What Employees Really Want from Work

Blog post

By: Rachel Druckenmiller, MS
Director of Wellbeing, SIG

Rock climbing walls, ping pong tables, and kegs in the kitchen.

If you were to recruit, engage and retain talent based on what you see in the media, you might think those perks are what people want most from work.

But when we take such a superficial and fad-based approach to what employees want, we're missing out on the core of what retains and engages people. We're focusing on climate - the policies, perks, and programs that you can see on the surface. An organization might have a cool climate with rich benefits and a wide range of catchy programs, but they might not have a healthy culture beneath it. As I've learned from Salveo Partners over the years, culture is the underling current of values, beliefs and experiences that define an organization at its core.

Ideally, culture and climate are mutually reinforcing, and the values and beliefs (e.g., community) are supported by climate (i.e., communal social spaces, opportunities to get to know each other and serve or socialize together, etc.). Many companies confuse the two and make changes to the climate of their organization without addressing the culture beneath it.

I know of one organization that have given their employees everything they could want materialistically, yet one of the executives was heard saying to HR, “When I walk through the halls, no one smiles at each other or says hi.” Their employees might be well paid and have all the creature comforts, yet they are not warm or kind toward each other, and morale is low.

Despite all the talk about workplace culture, we know from Gallup that over two-thirds of employees are disengaged at work, which leads to drops in performance, morale, productivity and even profits. Not only that, but some experts posit that work is literally killing us. According to Stanford Professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Dying for a Paycheck, workplace stress is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States due to factors like work-family conflict, lack of autonomy, and excessive work hours.

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The way we’re working isn’t working.

Yet the race for talent continues, as organizations are looking for the secret to recruiting, engaging and retaining employees in this highly competitive economy. Organizations that are winning know that culture is the differentiator and that great cultures attract great employees and great clients and customers. Think about it. Southwest is not known for their stellar meals or cushy seats, yet they continue to stand out among airlines because of the culture of love, fun and care they have created.

Think about your organization or the last organization you worked for. How would you describe your culture in three to five words? As you reflect on what you’ve written down, is this the culture you want to have at your organization? What words would you like to use to describe the culture of your organization in the future?

The reality is your culture happens by design or by default.

If you are not intentionally designing the culture you want, you will end up defaulting to a culture that you may not want.

The Impact of a Great Culture

Think about one of your worst days at work.

Maybe it was a day when you left and all you could do was sit in your car with your head in your hands and cry, or maybe you went to the bar to grab a drink to numb the pain of whatever emotional pain you felt that day. Chances are you didn’t arrive at home that evening as an engaged, present, kind and patient partner or parent.

When we have a bad day at work, it has a ripple effect across every area of our lives. It affects our emotional, social, financial and physical wellbeing. It leads to tension and dysfunction in our relationships with our partners, kids, friends, and even the unsuspecting cashier at Target who happened to serve you on your bad day.

I love what Bob Chapman, CEO at Barry-Wehmiller, has to say about the impact of poor workplace cultures – specifically poor leadership – on the wellbeing of their employees:

“The way we treat people in our care affects the way they go home and treat people intheir care.”

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We know that's true, yet we don’t set up most organizations to be places where we consider the impact of our actions and decisions on employees' lives outside of work. When we allow people to be mistreated, overworked or disrespected in the workplace, we should not be surprised when those same people struggle with anxiety, depression, hypertension, addiction, relational dysfunction or reduced performance.

Everything is connected.

We have a responsibility as employers and leaders to take care of the people who work for us.

We are living in a time when employees expect their employer to care about them as a human being and give them more than a paycheck. They want you to care about their career growth and development, their financial security and stability, their mental and emotional health, their social and relational wellbeing, their physical health and their involvement in community volunteerism efforts.

In a report by Quantum Workplace drawing on data from over 600,000 employees, the top five drivers of employee engagement had nothing to do with perks and everything to do with leadership and people development. First and foremost, employees want a job that allows them to use their strengths and that strengths-based leadership boosts employee engagement. We know that employees who do not get to use their strengths burn out after just 20 hours of work per week, according to Gallup. Employees want to trust senior leaders to lead the company to future success and want to work for leaders who put people first. We also want to know that if we contribute to the success of our company, we will be recognized in a meaningful and timely way.

