The Powerful Impacts From Showing Employees That Their Work Is Meaningful
Forget engagement survey results. If you really want to kickstart actual hands-on commitment, “walk employees downstream” to see their work’s impact.
Walk employees downstream is a tool whose goal is to increase the emotional connection between an employee and those who use their work. Fully realizing that their work is meaningful will likely have a measurable impact on increasing their retention, motivation, and productivity. An example of the walk employees downstream approach would be showing a doctor what happened to a former long-term patient months after they left the hospital.
If retaining top employees is a burning issue at your firm (as it is with most), realize that nothing other than stay interviews is likely to have a larger impact on reducing turnover than walking employees downstream. This approach is designed to reconnect and remind employees of the tremendous impact that their work and the company have on its customers and community. It’s called walk employees downstream because you actually show them what happens “downstream” from their job.
Often you physically show them their impact by putting them in touch with the beneficiaries of their work (i.e., customers, users, and coworkers). Of course, many generations of both job applicants and employees want their work to make a difference in their community, the environment, and their customers. As a side benefit, reconnecting with former customers may provide feedback which will also improve your products and services.
An Example — Increasing Retention By Helping Nurses Discover Their Impact
Hospital nurses have some of the highest turnover rates of any occupation. They work tirelessly and literally help thousands of patients each year. But they are often frustrated because it’s hard to see any long-term impacts of their hard work. And, because of nurse work shifts, they are often not even there to feel the human connection when a long-term patient who they have bonded with leaves the hospital. This is because there is no formal mechanism to provide direct feedback on how the patient is thriving weeks or months later.
Not knowing what happened results in many nurses saying that their work “isn’t meaningful.” However, nurses could be reenergized if a hospital were to periodically provide them with a short follow up — “Your impact discovery report.” This update report could (with the former patient’s cooperation) cover the positive events that patients (aka beneficiaries) later experienced, along with pictures, positive comments, and even quotes about how the nurse made a significant difference.
Being reminded of their personal impact would increase current employee engagement, retention, and even productivity. Showing that the hospital cares about making a nurse’s work more meaningful will also improve recruitment. Teachers and professors (like myself) would be additional examples of those who would feel more fulfilled and energized when they later learn (now, it only happens accidentally) about the growth and the success of their best former students. Even police officers might be reenergized if they were to receive formal follow up on what eventually happened to the child accident victim who they help to save.
The Many Business Benefits From Walking Your Employees Downstream
In order to fully understand the impact of this simple but effective “make work meaningful tool,” managers and executives need to understand the many business benefits that result from connecting employees with the results and impacts of their work. These business benefits included increased motivation, productivity, attendance, retention, recruiting, and product sales.
- The No. 1 employee motivator is connecting employees to those who benefit from their work — Yes, connecting employees with those who benefit from their work was found by no lesser research source than Harvard Business School to be the key employee motivator. Many practitioners already know this intuitively. However, this research found that across these studies, the key factor that improved worker motivation was a direct connection to those who benefit from one’s work, including customers and clients.”
- Productivity increases when you strengthen the employee’s connection with their work’s final output — Obviously, a direct personalized connection with their work’s final output has the highest impact on an individual employee’s productivity. However, even a video showing the connection can increase productivity. For example, in the previously cited Harvard Business School field study, employees harvesting tomatoes at a California tomato-processing firm merely watched a short video telling them about the positive impact they had in the factory. The employees who watched a video “achieved a 7 percent improvement in productivity,” compared to others who were not reminded of their impact.
- Physically coming to work occurs more often with meaningful work — The above HBS study also revealed other positive business impacts from showing employees that their work was meaningful, including “employees with very meaningful work spend one additional hour per week working and take two fewer days of paid leave per year.”
- Retention improves dramatically when the work is meaningful — “employees with ‘highly meaningful’ jobs were 69 percent less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next six months, and also had longer job tenures” according to a different Harvard study by S. Achor and A. Reece.
- Recruiting attracts more candidates when they perceive meaningful work — even though money is usually the top recruiting attraction factor. The above cited S. Achor and A. Reeces study surprisingly found that workers would sacrifice “23 percent of their lifetime earnings in order to work in a job that is always meaningful.” So, recruitment marketing should make the fact that the work is “always meaningful” crystal clear to potential applicants.
