Employment as transformation
Ditch the outdated view of work as transactional and focus on the transformational.
HELP WANTED. Such signs appear everywhere these days. Restaurants find it difficult to attract workers. Global supply chains suffer from a lack of truck drivers, leaving goods languishing in ports. Retail stores have reduced hours. Hotels have cut back on housekeeping. Waiting times for talking to customer service representatives on the phone have expanded from dreadful to appalling lengths.
With the unemployment rate in the United States coming down quickly from its pandemic highs – sitting at just 3.9% at the time of writing – many employers are offering wages far above previous hourly rates. But simply throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to, well, help. Meanwhile, companies struggle to get salaried professionals to return to the workplace, given the attractions of working from home. Push too hard and people may up and quit, as so many already have. Help wanted indeed.
Just like customers, workers have more options than ever when it comes to where, how and for whom they work. Their willingness to stay on – and your ability to reduce turnover – is largely determined by the experiences that a company stages for its employees. The old model – employment-at-will for indeterminate periods of time – has morphed into moving-on-at-will. Control has shifted from employer to employee in terms of who ultimately decides how long to work where. The mobile worker has reached zenith status.
The Economist recently dubbed this new dynamic “Managing in the Great Resignation”, proclaiming that “high staff churn is here to stay”. But is it? The article states that businesses “need to think harder about the career paths that entry-level employees can take”. Certainly, the present challenge is an opportunity to more richly acknowledge, discuss and guide workers’ aims and ambitions for their working lives – to treat employment not just as passing work, but as an ongoing process of transforming individuals.
Of course, employee experiences do not begin on the first day. They start with how a company attracts, hires and onboards workers. Consider ‘entry level’ from the employee perspective rather than as a job level: all workers are ‘entry level’ when they are new. Time is the currency of experiences and employment needs to be seen not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end – not just finding someone to work, but simultaneously regarding the time at work as the very substance of transforming people from one set of capabilities to another. To do otherwise is to treat human beings as mere utilitarian means.
There is perhaps no better example of employment-as-transformation than the US armed services. Starting with recruitment, the military recognizes the need to address the realities of whether candidates should even embark on a path of military service. Consider the best recruiting experience we’ve ever seen: AmericasArmy.com. Prospective soldiers immerse themselves in a virtual boot camp and are invited to participate in a multiuser videogame where they go out as troops on a mission. If they do well in the simulation and respond positively to the roles they’re asked to assume, then the US Army would love for them to join. This serves as a two-edged sword: recruits also learn if the Army is suitable for them. Weeding out the ill-fitted at this stage reduces eventual turnover.
Zappos has long had its own boot camp-like training for new employees. At its conclusion, Zappos offers employees money to quit, right then and there. Why? To ensure it doesn’t invest any more money into those who are unlikely to stay for long, while retaining those who fit best. Originally $100, the amount offered to drop out has gone as high as a month’s salary.
Here is the critical success factor for organizations: these investments in employees at the beginning of their employment reduce employee turnover, which has a direct impact on the need to find and hire new staff.
Investment in employees needs to extend well past onboarding and training. Guidance provided by employers should continue in a very deliberate way. In fact, the very process we outlined in our book, The Experience Economy, for aspiring customers – think healthcare, education and wealth management transformations – proves equally useful in guiding employee transformations. Three phases are core to any successful transformation:
- Diagnosis – upfront analysis of current or prospective employees’ work aspirations
- Experiences – customized to help employees achieve their aspirations and to meet the company’s aspirations for the employee’s labour
- Follow-through – addressing all the attendant ups-and-downs that come with any significant transformation.
Of course, many people have no greater aspiration than earning a wage. But even here, ongoing transformation is needed. Such workers need their skills to keep pace with new processes and technologies. These changes may not be of kind but of degree, as higher degrees of skill become necessary to keep the company competitive and employees fulfilled in their work. Aiming for anything less does a disservice to both parties.
Treating employment as transformation offers an improvement in the way so many companies operate today. Think of the default mindset as Hang-onto people when possible, Turn-over when necessary. In contrast, when employment is seen and managed for employee transformations, it offers Upskilling, which can reduce or potentially eliminate those default attitudes.
New career path strategies
To that end, here are five other options for employee transformations every employer should consider.
Many employees, especially salaried workers, aspire to move up in the corporate world. Companies may already identify high-potential employees and put in place development plans for most workers, but such activities need to concertedly work through the three-phase transformation process. Every significant elevation initiates another transformation cycle.
