We are at a unique time as I write this. Right now employers are complaining long and loud about not being able to find enough people. I can see the effect in my home town. A local pizza shop we frequent every week had a sign on the door that said “Closed due to lack of people willing to work”. It’s gotten so bad that several states’ governors turned off the additional federal unemployment dollars early. Still that hasn’t had anything close to a perceptible effect. To attract talent, employers are doing what they usually do, i.e. they are offering more money, well a little more at least. Raising salaries is the easy go-to because it’s resisted so much during times when the recruiting pipeline is average or strong. When things get to the breaking point, the employers do open up the check book. Yet, that’s not working. Why not? Beyond cash, I think it has much to do with corporate culture.
Yes, this article is a commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the workforce but maybe not in the way you’ll see it splashed on articles all over creation. As an example, in one CNBC commentary the conversation is about how corporate leadership is struggling with “how to get people back into the office”. For the corporate world, the actual question should be “How do we make this remote work thing more effective?” If you are paying attention to the professional class, for the most part, knowledge workers have figured out how to get their job done while working from their bedrooms. They just haven’t quite figured out how to perform at the highest possible levels while working remotely. If the majority of workers who are currently remote stay the same for the next several years I believe that productivity will get back to the same levels they were when everyone was in the office full time. It may even increase as the knowledge workforce figures out how to be even more productive in potentially lower distraction home environments vs in the office.
For the rest of the world the questions and answers are different. When we think about in-person laborers who are making pizza or working on an assembly line, etc, the actual question shouldn’t be “How much do we need to pay them to get them back to their stations” and it should be “How do we change the structure so that they want to work?”
But everyone wants to work if they want the benefits that our society brings, right? I think, for many, they fell into work when they got out of school. When you get to the collegiate levels of education, working in a career is the purpose of all that effort. You go to school to get a specific education to go to work in some particular type of job that requires advanced training. For those who maybe just have a high school level education or maybe even dropped out of school, i.e. the ones who became general laborers, work was clearly not the purpose of that decision. They didn’t like school and were hoping for what they defined as a better life. At that point in your life, most very young adults would identify that more social freedoms and less studying constitutes a better life. Since most parents aren’t going to let a kid sit at home and do nothing, not to mention a world of social pressures heaped upon unproductive members of society, this population mostly went to work in the aforementioned laborer’s positions. Many stayed at that level and got stuck into the trappings of our modern society. They worked to pay the car payment, the rent payment, daycare and more than likely other debts they may have accrued via our credit crazy world. In effect they became part of the machine. They worked to get and keep stuff so they could live a life similar to those around them who were also working to get and keep stuff. It’s not that things like newish cars and nice apartments and the other pleasantries of life are bad, it’s just that they are all very expensive relative to a typical laborer’s income.
Then COVID hit and many thousands of them went home. As a population some got very creative, and in my opinion, learned how to survive while not working that traditional job. I’m sure many gave up things. I’m also sure that family finances were reworked. Maybe a spouse took on the burden of supporting the household. I would not be surprised to find that many people realized that spending over half of the take home from a $15 an hour salary to pay for transportation and childcare wasn’t worth it. I’ve heard many stories where one restaurant job became six different under the table side hustles. The point is that people rearchitected their lives.
Then a year later all the employers opened back their doors and expected this population to go running back enmasse. That didn’t happen. Extended unemployment was the easy scapegoat. It seemed obvious. If you are paying people to stay at home, they will stay at home. But when half the states ended the extended unemployment early, people didn’t go back to work. Well, to be fair, some did. The difference was 2% more people went back to work in the states that removed unemployment early.
I’m always saying that if you don’t have to work, you won’t work. What I really mean when I say “work” is working at a traditional corporate job and everything that goes along with it.
For the record I don’t think this is a permanent situation. The system that onboards new labor that I alluded to earlier is still sound. I see future generations of young adults who skip getting an advanced education still falling into the “I don’t know what else to do, so I guess I’ll go to work at the local laborer job” mindset. I think the current state of “Opting out of a job” is more akin to something that looks like a population bump that goes through society due to a baby boom. A big group of people decided to opt out of the traditional working job and many won’t go back because they realized that they don’t need to.
So the question on employers’ minds is, how do you get them back. We’ve known the answer forever. We have to give people something they believe in. Monster summed it up in their article: Five things you need to be happy at work.