- Sales and product development can improve with more follow-up contact with customers — when companies make it possible for employees to learn their impact on significant former customers. That follow-up connection may have the added benefit of showing customers that your firm really does care about them. And these extended employee/former customer interactions may increase future return sales and referrals. The additional feedback may also help to improve the product and the company’s services.
Focus Your “Walk Employees Downstream” Efforts
Initially target only a few job families for the “walk employees downstream” program. Start with the job families that have high turnover rates. Within those job families, focus on the jobs where post-exit interview results indicate that a lack of meaningful work is a significant cause of turnover. Also, focus on jobs in production, supply chain, product design, or any job where the work being done has a significant impact on the result, and where there is little contact with the actual customer or user.
If you’re worried about the potential time and expense involved in “walking” many employees downstream, realize up front that you don’t have to connect every employee with their downstream beneficiaries physically. Multimedia materials might be enough to convince them. However, when you do strive to make a physical connection, there will be a viral effect, because the initial group of connected employees will virally spread the word to the other employees on their team.
Start with a small selected sample of the most influential employees. Well-connected and influential employees will be the ones who will most likely be believed when they tell other fellow employees about what they’ve learned about their impacts.
Implementing a walk-them-downstream retention and recruiting approach
Part II of this two-part series focuses on implementing a “walking employees downstream” retention and productivity tool. It is highly effective because it increases the emotional connection between employees and those who benefit from the firm’s final work product (that they contribute to). Last week’s Part I highlighted the many benefits associated with the “walking employees downstream” approach. Those benefits include increased motivation, productivity, retention, attendance, recruitment, and even sales.
The Seven Primary “Walk Employees Downstream” Variations to Consider
Once you decide to implement this powerful approach, the first step is to realize that there are seven primary “walk employees downstream” variations or options. Each variation has a different performance goal. And, each variation in its own way helps employees understand the impact of their work and how it makes a difference.
When a corporation implements this approach, it can choose one or more of the following seven variations or options. Also, remember that “walking …”, in addition to a physical visit or interaction, can also mean simply providing information that makes employees more aware of the impact of their work. The seven variations are broken into two categories. “Walk connections” with those outside the firm and then those “walk connections” that involve employees meeting other employees.
Category I — Connections That Involve Those Outside the Firm
Variation No. 1 — Walk key employees downstream to connect with their past customers —the most commonly used option. You proactively make key employees more aware of the impact of their work by connecting them with end product users. In this case, downstream means what happens after the product or service is consumed. For your employees who provide a service, those impacts can include something as simple as a “snapshot progress report” covering those who receive significant help from the service employee. The “walk connection” can also extend to a personalized follow-up return visit or call.
For workers who contribute to a phase of product production, have them see how the product dramatically changes customers’ lives by providing a few illustrated dramatic examples. In addition, statistics and testimonials can be provided, along with a few dramatic illustrative cases.
Variation No. 2 — Walk their families in, so that all understand the importance of his/her work — Retention and a commitment to working harder are primary goals of the walk-downstream approach. Employees stay longer and work more hours because they are encouraged to do so by their family. In order to enhance family support for the employee, proactively take action to ensure that family members have materials and information that convincingly show how their family member’s work creates value. And, how the firm’s presence positively impacts their community and doesn’t harm the environment.
One major firm, DFS, held an annual evening event. Executives spent extra time making sure that each spouse and family member was fully aware of the meaningful work and the significant contribution that their family member made. Google has even held “bring-your-parents-to-work days” to strengthen family support for the company.
Variation No. 3 — Let candidates walk inside your firm to improve recruiting — whenever you’re trying to attract the best (and especially those among newer generations) realize that “meaningful work” appears on almost every top candidate’s job acceptance criteria. As a result, when you’re selling your finalists, go out of your way to show them the impact of the job. If you pay significantly less, remember that some will accept nearly one quarter less pay if they’re doing meaningful work.
So, walk top candidates around your facility and connect them with team members who can reveal, specifically, how they know that their work is meaningful and impactful. Making sure that the families of top candidates are also fully aware of the job’s and the firm’s impacts will also improve recruiting. Remind new hires of their upcoming impact during onboarding.
Variation No. 4 — Let outsiders (corporate customers) walk inside your firm — when your firm sells to large corporate customers or works with strategic partner firms, you can strengthen your relationship-building by periodically inviting a few of their representatives inside your firm. Let these representatives meet with both executives and employees in your firm so that everyone increases their understanding of each other’s needs and issues. Perhaps provide your employees with a list of your firm’s large customers, so they know who uses or buys the product that they produce. Knowing that admired firms buy your product and services can further help to build employee pride. In fact, in order to ensure that everyone understands customer needs, consider letting team leaders sit silently in on at least one sales call each year, so they remain in touch with the product’s selling features and the customers’ needs.
