The morale challenge

Recent international research has found that more than half of employees self-reported being relatively unproductive at work. Kate Kearins looks at how leaders might ensure their workplace culture is balanced, productive, and fully engaged.

Welcoming back colleagues at the beginning of a new year means – for me at least – welcoming back all colleagues. And continuing to feel and promote hope, even though some of the last wee while has been tough for employees in many sectors.

A recent McKinsey study(link is external) paints a dismal picture. More than half of employees self-reported being relatively unproductive at work. Gulp.

The researchers, Aaron De Smet, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, Angelika Reich, and Bill Schaninger, identified six worker ‘archetypes’. They estimate a typical organisation’s workforce comprises: 10% quitters; 11% disruptors; 32% mildly disengaged; 5% double dippers; 38% reliable and committed; And only 4% thriving stars. Whoa!

The so-called quitters include the least satisfied and those looking to leave – they’re not necessarily the lowest performers.

Disruptors tend to model a lower level of performance, by either staying and ‘quiet quitting’ or making known their negative feelings about work.

The mildly disengaged lag their colleagues in wellbeing and self-reported performance. They may not have the energy or commitment to go above and beyond for the organisation. Together, these three groups make up 53%.

The double dippers are full-time salaried workers who hold down more than one job simultaneously, often without their employers’ knowledge. They are represented across the satisfaction spectrum and seem to be a growing phenomenon.

The reliable and committed, and the thriving stars might seem less problematic – but they are the ones every employer wants and could conceivably be easily recruited for a job elsewhere.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in many sectors, retention is a big issue.

Chances are high that, as managers, we’re welcoming back the whole gamut of worker archetypes

Chances are high that, as managers, we’re welcoming back the whole gamut of worker archetypes into our organisations.

The research also shows that each group has different needs and, as a result, we must be tailored, not homogenous in how we support our employee cohorts.

For example, some employees we might not want to dissuade from leaving. Others we might want to incentivise to stay – ideally before they start looking, as counteroffers – even tempting ones – often come too late.

The researchers(link is external) recommend identifying high potential and high performing workers, keeping a pulse on morale, helping to ensure people feel valued, and checking compensation packages are competitive.

 Lack of workplace flexibility is now seen as major driver of employee disengagement.

Tying people to the physical workplace and disregarding the now de rigueur expectation for work from home and/or hybrid approaches (where they have been proven to work) is increasingly recognised as counterproductive. Lack of workplace flexibility is now seen as major driver of employee disengagement.

Let’s also not underestimate what some would see as “hygiene” factors – the elements of the job that satisfy basic needs: having reliable and supportive people at work, a safe workplace environment, being inclusive and welcoming. Evidence shows these factors enhance engagement – and are said to be able to nip toxicity in the bud.

As managers, we must also be cognisant of preventing burnout among our employees. Elevated workloads can be problematic and particularly so for the less than ideally engaged group, encouraging them further down the satisfaction spectrum into disruption and quitting. Burnout can also be a risk for the so-called thriving stars – they may be small in number, but their influence can be great.

Indeed, the contagion effect of all employee archetypes is something to be aware of. It can vary from positive to negative and even be both at once. Having a greater balance of reliable and committed workers can be a powerful antidote – and worth building, recognising, and rewarding appropriately.

As we welcome and onboard new colleagues, now and throughout the year, buddying up newcomers with engaged and committed coworkers can really make a difference – not just to the morale of individual employees but to a workplace culture that is balanced, productive, and fully engaged.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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