What Do Workers Want, Really?

What Do Workers Want, Really?

When I speak to employer groups about the future of work, they are often keen to know what they should do to both attract and hold on to workers. In tight markets, that often means attract anyone, anyone at all, they are not fussy. Still, even in markets where unemployment rates are relatively high there is still always a war for talent. Getting the right people in place makes all the difference for companies who are hoping to build a workforce that will take them into the next decades. So what do workers want?

Here’s my answer: workers want to not hate their jobs. Ideally, they want to like them but not hating them is a start.

Happy Team

That probably seems like a surprising answer, maybe even a lame answer, from an economist. Obviously everyone wants to be happy, which is what providing a job and paycheck is supposed to do. Really, isn’t that enough? And sure, some of it is about money and benefits which of course makes sense; no one (save for the lucky few who have trust funds or the like) are going to pick a job or stay in one without some thought to compensation. That said, how many people do you know who are compensated well, maybe very well, but who are unhappy at work anyway? Which begs the question: beyond the obvious, what would make workers happy?

One answer that comes up again and again in surveys (and indeed just in casual conversations with anyone who has a job) is that people want some degree of control over their work-life.  You really do not need a huge academic study to tell you that people who feel like they have zero input into their hours and vacations and work assignments, regardless of what else may be going on in their lives, are not going to be the happiest of workers. At work or anywhere else people want to feel that they are heard in some way, and employers who choose to ignore this do so at their own peril.

How this can play out is  illustrated in a 2016 study of a Fortune 500 company, the results of which were published in the American Sociological Review. For their research, MIT professor Erin L. Kelly and University of Minnesota professor Phyllis Moen spent a year following 876  IT workers  at the company. Half of the workers were designated as study participants and were offered a menu of choices as regards their work, including being allowed to shift their work schedules, work from home, ‘re-think’ the number of meetings they attended, and use more remote channels such as instant messenger to communicate, while the other half of the workers just continued using the original company policies (and presumably trudged to whatever meetings were deemed essential).  Result? The workers who were allowed to use the innovative measures felt that they had more control and reported higher job satisfaction (which loosely translated means they were happier).

Of course, we have heard some of this before and we have tried it before too. Telework has been around for decades, although it tends to ebb and flow with the economy. That is, when times are good, workers are apt to ask for flexible schedules and the ability to work at home and companies are apt to say okay. When things get tougher, the flexibility vanishes, and with it all the other things on workers’ wish-lists. Even in good times (which are presumably now, given how tight labor markets are) the focus tends to be on tangibles like salary and benefits rather than intangibles like worker autonomy.

Then again, maybe it is time for companies to kick it up a notch. After all, it is in employers’ best interests to not just hire the best people but to hang on to them as well.  According to the Work Institute’s 2017 Retention Report, it typically costs employers 33 per cent of a worker’s annual salary to hire a replacement it that worker leaves, meaning that a company that routinely loses workers might as well be burning their own money.  Far better for them to invest a bit in employee happiness, even if seems like it should be enough to just pay everyone.

In economic terms it sometimes makes sense for workers to change companies or geographical locations and industries,  part of the usual ebb and flow of economic growth and efficiency. However, there is nothing desirable or efficient in having people jumping ship as a way to have some degree over their work lives and by extension their broader lives. Rather it is a signal to companies that now, at a time when labor is indeed tight, is a good time to think about policies that make people happy and productive at their current jobs,  rather than productively brushing up their resumes to get the next one.


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