If there’s one thing 2016 has shown us, it’s the stark divides we’ve allowed to creep into our once united nations. Rich and poor, urban and rural, old and young, black and white, left and right, have and have nots, them and us. While we sit back, trying to grasp the big picture, we’re in danger of missing what’s happening closer to home, in our organisations. Gallup calls it the ‘worldwide employee engagement crisis’.
At the heart of the social divisions we now see, according to people far smarter than me, is the fragmentation of our shared sense of identity and values. These shared beliefs allow us to achieve incredible things. The shared belief in the American Dream created a culture that meant a young upstart of a nation, founded less than 250 years ago, is the global powerhouse it is today. That’s how powerful shared identity and values are, which are themselves the basis for culture.
The first port of call on this exploration of how our newly uncovered divisions are affecting our businesses, are the ones that employ the disenfranchised working class. But that’s obvious, the interesting stuff means digging a little deeper. What about the businesses employing the increasingly squeezed middle classes? That’s where the real engagement crisis is. 87% of employees are disengaged on average world-wide according to Gallup. 68% in the US, disengaged, all of them.
My day job is organisational culture and development, but I also have a little side gig going exploring what it means to be a great dad. I run workshops with city firms, banks, investment houses and the like, for new dads. In a room of 15 dads, without fail 25% confide that they’re actively looking to leave the city because it doesn’t work for them. As one dad said ‘they’ve given us the tools to work flexibly, but they don’t trust us to work from home. It’s all take and no give.’ Ouch. This is a sector that, despite the rise of the machines, sees its most valuable assets walk out of the building at 6. Or 7,8 or 9pm.
Freelancing, or the terribly termed ‘gig economy’ (sorry) now counts 5m Brits and 54m Americans in its ranks. Why? Because the traditional organisation doesn’t work for them. Because it doesn’t make them feel valued, it doesn’t enable them, it doesn’t contribute to their sense of identity. So they’re going it alone because unlike the working classes, they have the means to do it.
Why else is Unilever one of the most sought after employers? They sell tea, ice-cream, bleach and mayonnaise. It’s hardly the glamour. People want to work there because of what the corporate brand stands for. A sentence I never imagined saying either, but I’m glad I can. Sure the tech companies are attracting the best talent, and it’s for the same reasons. The pay and the perks matter but only up to a certain point. Daniel Pink proved that in his book Motivation. After pay and perks it’s about the culture of the business and the reasons it’s there in the first place. Our own research showed that 73% of 18 – 24 year olds and 65% of 25 – 34 year olds want to be able to reflect their personal values and ethics in their jobs. This potent mix of standing for something, values, reasons to be are the foundations of identity. What do I stand for? What difference am I making? What do I do that matters?
If your business isn’t answering these questions for your employees, they’re either part of the 87%, or they’re going to be moving on very soon.
This doesn’t mean you need a big save-the-world purpose statement and budget to match. Expensify, a tech company that makes expenses easy, openly admit what they do isn’t game-changing, but it makes a real difference to people’s lives. It makes our busy lives easier, saving us time and energy to do with as we will. They do it in a way that means everyone who works there is fully committed. 81% of employees there would recommend them as an employer to a friend, and all they do is expenses. Maybe Ella Fitzgerald was right when she sang T’aint what you do it’s the way that you do it.
As we start to emerge from our politically induced reality slap, we’ve got to start asking questions not just of our politics but of our organisations too. Are our organisations unwitting accomplices in the divisions we’re now witnessing, or are they standing up in spite of them? Much as we might wish, there is no fence to sit on in this one.
David Willans, Director at Kin&Co.