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Facebook surveys their employees twice a year and in one recent survey narrowed down the key themes to three key factors that all employees want – community (to feel a sense of connection and belonging; to feel cared for), cause (to align with an organization that stands for something and that they take pride in), and career (to be supported to learn, grow and develop and have autonomy). When employees have those three things, they are more likely to stick around and be highly engaged compared to those who don’t.

Let's take a deeper dive into these three factors that impact our engagement at work.

3 Things Employees Want from Work

1. Community

We know that anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicide are rising at unprecedented levels. All of us want to feel seen, heard, accepted and valued, yet most workplaces and leaders have not made connection a priority. I’ve written extensively about the topic of connection and belonging in this post, so check that out for more on that topic.

No alt text provided for this imageTo connect employees in meaningful ways, we have put a culture committee in place that consists of three smaller subcommittees that support the wellbeing of the whole person. We have a subgroup focused on social events, one dedicated to community service initiatives and another team that plans activities to support emotional, financial and physical wellbeing. For a deeper dive into dozens of ideas for how we foster connection and community at work through those committees, read this post.

Reflect: What does your organization do to foster opportunities for employees to connect and come together?

2. Career

People want to be developed, coached and mentored…not managed. They don’t just want to work for someone who is technically competent. They want to feel like their leader cares about them as a person and is invested in their growth and development.

Richard Branson once said:

“Train people well enough so they can leave but treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Employees want to use their strengths at work and want their manager to leverage their strengths, yet most people don’t even know what their top strengths are. If you haven’t already, complete the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment by Gallup to identify and learn how to leverage and language your top strengths.

Employees want ongoing feedback, including coaching and recognition. One of the top reasons employees leave their employer is because they don’t feel valued or appreciated or they don’t know where they stand. Using tools like KazooHR (formerly YouEarnedIt) is one way to begin to create systems around recognition that embed gratitude into the fabric of your company culture.

Autonomy is another thing employees want from work, yet most people are still working for organizations that view workplace flexibility as an excuse for employees to slack off. If you are interested in exploring more flexible workplace policies, decide what measurable outcome you want before making the change (e.g., retention, recruitment, engagement, morale, etc.). Clarify expectations up front and consider experimenting with core hours, flexibility the day before a holiday or on Fridays in the summer. Employees are yearning for more autonomy at work, so they can have more harmony in their lives, and organizations need to do a better job of responding to that request if they want to draw in and keep the best talent. For more on flexible work, click here.

Reflect: What does your organization do to foster flexibility and promote learning and development across every level of the organization?

3. Cause

Why does your organization exist aside from making money? What is the impact you have on the lives of the people who work for you, your customers and clients, your community, and society as a whole? What stories do your employees tell about your company and the difference it makes in the world?

Great cultures are rooted in great stories.

Many employees do not know or are not emotionally connected to the story of how their company came to be and what good they do in the world. We need to do a better job of telling those stories at every level – to talk about the impact of the company on its people and how the jobs they provide are the catalysts that make it possible for people to buy homes, raise a family, go back to school, and take memorable vacations.

Ask your employees about a day when they felt like they made a difference at work.

How about a time when they exceeded a customer or client’s need and made that person, or those people, feel cared for and valued? What motivates your people to wake up and come to work each day? What do they enjoy most about their job?

No alt text provided for this imageWhat are the underlying experiences people at your company have had that make them proud to work for you? I’ve previously shared one such story about SIG, the company I have worked at since my years as a college intern (over 15 years ago). To date, it's still one of the most meaningful experiences our employees have ever had and might inspire you to pay it forward at your company.


Reflect: What does your organization do to engage your employees in telling the story and impact of your organization?

Final Thoughts

I'll close with this thought that sums up my take on what matters most when it comes to recruiting, engaging and retaining the best employees for each of our respective organizations:

If we spent less energy chasing trends and more energy focusing on the essentials of what employees really want from work, we would more easily recruit, engage and retain the best people.

Action Steps

Here are some ideas for you to take action based on reading this post:

1. How do you connect with and support employees at your organization through cause, community or career? Feel free to leave a comment below!

2. To learn more about the topic of workplace culture, register for my upcoming webinar on June 10th regarding refreshing your wellness program!

Register Here

3. If you're interested in learning more about my speaking and training (on this topic and others), feel free to send me a direct message and check out my speaker reel.