Stop Thinking of Your People As Employees

Eric Lowitt, business author, is often asked by senior managers a deceptively simple question: “How do I get more out of my employees?” Here’s some advice from Eric Lowitt:

“Stop Thinking of Your People As Employees”

Two years ago, the chief operating officer of a major financial services firm asked me to help solve a dilemma: his company’s average employee compensation program was recently increased to be above industry average, yet employee turnover was also above previous years’ levels. ‘How could this be? And what should we do?’ he asked.

I truly hate the ‘How to better engage our employees’ question. Not just because I hear it almost daily. But because of what it implies: people are merely interchangeable parts, without names, families, or ambitions. Is there a term that removes individuality more rapidly than ’employee’? When you refer to your people as employees, you’re giving your people cause to be demoralized, disengaged, and open-minded to other opportunities. You’re also making your finance organization’s job to reduce costs through employee reduction and employee benefit removal (e.g., healthcare, defined benefit, defined contribution, etc.) much easier.

Start thinking of your ’employees’ as people

The first thing I said in reply to the COO was that his employees were people with diverse interests and therefore turned to more than employment for ‘satisfaction’.

Your employees are people. Not just in a ‘sit-around-the-campfire’ sense. But in the ‘people-wear-multiple-hats’ during their day sense. That is, the people who work with you and your company are also consumers, concerned citizens, net influencers online and net promoters offline. They are your conduits to the local communities in which your company operates; they can either represent your company’s interests positively or negatively outside the office. They can tell you whether a new product would be appealing to them as consumers, affording your company the ability to fail fast and adjust new products in the process. Your people can be the true difference between profit and loss, good or bad public relations, and innovation or stagnation.

Ask your people what they want from life and how your company can help support their lives

The COO and I spent the next six months working on ways to engage as many of the ‘hats’ (e.g., husband, consumer, friend, influencer, etc.) that his employees wore simultaneously during the day. The results were surprising both in their candor and in how off the mark the company was in trying to elicit employee loyalty.

U.S. workers are allowing work to creep into all facets of their lives. For example, on average, a U.S. worker checks his work email eight hours during nights and weekends – the equivalent of giving his company an extra day of work. So it’s not surprising that they are also doing personal ‘work’ – making vacation plans, for example – during work hours. Though money is vital to the vast majority of people, most people want to work to live, not live to work. So doesn’t it make sense to seek ways to support your people in all facets of their lives if the line between professional and personal time has become so blurred?

Engage your people as partners

During the six month program, the COO and I asked his colleagues how satisfied they were with all facets of their lives. We tested whether they would be interested in working alongside the company in the design of community programs, the creation of new products geared toward individuals, and the development of an employee-citizen council to discuss other ways the company could support these peoples’ satisfaction with life overall. In short, we set up a way to engage all facets of an employee’s life and interests.

When was the last time you asked your people, in their role as consumers, for their thoughts on your products’ appeal to them? Have you recently asked your people, in their role as concerned citizens, whether they would support your competitor’s expansion into their community? Has it been more than six months since your sought your peoples’ feedback on how your company could better assist them and their families in daily life?

What happens when your company no longer has ’employees’

Six weeks ago the COO told me that the council had recommended 16 actions; seven were enacted. Employee turnover is down four percentage points in the past two years. And the company has recognized over $45 million in new net income as a result of decreased employee turnover, decreased treatment related health services claims, and two new financial products geared toward individuals coming from the council’s work.

What would happen if your company considered partnering with your people, not merely employing them?

Eric Lowitt is the author of The Collaboration Economy and the CEO of Nexus Global Advisors.

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