Employee Expectations Are Changing. Employers Need to Pay Attention.

The answer to better office culture isn’t technology—it’s leadership training

Carrie Patrick, M.S.
Mar 3 · 9 min read
Photo: Caiaimage/Richard Johnson via Getty Images

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Most workers hold jobs that are complex, interconnected, and knowledge-based. Peter Drucker predicted this rise of work accomplished with minds rather than muscle in the 1950s, and that’s now changed to an emphasis on jobs that require not just knowledge but also adaptability. This workplace transition has deeply affected the expectations of employees, as jobs now require greater psychological resources and soft skills in every role, from software developer to CTO, from customer support associate to sales manager.

Most colleges don’t explicitly teach students emotional or social intelligence skills until postgraduate programs in business leadership, so employees must look to the only other place these skills can be acquired: on the job. Unsurprisingly, when they don’t find skills trainings there, employees look for a role elsewhere that will give them what they need to remain competitive and fulfilled.

Skills development solves the problem of doing a job well, but that issue is by no means the only problem the modern workforce faces. Employees are expected to answer emails after hours and on weekends and to be available for early or late calls, especially if their teams and businesses are global. Low-level employees are often asked to create schedules that fit the ever-changing needs of their employers, meaning they have to be “on call” at all hours. Most employees consider a consistent routine a luxury. These demands lead employees to expect work-life balance support from their employers, like the ability to work from home, on-site daycare, help repaying student loans, access to mental health counseling, and incentives for health and wellness.

Why employee engagement is a business problem

As the modern workplace becomes more complex and deeply reliant on a network of people, it’s critical for employers to grow a workforce that’s talented and engaged. This means the stakes have not only been raised for employees; employers will also feel a shift when trying to find and retain great talent. Since 2013, job turnover rates have increased year over year in the U.S., gaining nearly 23 percent in the past five years, according to the Compdata Surveys & Consulting 2018 Turnover Report. But turnover is only part of the talent problem; the other is finding workers with the appropriate skills.

A recent report from Korn Ferry showed that, by 2030, a global talent shortage could result in a loss of GDP the size of Germany and Japan’s economies combined. It’s not difficult to see how employers and employees may be talking past one another about these issues: Employers are feeling the very real pain of not having the right people for the job, while employees are asking for development opportunities, meaningful work, and leadership they can trust.

In 2017, Deloitte’s annual ​Global Human Capital Trends​ survey​ showed that the average organization’s ability to improve engagement and cultural issues had dropped by 14 percent since the year before. This may be why many companies struggle to leverage their people to drive their businesses: Engaged workers have an emotional commitment to their work and their company. When they see a problem, they proactively fix it. They stay late to ensure a deliverable is on time. They do everything in their power to make sure customers are happy because they see themselves as an extension of their company.

We must rid ourselves of the notion that growth in human productivity should follow the same path as technology.

But according to a 2018 ​Gallup​ poll, only 34 percent of the workforce would classify themselves as “engaged.” This is a dismal picture, especially considering that 13 percent of employees consider themselves “actively disengaged.” ​Economists​ scratch their heads at why productivity growth has slowed so precipitously despite widespread technology improvements. But the aggregate story these metrics tell us is this: There’s still a wide gap between the kinds of experiences employees want to have at work and the experiences they’re actually having. It shouldn’t be a surprise that productivity is suffering when such a small percentage of the workforce is engaged in their work.

Responding to employee experience concerns

Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report ​concluded​ that employee experience was a central theme to all HR trends. ​McKinsey​ sees the importance of this issue, too, and indicates that they’re investing significant resources to solving this problem. But the approach these two global consulting firms are taking couldn’t be more different.

​In the Deloitte​ report, experts noted the gulf between the productivity growth of technology (Moore’s Law) and that of humans. They concluded that humans must learn to change faster. They declared that in order for businesses to remain competitive, we must adopt better human capital strategies that push humans to be as productive as the computer chips we produce. While Deloitte’s experts clearly noticed that employees are demanding a better experience at work, their push for humans to do more work seems to be at odds with higher employee engagement scores. They described the holistic factors that create a better work experience for employees, but the solutions they offered were almost all technology-based fixes. While human capital strategies are critical to successful businesses, we must rid ourselves of the notion that growth in human productivity should follow the same path as technology.

Refreshingly, McKinsey’s human-centric approach aligns people with purpose; it’s a step in the right direction. The McKinsey experts suggest aligning business culture with a sense of purpose and belonging, noting that this strategy is crucial for employee experiences (and it has positive bottom-line impacts too). More and more, we seem to be waking up to the truth that if we align our work environments in ways that meet our needs as humans, workers will feel engaged. Better yet, those solutions are not in conflict with a company’s bottom line . They just require looking through a different lens.

Humans are not computer chips

Apps are often proposed as the solutions for creating a better company culture or a more engaged workforce. Technology absolutely has a place in solving company culture problems, but its capacity to do so is limited. For example, Slack can be a great tool for helping teams communicate more effectively, but it can’t do anything to improve productivity if the team lead does a poor job of defining roles or if one member is down in a rabbit hole working on something completely out of scope. Performance management tools and processes are critical but they matter little when a manager focuses only on the details of an employee’s last six months of work during a performance review, saying nothing about their future growth in the company.

