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Meaning Is the Antidote to Corporate Zombies

Despite productivity levels reaching an all-time high, morale is flagging and more and more people are just going through the motions. There are fewer people doing more work which leads to fewer breaks, longer hours and less sleep.
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We've all seen the glassy-eyed, open-mouthed and wildly carnivorous creatures roaming around. No, I'm not referring to extras on The Walking Dead; I'm talking about your co-workers. Despite productivity levels reaching an all-time high, morale is flagging and more and more people are just going through the motions. There are fewer people doing more work which leads to fewer breaks, longer hours and less sleep. Factor in the "always on" business culture due to technology tools and you have the recipe for "presenteeism" where hordes of employee zombies wander through the hallways of offices around the country. Reanimating these dormant personalities may not be easy but it can be done. One of the most effective strategies: give them a purpose.

Money has been proven to be a short-lived benefit, and according to a great economics study from Daniel Pink's book Drive can even have an inverse effect on employee motivation for knowledge workers. Additionally, younger generations are shifting the balance from monetary focus to other rewards like work-life balance, recognition and autonomy. To be clear, money is important and employers should compensate their workers fairly enough to take the issue off the table entirely. However, the "carrot and stick" business mentality is nearing the end of its usefulness. Instead, we need to find ways to help our employees find meaning in and passion for their work again.

Instilling engaging processes is easier said than done but here are some guidelines to help in this endeavor:

Employees are only as Engaged as their Managers

Dynamic, eloquent founders and managers are an absolute must in the office. Management must be clear on the company's mission and vision. People will not work hard and smart for businesses that are only focused on lining their pockets. In order to attract the right type of people and have them execute well, management must clearly define the pathos and goals of its business to inspire employees. There has to be a larger message that helps guide the company's decisions. In McKinsey & Company's "Increasing the 'Meaning Quotient' of Work," authors Susie Cranston and Scott Keller recommend businesses create their mission around one of four areas:

  • Society - "We will make the world a better place to live"
  • Customer - "We are going to change the way the world buys cars"
  • The Working Team - "We are going to be the best place to work for marketers"
  • Themselves - "We are going to invest significant resources to aid your professional development and growth"

Trust Your Employees

Rather than oppress knowledge workers with the always on workplace, use it to your advantage by enabling autonomy. The 9-5 work day is standard throughout corporate America but can be counterproductive. Production-oriented goals are much more effective than simply throwing man hours at a project. Forward-thinking companies are recognizing this and shifting from "owning" an employee's time to "owning" the result. Allowing people to work where and when they want is not only possible, but more productive.

The mental component of this tactic cannot be understated as it gives employees a huge boost as they feel enabled and empowered to do their jobs how, when and where they do them best. Of course, managers will need to know their employees and censure those that cannot handle this kind of responsibility but it stands to reason you would likely not want to employ people that could not handle that responsibility.

Foster Sparks, Not Wet Blankets

This goes beyond a friendly staff and warm-toned paint on the walls to more of the emotional state of the business. Are people mocked when they ask questions or propose big ideas? Does your organization adhere to a strict hierarchy where managers parse out action items and do not take feedback from their staff? Businesses with these types of toxic environments create 'worker bees', i.e. people that can perform mundane tasks when they are asked and deliver exactly what they were asked to do, but do not provide any extra value to the company. These clock punchers feel disenfranchised and must be given the opportunity to communicate as equals to their managers and peers so they are continually developing their skills towards advancements within the company.

When it comes down to it, avoiding presenteeism and encouraging engagement comes down to culture. Cultures are not easy to create but can be very easy for a few bad apples to destroy. Ensure your employees are aligned around a common goal that gives them meaning and sense of purpose. Ensure that managers are engaged and have the skills to engage their employees and recognize the signs when an individual begins to slip into "zombie mode." Voluntary one-on-one mentoring programs are also helpful in establishing a baseline of trust and respect for employees. Junior staff can learn the ropes and have a resource at the company to voice their concerns and struggles outside of their reporting structure, while more experienced workers can gain another sense of purpose by sharing their experiences and advising newer employees on how to affect positive change. Fully engaging every employee is certainly not easy however, when it comes to bottom line results I can think of nothing more important or profitable for the company.

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