There comes a time when the best thing for an employee is to gain employment elsewhere. Sometimes it’s the best thing for the company too – yet companies are so often blindsided when it happens. They should acknowledge this reality of working life and help place employees elsewhere. This is a win-win if such efforts are formally scheduled to last longer than typical employment durations. For example, fast-casual restaurants could help servers become fine dining waiters elsewhere, requiring more time and training in the current workplace to prepare for the next. Appreciative ex-employees might sing the company’s praises to others, and perhaps even return later – with greater skills – for a higher position.
Work-under Germany is famous for its apprenticeship model where trainees split their time between classrooms and working under an expert. America, and other countries, would benefit from a similar model for the trades, enhancing manufacturing and logistics capabilities nationally. It can also work for professional positions. One of us once worked as part of his development programme as an executive assistant to a vice-president at IBM, seeing the activities, hearing the conversations and touching the work performed at that level.
Companies should lean into the Great Resignation by helping employees start their own businesses, particularly those that maintain a relationship with the company, be it as a franchisee, supplier, customer, or consultant. During one of the many times IBM found it necessary to downsize, for instance, it offered said employee six months’ salary to leave. (A few months later our company, Strategic Horizons, was born.) What if, instead of just giving money, IBM had offered to invest in the hundreds of thousands of people it has paid to leave, even taking a piece of any new start-up? It has forgone a powerful ecosystem of business partners.
For those seeking career changes, companies can serve as a real-world alternative to going back to school. Why not go beyond the college campus and form relationships with other companies to source recruits?
Companies could reciprocally move, hire and even share employees. IBM excels at training salespeople, Procter & Gamble at creating brand managers, Intel at developing electrical engineers, and so forth. Such firms could form a physical or virtual enclave – a worker trade zone – that enhances the capabilities of everyone involved, especially the workers.
Each of these options recognizes the realities of today’s employment environment where companies can expect workers to one day become former workers. They offer ‘both/and’ options that could simultaneously yield financial benefits for companies while also providing human beings with better skills, higher capabilities, and much greater possibilities.
Preparing to perform
We’ve long held that one of the most distinguishing features of a fully arrived Experience Economy will not be obvious excellence in venue design, the fusing of the real and the virtual, or even explicitly charging admission fees for experiences (elements we address in our books The Experience Economy and Infinite Possibility). No, it will be in managers skillfully directing workers to act on the business stage.
In agrarian, manufacturing and service enterprises, 100% of paid hours (time ‘on the clock’) are spent doing the work itself. Except for rare instances of time out for training, all employee time is spent performing work.
Experiences should fundamentally be treated differently. In the staging of memorable events (the very definition of an experience), work is theatre. As renowned stage director Peter Brook puts it in The Empty Space, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Experience-staging workers are rightly considered actors (at least those working with and before customers).
Actors prepare, as seminal Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski famously said. Businesses that wish to stage compelling experiences must provide employees with time off-stage but on-the-clock: that is, paid time in preparation to perform. This preparation should not be a passive break from work, but an active task of doing the work of preparing to act.
Such time would vary depending on the nature of the worker’s time with customers. Restaurant servers or hotel personnel should get time at the beginning of each shift to prepare, such as Ritz-Carlton’s routine practice of staff circling to review the unique preferences of each guest.
Paid prep time is needed by salaried employees too. One might assume that such prep time automatically occurs because salaried individuals can just work more hours on their own, but this often results in inadequate collective preparation by performing ensembles.
When most consulting firms win a client engagement, for example, consultants begin billing hours immediately against the tasks scoped in the project plan. Seldom do they take time to gather as a group to discuss the work in advance of starting, let alone walk through each step in the project or rehearse milestone client meetings.
When one of us led the process innovation practice at the CSC Consulting Group, project teams would gather before ‘day one’ with the client, do a week-long walk-through of each project stage, and openly share ideas in advance on how best to execute the work. Granted these hours were billed to the client, but they were scoped into the budget – something omitted in most consulting practices.
Creating value in the marketplace begins with creating value in the workplace. By supplying positive work experiences, ones that are known to transform employees, organizations can create demand for people to come aboard.
The enterprises that offer truly helpful work for transforming employees will be those which draw in the best talent and leverage that talent to attract yet more talent. ‘Help provided’ will be the sign of such times.