Finding #1 You Need to feel accomplished
How many people feel accomplished in traditional manufacturing or service work jobs? Does the person operating the blow molding machine making kidney shaped plastic gas tanks for lawn mowers feel like they are changing the world for the better? The answer is probably not. They may feel accomplished if they were doing something like using recycled plastics from the oceans, or if they were part of the design process of that particular gas tank and were building something they had input in. Most would feel good about making the world cleaner or building something they helped create. If they were just getting hired to operate the machine? Probably not. This type of employee engagement is not really part of the DNA of most small manufacturing companies but you do see it in some of the larger concerns who understand holistic engagement.
Finding #2: You need positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is something that my current employer does very well compared to every other job I’ve ever had. It’s saying thank you constantly. It’s sharing that you appreciate the enormity of their work. It’s telling people they do a good job whenever they do a good job. It’s also sharing in the wealth when things are going well. It’s a bit like teaching your kids to be polite. You have to say please and thank you to them in your daily interactions so you can reinforce the habit in yourself and hopefully develop it in your kids.
Unfortunately we, as in the human condition, are not hard wired to do this. Typical behavior is to expect great work and punish poor work. That’s why it has to be purposeful and, when it comes to money, strategic.
Finding #3: You need to like your co-workers
I think this is both a personnel issue and a culture issue. On the personnel front, I always think back to the book “The Dilbert Principle ” where one of the most important suggestions to create a great working environment was to “Get rid of the assholes, even if they are great producers”. There are always going to be people who are abrasive and overly manipulative. There are other negative traits I could list, but the point is you need to get rid of them. They only make everyone else miserable. You spend too much time engaging with your workplace. Nobody needs to have an asshole around who makes their life miserable, even if it’s in the sacred name of productivity.
The cultural aspect relates to exemplifying this behavior through management. In effect if the expectation is to always focus on the positives, then the culture will change. For the record, I don’t recommend ignoring the negatives of people or initiatives, it’s just to make sure that if there is a positive, it’s highlighted wherever possible. In my case the example would be if someone were to complain that I overshare, a manager would respond: “Yes, he shares too much but he’s honest, he genuinely cares and you always know where he stands” And then they would have a conversation with me about toning down my oversharing, something I need to be reminded of from time to time.
Finding #4: You need some level of autonomy
Micromanagement sucks. Everyone who’s ever worked for a micromanager knows this. Let me reiterate that, everyone who has any level of initiative knows this. There exists a small group of people who thrive under micromanagement. Ultimately if given the tools, and the decision making power, people tend to make good decisions. Let them make good decisions.
Finding #5: You need to be part of something that makes you proud
Being part of something that makes you proud is the hardest thing to do. It takes real vision on the part of management which includes a great cause, and it includes complex strategies to drive buy-in on the part of the employees. Unless you are a wall street investment firm, the vision has to be something well beyond quarterly profits. Unfortunately profits, especially when you are a publicly traded company, or god forbid, owned by a private equity management firm, are the entire purpose for being for most companies. I find that in any company’s lifecycle, it’s only during the period of time when the founders are still in charge that the original aspirational vision drives the company. The very second the management moves from insiders to outsiders picked by investors, the pie in the sky dream dies, and when it does, so does the thing that can make their workers proud.
I didn’t really harp on it, but beyond these five points, you also need to pay people a livable wage. Liveable means that people should have some significant level of discretionary income leftover after they pay for housing, food, transportation and childcare. We don’t really live in a world where most frontline hospitality, service industry and/or industrial workers have any sort of guarantee of decent wages. So, when the pandemic forced them all to stop working something unique happened. To quote the classic Jurassic Park line “life finds a way”. They got creative and learned how to survive without that old job. A few extra dollars in their paycheck won’t convince this bubble of people who checked out of the system to come back.
So what will get them to come back, assuming it’s even possible? I think it has to be a combination of the five points cited earlier plus a reasonable paycheck. If I’m an employer, this means a whole lot of extra work beyond raising pay grades. Some will do this but I don’t think this is going to happen enmasse. I think most employers will use a combination of overworking those who are employed, greater adoption of automation, and backfilling positions with the next generation of workers who haven’t gone through a pandemic driven existential reassessment. The employers will figure it out even if they can only keep the local chain pizza restaurant open a few days a week until they do.
For my own part I don’t mind. I can go to the grocery store, buy my groceries using automated self checkout, and make my own Friday night pizza. Instead of going out to understaffed bars I can stay in and watch a movie at home. On that note, It’s probably time to watch Jurassic Park again. Considering everything, it’s a great time to revisit a tale where the best story beat is when a heartless corporate bureaucrat gets eaten by a dinosaur who escaped the confines of their cage and decided to live life on their own terms.