Does your organization offer employees ‘good work’? If not, this could be why you are having problems recruiting, retaining, and motivating staff, especially since there is growing interest in the substantial benefits of good work.
The Great Resignation
Staff shortages are being blamed on ‘the ‘Great Resignation’.
This argument says that pandemic experience has persuaded employees to go part time, or retire and put their feet up. But there is not much evidence for this. It is more likely that people have been rethinking their attitudes to work.
And in a seller’s market, employees are more able and willing to jump ship and move on in search of more interesting jobs and better conditions. The pandemic has also encouraged hybrid models of working from home (WFH) or working from anywhere (WFA) – with the benefits of less commuting, more flexibility, and better work-life balance. Here’s why valuing good work pays off.
Job quality – an idea whose time has come (again)
Good work is not a new concept, but it is highly relevant today. The quality of working life (QWL) movement was born in the mid-twentieth century. Scientific management principles applied in the first half of the century created repetitive, monotonous tasks, which simplified training, and gave management more control.
But the lack of employee interest in or control over work was demotivating, and impaired mental health. The QWL movement argued that there was a social or moral case for improving the experience of work, and a business or economic case for improving performance.
The popularity of QWL faded in the 1980s in the face of other business problems. But the need has resurfaced with organization cultures offering monotonous, insecure, unsatisfying jobs, in call centers and distribution warehouses, for example.
Reports by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), and CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) argue that job quality is once again a concern.
With growing labor and skill shortages, providing good work has become central to recruitment and retention.
The pandemic has heightened concern for employee wellbeing. And offering good work is one way to retain older employees who might otherwise leave the workforce, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Now is the time to revisit QWL.
The nature of the job
QWL is as relevant today, and perhaps more so, compared with the conditions in which it was first developed. QWL focused on the nature of the work itself.
You might remember the two-factor theory of motivation developed by the American psychologist Frederick Herzberg in the 1960s. He argued that hygiene factors (pay, conditions) help to reduce job dissatisfaction. Motivator factors, in contrast, concern the characteristics of the work.
Herzberg and his American colleagues focused on individual jobs. The Tavistock Institute in the UK, in contrast, based their advice for improving QWL on autonomous or self-managing teams. These teams organize their own work, and can play a major role in selecting new members – and even their own team leaders.
The QWL movement thus advocated improving motivation and performance by designing work with the following characteristics:
- meaningful work
- the use of a variety of skills.
Jobs designed with those characteristics improve the experience of work, leading to higher satisfaction, motivation, and performance.
Herzberg’s technique of job enrichment was used by many companies including American Telephone & Telegraph, Polaroid, Texas Instruments, ICI, Hoover, and United Biscuits in the UK.
Job enrichment and self-managing teams are consistent with the recent work motivation theory of self-determination. This says that we have three innate needs, for autonomy (freedom of choice), competence (sense of mastery), and relatedness (connections to others).
Meeting these needs is essential for psychological growth and wellbeing. And when satisfied, our motivation, wellbeing, and performance increase.
A contemporary concept of good work
The idea of good work has been restated and developed by the RSA and the CIPD. They go beyond job characteristics and include terms of employment, equality and diversity, health and wellbeing, rewards, engagement, social support, and work-life balance.
Given changing cultural norms, and dramatic changes in the nature of work and technology, these additional factors have probably become more important in terms of motivation than they were in Herzberg’s day.
In a constantly changing and unpredictable world of work, it would not be surprising if employees were attracted by stable, secure, predictable employment conditions.
HR responsibility for the whole package
Developing good work is a strategic HR/L&D responsibility. To attract and retain employees, therefore, intrinsic job characteristics and employment conditions are both important. The solutions to employee shortages don’t lie with a pay increase here, some flexibility there, and a training course. A systemic response is required.
One organization that has moved in this direction is the UK National Health Service (NHS). The People Plan for 2020/2021 explicitly sets out to create a great employee experience, enable new ways of working, prioritize health and wellbeing, and ensure inclusivity and support – across the whole organization.
Your existing and potential employees will look at the whole package on offer, in terms of the work itself, and the employment conditions. It is risky to develop a good work package for a single job or group of jobs.
Some approaches in the past were discontinued when employee groups not included felt that they were being treated unfairly. The development of good work must be an all-employee, organization-wide effort.
The pace of change, in technology and ways of working, means that skills development in this new model is a priority. Research by McKinsey indicates that the need for manual, physical, and basic cognitive skills will decline as machines do more some tasks. Demand for higher-level skills, however, will grow. These include critical thinking, problem solving, data analysis, interpersonal skills, teamwork, negotiating, and self-leadership.
Many companies will also need employees with digital and cybersecurity expertise. Evidence suggests that it is more cost effective to reskill existing employees than to recruit externally.
A systemic approach to employee attraction, retention, and motivation thus has two dimensions. The first draws on the features of good work from the QWL movement, which focused on individual job characteristics. The second is based on the RSA and CIPD models which include employment conditions.
Key questions for HR
How well does your organization respond to the following questions under each of these headings?
|1. intrinsic job characteristics|
|how much autonomy and discretion are employees given?|
|are employees given feedback on how well they are doing?|
|is the work meaningful?|
|do employees have clear responsibilities for results?|
|are teams allowed to make their own decisions about how the work is done?|
|are employees encouraged to develop a range of skills?|
Improving job characteristics involves little or no cost. Problems can arise over the changing status of supervisors and line managers who find their decision rights, and status eroded by more highly skilled and autonomous employees.
But this can usually be resolved by redesigning the line management role to emphasize training and development responsibilities.
|2. employment conditions|
|do you offer stable, secure employment contracts?|
|do you provide retraining and upskilling in technology and social skills?|
|do you have a comprehensive equality, diversity, and inclusivity strategy?|
|are employee health and well-being visible priorities?|
|are your pay and benefits attractive and competitive?|
|are your employees engaged, informed, consulted, do they have a voice?|
|are working relationships supportive?|
|do you help ensure that employees have work-life balance?|
Improving employment conditions, pay and training for example, may involve expense, but this should be offset by the benefits. Remember that many employees (not all) will keep a job with lower remuneration if it gives them other benefits that suit their preferences and lifestyle – such as meaningful work, work-life balance, and personal development.
Five current HR issues addressed through a good work approach
The CIPD identifies five current HR issues addressed through a good work approach:
- consider job quality across the whole organization, and not just for selected jobs
- engage with employees to improve job quality
- assess individual wellbeing regularly
- consider work-life balance for off-site employees and for those not eligible for flexible working
- address the needs and insecurities of those returning to the workplace after an absence due to furlough and COVID-19.
Pandemic experiences seem to have shifted attitudes to work and encouraged restlessness and job hopping, creating staffing problems for organizations.
By paying close attention to job quality, HR can improve recruitment, retention, and motivation. Those who find good work that suits them are more likely to stay.