In the cases where your customers are mostly individuals, like in retail, consider giving your employees who don’t have customer contact a profile of your average retail customer. Knowing the type of person who relies on your product or service might cause your employees without customer contact to increase their ownership of their output. Also, consider allowing production, back-office, call-center people and others with little face-to-face customer contact to attend customer-appreciation days for a few hours to strengthen their empathy and to better understand the impact that the company’s product has.
Category II — Connections That Involve Employees Connecting With Other Employees
Variation No. 5 — Walk employees downstream to meet employees who work later along the work stream – In many cases, workers operate somewhere in the middle of a long internal process or a chain of work. You can increase the commitment of quality work of these “middle process employees” by making sure that they fully understand how their work impacts other employees further down the work chain. When employees in the middle of the chain know how their errors, omissions, and low-quality work negatively affects their coworkers downstream, the increased empathy and understanding will likely cause their work quality to improve.
Variation No. 6 — Walk employees upstream to meet employees earlier in the long work stream — Mid-level workers are likely also to undervalue the work that occurs before them in the production chain. Often these mid-process workers have little empathy or understanding, and sometimes they are even hostile toward the workers who provide them with the preliminary work that they must continue to add to. Making a stronger connection between these early and mid-level workers would improve the acceptance of both upward and downward feedback, which might reduce errors and make work handoffs much smoother.
If it’s in the same facility, walking mid-level employees upstream usually involves a physical meeting. In other cases, it usually involves conference calls and information in the form of statistics, videos, and pictures. Incidentally, meeting upstream managers and showing key employees what happens upstream may also better reveal the excitement of future career paths. And that may encourage employees to prepare earlier for career growth and likely promotion paths.
Variation No. 7 — Walk employees in all directions so that they see the big picture and the final product — when employees produce only a small part of a work stream or process, their contribution may indeed be small. Demonstrate that without their work, the process would come to a halt and there would be no end product.
For those who work in only a minuscule part of the chain to be able to take credit for the output of the entire process, walking them in both directions during a single half-day event will allow employees to more fully understand the big picture and the interdependence of the individual parts. But more importantly, it will let each individual employee to better see the critical importance of their admittedly small, but still vital mid-process contribution.
And finally, make sure that every employee physically sees, holds, and if possible, gets to see/use the final product or service that results from their work.
Some Additional Implementation Actions to Consider
As part of your implementation plan, consider the following tips.
- Make someone accountable for internal employer branding — because the “walking them downstream” process is a form of internal awareness, put someone in charge of enhancing the firm’s internal employer brand image and measure its success by the degree to which employees report on a survey that they are confident that “their work is meaningful.”
- Educate workers on environmental and community impacts — because sustainability and corporate social responsibility are major current issues, provide your employees and candidates with information on how the company is socially conscious. And in particular, make everyone aware of any local community outreach and the positive impact that the firm has on its surroundings.
- Make workers aware of product awards and top ratings — Employees and candidates need to be made aware of any product and industry awards that the company wins. Making them aware of strong social media and industry rankings can help to build “making a difference pride.” Also, provide your employees with copies of testimonials and positive news articles written about the product and the firm.
One of the reasons why turnover rates in small business are generally lower than in large corporations is because employees in small businesses much more frequently get to meet customers and see the results of their work. Realize that as corporations get larger, it’s harder for workers to see and feel their impact. And, other than job redesign/job enrichment, the best way to demonstrate that an employee’s work has a meaningful impact is through some form of “walking them downstream.”
Start by conducting post-exit (delayed by three months) interviews to determine if a lack of meaningful work is a major turnover cause. If it is, set a significant corporate goal to improve the physical and emotional connection between those who produce an initial product or service, and the beneficiaries of the final sold product or service. In short, make it amazingly easy for employees who want to “change the world” to see how their job helps them reach the goal. Make “seeing the difference that each employee makes” an integral part of both your internal and external employer brand image.
Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s April event in San Diego on “recruiting in a candidate-driven market.”
As seen on ERE Media on March 18, 2019.
As seen on ERE Media on March 25, 2019.