Gym memberships and tuition reimbursement can be awesome perks, but they’re like the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. A gym membership isn’t going to do much to move the needle on employee engagement if your daily work environment feels like navigating land mines because mistakes are not tolerated or because reward incentives pit team members against one another.

All of this is to say technology does have a place in making work more efficient, allowing better communication flow, and making sense of data in ways humans cannot. But technology cannot fill the gap in soft skills that employees and their leaders need to learn if they want to navigate the fourth Industrial Revolution successfully.

Looking at this another way, let’s explore the finding that managers account for ​70 percent ​of the variance in employee engagement scores, according to a Gallup poll. To understand this outsized impact, we need to acknowledge that our brains are sensitively wired to notice social threats and build connections with one another. This ability to sense threats and seek reward has been described as the fundamental organizing principle of the brain, and research shows that these social threats are perceived the same way as physical ones. For example, being ostracized in the workplace elicits the same response in the brain as being hungry. Given this, it makes sense that our brains experience the workplace first and foremost as a social system, not as a pure economic transaction. If an employee is given an assignment that seems unworthy of their skills or if they’re reprimanded, they may feel betrayed or not recognized and then limit their level of engagement.

Of course, managers don’t usually intend to make their employees feel threatened but most people are not aware of how easily this can happen. Consider the following scenario: You arrive at a work function and your goal is to network with the senior leaders present because you’ve been eyeing a promotion for months now. You walk up to a colleague in friendly conversation with your company’s CEO. They stop their conversation as you walk up and you sense an air of discomfort and awkwardness. The CEO barely makes eye contact with you and quickly steps away. In response, your body automatically releases a cascade of stress hormones, which might make your chest feel tight or your stomach ache. Emotionally, you might feel shame, embarrassment, or anger. You can use your prefrontal cortex—the conscious, thinking part of your brain—to soothe the automatic assumptions your brain made, that you were the cause of their snub. But this interaction will color the way you relate to the CEO in the future, and if the CEO doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to understand how this situation affected you, it’s likely to influence how you relate to them for a very long time.

Leaders need a map, not an app

Situations like the one I described above are what create a company’s culture and build up or tear down employee engagement. Leaders have the unique power to mold and shift a company’s culture because of this fundamental organizing principle of our minds: Anyone who holds a higher status than you will have priority in your brain and, thus, a threat response can be elicited from something as seemingly benign as receiving instructions or advice from a manager. The job of being an effective leader means understanding how to develop humans in a way that doesn’t constantly undermine their own efforts. In essence, what company leaders need is a map to follow.

People are not natural-born leaders, they must be developed into one. Likewise, companies will not spontaneously produce a culture that ensures creativity, agility, and engagement. This requires deep skill, awareness, and attention.

One waypoint on this map is awareness. Leaders must examine their own frameworks and must be able to teach others to do the same. I’ll give you a hint about how to gain deeper awareness in any situation: Challenge your assumptions. Our experiences in the world are highly edited by our brains because processing everything we sense every day would be far too taxing. This pattern-recognition capability is what kept us alive for tens of thousands of years as we learned to notice predators moving in the bush. Similarly, our brains tell us stories about every person we meet, automatically lumping them into categories and personality types. For example, think of what you assume about someone with many visible tattoos or someone who speaks confidently and has excellent posture.

If the CEO in the earlier example knew that leaving a conversation so abruptly might make you feel deeply uncomfortable, they might have taken a moment to call or send you an email saying, “You probably felt ostracized when I left so quickly at that work function yesterday, and that wasn’t at all my intention. I should have said hello to you and then let you know something just came up, and I had to leave right away. But I was so distracted by it, I didn’t think about how that made you feel until later.” Imagine how different your work life would be if those around you, especially your leaders, interacted with you in this way.

There’s no escaping our humanity at work. We cannot sanitize and rationalize what it means to be productive and efficient. If companies are to be as agile and innovative as the market demands them to be, then their leaders need deep emotional and social intelligence skills to help inspire employees to stay truly engaged. We all need the kind of awareness that shakes us free from our current ways of thinking. We must be able to not only incorporate new perspectives, but also hold our own perspectives at arm’s length for inspection. We need the kind of vulnerability and openness that sees mistakes as powerful learning tools, that puts truth above happiness, and that practices curiosity in the face of anger or frustration.

These are only some of the ways we’ll be able to meet the challenges of our more complex and interconnected world. Then I imagine we’ll need to continue to hold even this perspective of growth and success at an arm’s length, too, to better adapt to the inevitable changes ahead.

Carrie Patrick, M.S.

Written by

Growing businesses, by growing their people. I help leaders put the “human” back into Human Resources.

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Notes on leveling up your professional life, selected by Medium’s editors.

Notes on leveling up your professional life, selected by Medium’s editors.

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