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Tony Schwartz, CEO, The Energy Project

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Interview by Joseph Coombs, SHRM Workplace Trends and Forecasting Specialist

Is it true that only a small percentage of workers are truly engaged with their jobs? Please explain why this is the case in today’s labor environment.

All the surveys, from Gallup to Towers Watson, consistently show that only a small minority of employees feel fully engaged at work. From our perspective at The Energy Project, the reason is that employers are so busy trying to get more out of their workforce that they’ve all but lost sight of meeting the most fundamental needs of their employees. We see those needs as physical (for energy); emotional (for appreciation); mental (for self-expression); and spiritual (for meaning). The more employees feel preoccupied by those unmet needs, the less energy they bring to work every day.  

Do you think employee satisfaction improved during the recent recession, based on the fact that those employed were simply happy to have jobs? If not, why?

There is little question that employee satisfaction deteriorated, in many cases dramatically, during the recession. And for most people, that recession isn’t over. From a pure survival perspective, many employees were relieved to have jobs. That’s very different than satisfaction. It’s deeply unsettling, frightening and even traumatizing to watch those around you being laid off. Those layoffs, in turn, put more work on a smaller group of people – the survivors – who were often already feeling overworked. It also left them feeling uncertain and anxious about their own futures. None of this serves satisfaction or engagement.  

Going forward, how can HR play a role in improving employee satisfaction? Is it a matter of simply changing a few policies in the workplace?

I deeply believe that we’re at an inflection point. We’re in a new kind of energy crisis, and this one’s personal. Demand is exceeding our capacity. So long as we have sufficient fuel in our tanks, we don’t think much about capacity. Now, perhaps for the first time, we’re beginning to run on empty – the sense that it’s not sustainable – and virtually no company we’ve come across is actively addressing this issue.

The challenge to leaders, and to HR as their partners, is to help employees systematically build their capacity, and to provide support for doing so in the form of policies, practices, facilities and cultural messages. Just one example: Human beings are not meant to operate like computers, at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. When we try to do so, we end up being run by our digital devices.

We need a new workplace paradigm built around the fact that human beings are designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, intermittent rest and recovery actually fuel sustainable high performance – especially when demand is high.

Workplace flexibility is a hot topic at the moment, but benefits like telecommuting and flex schedules are not realistic in all workplaces. What are the alternatives, as far as offering a less rigid 9-to-5 work schedule?

Flexibility isn’t an option; it’s a necessity if you want to get the best from any given individual. The reason is that every human being has different needs and different rhythms. The starting point with any valued employee ought to be, “What can we do to empower you to bring the best of yourself to work every day?”  That means accommodating a range of ways of working, even if doing so requires being creative and thinking out of the box.   

If employers do not get more creative with workplace flexibility and related benefits, what will be the result and how will that impact our labor force in the future?

If people are truly an employer’s greatest asset – as so many regularly say – then they ought to be actively investing in those assets. We know, from overwhelming evidence and also from common sense, that the better people feel at work, the better they perform. If they’re encouraged to take care of themselves, feel valued, have opportunities to express their unique talents, and believe what they’re doing is meaningful, they’re going to be more loyal and engaged and higher performing. Employers that address this reality in authentic and systematic ways will build huge competitive advantage in the years ahead. 


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