. We designate bosses to oversee other bosses. We track revenue and customer channels. We count and group each expense. Everything is gathered and arranged into tidy haystacks of commerce.
Yet this focus on organization inevitably clashes with the human aspects of life. Most of us were taught to dutifully maintain the barrier between home and work. From the first burger we flipped, it’s been ingrained in us that work is orderly, home is messy and the two never should meet. The world, though, never works out quite that cleanly.
The reality is we are human — a term that differentiates us in a positive way from the inorganic world in which we spend our workdays. It’s OK to spend time on our favorite websites when we should be focused on our work. It’s normal to eat the donuts in the break room only when you’re sure no one is looking. We naturally bring personal worries and issues into the workplace. We are untidy and cluttered, and it’s all part of our evolutionary urges. Even in the confines of the supermarket aisles, we’re moved to buy the chicken labeled as “free-range.” It might not necessarily taste better, but it soothes our desire for less restrictions. Deep down, we might even be jealous of the chickens (up until a certain point, of course).
If we recognize the pull of the unstructured, why do most business leaders insist on a clear demarcation between personal and professional lives? Why do we segment employees’ lives instead of seeing them as whole individuals?
One plausible answer: fear. We all know how messy our lives can be. No self-respecting manager wants to insert her- or himself into the drama whirlwind. It’s easier to demand that employees solve their personal issues on their own. The mandate always has been clear: Don’t bring your personal baggage into the workplace.
Another possible reason for failing to embrace the whole employee is even less flattering. Many employers continue to see their employees as widgets. When we examine employee survey responses, we find that employers too often view their employees as machines producing an hour of labor. And that hour of labor must be deployed for the organization’s benefit. In today’s knowledge economy, however, it’s quite possible we’ve got it all wrong. Just how workers most fully contribute to a business’ success might not fit within the rows on a timesheet.
The ‘Age of the Employee.’
Companies used to call all the shots, confident that employees would stay put for their entire careers. No longer. We now live in the “Age of the Employee.” Improving workers’ conditions for social reasons is a noble thought, but it isn’t necessarily why we’ve seen the balance shift. Economic success depends on creativity and talent more than it requires raw labor. Winning organizations find a way to attract, engage and retain the best talent. Management’s conundrum: Those superstars have many more options than they once did.
Consider the difference between Apple and the manufacturing firms of the 20th century. In the 1900s, behemoths built their empires on labor and infrastructure — sheer manpower. Apple, however, has secured its success primarily by producing creative and innovative products that consumers want (but don’t necessarily need).
In fact, most of the goods and services in the modern marketplace aren’t necessities. Inventories either are physical or virtual warehouses of luxuries. To attract buyers, a company must offer a compelling offer. And talent — not force — produces that compelling quality.
You’re going to let your employees do what?
Here’s where it starts to get a little uncomfortable for businesses and managers. If they want to be the most compelling standout in their market, they have to let people create. As we know, people aren’t neat and orderly like assembly lines. People are complex, and they have lives outside of work. We teach that the “Age of the Employee” will force organizations to meet the needs of the whole employee. Only then can workers generate the type of intellectual property that means the difference between nameless failure and chart-topping success.
Nikola Tesla’s life provides a well-used cautionary tale about the need to consider the whole employee. Tesla originally sought Thomas Edison as a mentor and employer. But Edison couldn’t find a way to accommodate Tesla’s quirkiness. Edison was about trial and error, and Tesla’s mind operated much differently. Tesla eventually left Edison’s workshop, taking his genius and ideas with him to George Westinghouse. Westinghouse soon became a formidable competitor to Edison — mainly because Tesla discovered a better way to transmit electrical current. In fact, Tesla’s alternating current (AC) is the standard today.
Obviously, not everyone is a fit. Keeping Tesla in his shop might not have worked out well for Edison. But the exception shouldn’t govern the rule, and in new business, that rule reads like this: The more talent you have, the better your organization will be. Executives, talent professionals and human-resources leaders need to think differently to keep the Teslas of the world from leaving their companies.
As you develop your own organization’s employee experience, ask these three questions to build an operating environment that will help attract, engage and retain the best and the brightest.
1. Is your employee experience (EX) engineered to promote hourly output or actual value?
Despite opposing research, many leaders assume the number of hours worked is the best way to measure an employee’s value (or even the leader’s own). In other words:
Hours worked = the best work product.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer seems to advocate this line of thinking. She recently appeared to brag about working 130 hours per week. Yet there’s no real science or data to support this longstanding corporate doctrine. In reality, the equation is:
The right talent = the best work product, regardless of how the work product comes into being.
2. Are you looking to create a good cultural fit for your employees?
Is your employee value proposition (a subset of your EX) engineered to attract employees that mesh well with your business objectives? If you need software developers, have you structured your EX to support their needs and interests? A Salt Lake City-based company recently started a billboard campaign intended to entice developers. It promised them the opportunity to develop cool code and still have time to see their families.
3. Are you creating a culture that aligns with the needs of the whole employee?
Creativity doesn’t live only within the hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Inspiration might strike when a young software developer is attending a conference on data visualization and learning new things far away from the office. Viewed through the old-school lens, though, it could appear this employee is doing something that many once considered unproductive.
4. Does your culture support and promote learning and curiosity?
This question is related to the previous point. Humans are organic, and their intellectual contributions must be cultivated. Brilliance cannot be squeezed out of an employee like you force toothpaste from a tube. Innovation comes in flashes, fits and starts. It pops up in unexpected places, from the shower to the racquetball court.
5. When was the last time you really examined your business practices as they relate to your employees?
It feels safe to follow the tested path. But when it comes to employee relations, are you keeping pace with peers in your market? It would be misguided to believe the same tactics that got you where you are today will guide you toward tomorrow’s accomplishments. The only real insight you should take from prior achievement is that it worked — once. Past success is a poor predictor of a bright future.
Consider the “gambler’s fallacy:” After five bad hands in a row, you’re due to get a good one. But the probabilities are exactly the same each time a new game starts, and it’s no different in business. Each new business generation is like starting all over again with the same odds as your first hand. You’re not owed a break, and you certainly shouldn’t bank on the promise of a winning streak.
As you build or modify your employee experience to be more responsive to what workers seek in the “Age of the Employee,” these questions might uncover some uncomfortable answers from time to time. That’s OK, too. It’s the organic, human world of chaos and change that creates innovation. The environment you develop to support those discoveries should not only accommodate that messiness, it should embrace everything that whole employees bring to the table.