What do people really want and need from work? In an age of seemingly endless office amenities and workplace perks, it can be difficult to assess what will truly make an impact when it comes to keeping teams engaged, productive, and feeling positive about their work. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” can be useful for understanding and exploring human needs. It posits the idea that once a person’s basic physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter are taken care of, they can focus on an ascending tier of psychological needs. However, in a culture where many of us can assume our physiological needs are taken care of—what are the next tiers? And why should a company care?
Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests that since “today more companies are operating in knowledge and service economies… they’re not just fulfilling basic needs; they’re aiming to fulfill every need…and competing to be the best places to work.” In fact, HBR found that companies that were named one of the “best places to work” between 1984 and 2011 outperformed their peers on stock returns by 2.3% to 3.8% per year. Providing your employees with what they’re looking for helps your business retain employees, drives productivity, and contributes to the bottom line. But what are those needs? The answer is as simple as it is complicated: today’s employee is looking for an intangible fit of career mobility, culture and community, and reciprocal investment in their work. Fortunately, there are tangible strategies you can employ to bring these concepts to life in your office.
Forget the millennial headlines
Forget every article about what “Millennials” or “Gen Z” wants. A team from Facebook’s HR division found that employees have almost identical needs across generations: career, community, and cause. They arrived at these results after surveying their employees twice a year, as well as polling employees outside the company. The team reported to HBR that there is no appreciable difference between age groups and no “major differences by level, or by performance reviews: people valued these three motivators whether they were exceeding, meeting, or falling short of expectations. And when we compared office locations, it was clear that career, community, and cause were all prized around the globe.”
You’ll notice the word “salary” didn’t appear on the list. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: start from compensating your employees fairly and equitably for their work and then understand what they’ll want next beyond that. As Jeff Haden in Inc. puts it, “Higher wages won’t cause employees to automatically perform at a higher level. Commitment, work ethic, and motivation are not based on pay.” Instead, they suggest looking toward the concept of career. As the team from Facebook explained to HBR, “Every job should have the potential to lead to something more, either within or outside your company. Take the time to develop employees for jobs they someday hope to fill—even if those positions are outside your company. (How will you know what they hope to do? Try asking.) Employees will care about your business when you care about them first.”
Employees that feel stagnant will look for job opportunities elsewhere. Make sure to provide events, connections, and developmental programs that allow your staff to think toward their future. Implement networking or “buddy” programs that help employees connect with each other and learn about roles outside their current job description. People of all ages are looking for a workplace and role that enables them to use their strengths, learn more, and have autonomy.
Benefits beyond a health plan
After the promise of purposeful work and career growth, community is a key value which people seek out at work. HBR defines community as “about people: feeling respected, cared about, and recognized by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness.” One of the largest indicators of community is the ability to have a real impact on decision making about what happens in the workplace. According to Forbes, only 36% of workers surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said they felt appreciated at work and their opinions seemed to count. The same article emphasized the connection between feeling respected at work and flexibility, “Half of respondents say that work-life balance is very important but only 34% say they have achieved what they’re looking for in that arena.” In fact, those workers with remote work flexibility were 48% more likely to rate their jobs a 10 on the ‘happiness scale.’”
Inc. contributor Jeff Haden suggests that you can distill this concept of community into three main points: mission, input, and connections. First, give your employees something to care about, such as a clear mission that describes what your company stands for. It’s most effective if this mission can be reiterated in company-wide communications, throughout the office via posters or artwork, and at company events.
Enabled employees contribute to bringing that mission to life through tangible actions. Create forums such as surveys, small group meetings, or a brainstorming channel in the company Slack where employees can speak out, voice their ideas, and gain a sense of contributing toward their community. Ensure it is set up to respect, hear, and acknowledge all ideas.
Finally, use the brainstorm as inspiration to create a space where people don’t only care about the job, but also are allowed to care about each other—give them plenty of ways to feel connected to each other, like team building exercises and company-wide socials. While certain jobs require a level of detachment and compartmentalization, giving employees an opportunity to build friendships and deepen relationships at work leads to greater team productivity, happiness, and employee retention.
In order to have your employees feel that they’re building a career as part of a strong work community, they also need to feel that they’re doing their job successfully and adding to the company’s success. The best way to provide this reassurance, according to Jeff Haden, is by providing targets, expectations, and consistency. HBR explains this aspect of job satisfaction, “Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world.” Practically, your employees need measurable and regular parameters in order to see their individual impact on the company’s whole.
In other words, for your employees to provide you with outstanding work, you, in turn, need to provide them with a supportive framework in order to complete that work. As The Balance relates, “a satisfied employee knows clearly what is expected from them every day at work. Changing expectations keep people on edge and create unhealthy stress.” This means setting clear goals for each employee as they relate to your company’s mission, sticking to them and discussing together why they need to be adjusted, and, above all, providing feedback about an employee’s progress in a reliable manner.
Providing constructive feedback and thanking your team members for their work not only helps them progress in their career and see their contributions to the company community but also creates an environment where your team members feel a sense of positive motivation. If you show your employees that they matter to you, you become important to them: it’s a symbiotic relationship that can be displayed through things like an encouraging e-mail or an elaborate end-of-the-quarter celebration. “When an employee is failing at work,” Susan M. Heathfield of The Balance “asks the W. Edwards Deming question, ‘What about the work system is causing the person to fail?’” Remember: the relationship between you and your employee is a mutual one—both sides need to be invested for it to work.
Overall, the modern employee is no longer looking for a way just to put food on the table and pay their bills: they’re looking for personal fulfillment through a reciprocal relationship with their employer. By showing your investment in your employees—starting with their own personal development, continuing with clearly defined goals and regular check-ins, and always looking toward creating a community by respecting their needs and ideas—you can create a company where everyone is invested in their work and wants to stay. Work events and career development programs have become more than extras or rewards, they’ve become necessities that show your company’s interest in helping to support and advance their employees. Unsure of what will best show your employees that interest? Go back to Facebook’s advice: “try asking.”
To convert the intangible into tangible, profitable results is more simple than it seems. Simply treat your employees as individual people with individual minds and let your company become more than a workplace for them. Let it become a career, a culture, a cause: a second home.
Illustration by Tin Nguyen