Our previous blog touched on Gallup’s annual State of the Global Workplace report, and how this year’s findings really resonate with the work OpenBlend has been doing to identify the factors that help us perform at our best.
Many of Gallup’s conclusions are deeply negative. We won’t revisit it in detail, but the short version is that engagement is directly linked to an estimated 11% of global GDP, and that workers are being failed, continuously and consistently, by employers who don’t see the connection between how their people feel about work and how successfully their business performs.
“If we spend so much of our life at work, how is life at work going? According to the world’s workers, not well. Gallup finds 60% of people are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable.”
But because we don’t want to end the year on a negative note, and because we think it’s far more useful to offer some practical steps that will help to boost those Gallup numbers for next year’s report, we’ve identified four key themes which will make a genuine difference to how your people feel about work - and how they’ll perform as a result.
The work-life blend
“Balance is essential, but it implies a work/life separation. Emotionally compartmentalizing work, or anything in life, is hard.”
Gallup instantly puts its finger on the problem of “work-life balance”: it’s just not that simple. In the UK, 70 companies and over 3,300 employees are taking part in a pilot programme to test the effects of a four-day week, with no loss of pay for workers. The theory is that fewer hours and more personal time will make us more focused and more productive (a factor particularly relevant to the UK, which has one of the longest working weeks in the world but ranks amongst the least productive). But if you’re not being treated with respect - if your manager doesn’t support or listen to you - then those extra hours at home will be a fleeting relief at best.
The psychological stress of trying to keep work and life “separate” is exhausting in itself. The solution is to embrace the fact that one carries over into the other, and to have conversations which address this fact and aim to find solutions for its effects. And, really, what’s so difficult about that? Why should it be hard to tell your manager that you need a few days of flexible hours to help you deal with a family or health problem? It’s not a question of burdening them with your problems - it’s a way of showing them how they can help you perform.
Psychological safety predicts team performance, which is a slightly corporate-sounding way of saying that if you feel comfortable speaking up, you’ll be happier and more effective within your team. Part of that is down to personality, and some people will always find it harder to do than others, but creating a psychologically safe space is one of the most crucial things a manager can do if they want to build a high-performing team.
Fortunately, a degree in psychology is not required. Some people find it natural to express their opinion and some don’t, but the loudest voices may not always have the best insights. If some employees are clearly struggling to speak up in a group setting, find five minutes to ask them their opinion when you’re one-to-one. A simple prompt, like: “I know you didn’t say much when we were discussing X yesterday, and I wondered if it was because you felt uncomfortable talking in front of the whole team. If there’s anything you want to say to me now, I’d like to hear it”. Nothing creates psychological safety like understanding that a manager values your input and acts on it.
Thriving trumps surviving
Gallup’s research in Europe tells us that 47% of employees are “thriving” - in other words, they’re at (or heading towards) the life they would want for themselves. So how do we reconcile this with the same fact (on the same page) telling us that Europe is the least engaged continent in the working world, with just 14% feeling strongly engaged by their job?
There is a quality of life aspect to all this: many of the countries which are frequently hailed as the “happiest” on Earth are in Europe. But we need to separate the two factors. You can be engaged at work, but not be thriving as an individual. In fact, that particular combination is a dangerous cocktail, according to Gallup: “employees who are engaged at work but not thriving have a 61% higher likelihood of ongoing burnout than those who are engaged and thriving.” One possible interpretation is that people are sacrificing their balance and wellbeing for a job they love; that they’re thoroughly committed to their work, but that it’s not giving them the life they want.
Employers might say that they can’t be responsible for the happiness (or not) of someone’s home life. This is true up to a point, but they also need to ask whether they’re offering opportunities for someone to have a fulfilling home life in the first place. That doesn’t just mean fewer working hours: it may mean flexibility, or training, or investments in tools and infrastructure to reduce the psychological burden of certain tasks. Someone’s happiness is not their employer’s responsibility, but it is within the power of the employer to make it more likely.
Regular coaching conversations
We have said, on numerous occasions, that the manager-employee relationship is the fulcrum on which performance rests. Frequent one-to-one conversations are, perhaps, the most important aspects of this.
In Gallup’s top five indicators of what makes a bad job, “unfair treatment at work” is comfortably number one, with “unclear communication from managers” and “lack of manager support” at numbers three and four. These conversations, then, are a manager’s main way of ensuring that these things don’t happen. We shouldn’t let a word like “coaching” throw us off track: this is as simple as asking how things are going, and whether someone has everything they need to do their best.
Managers who make time for their people. Managers who listen, take feedback on board and take action. All businesses have them, but most don’t have enough. Leaders can make these conversations happen by showing that they take them seriously and are willing to give managers the time to do them properly. They can give managers the right tools to ensure they’re asking the right questions. If we have more to worry about than we did twenty years ago, we also have far more sophisticated ways of addressing these challenges. If you recognise any of the symptoms Gallup has raised in their report, from stress to anger to potential burnout, the good news is that there are simple ways to fix things. The more we feel able to share at work, and the more effectively we can come together to fix both our organisational and our personal challenges, the better we’ll all perform.
And there we have it: a wish list every employee can get behind this Christmas. We hope it contributes to a happy, prosperous New Year for you and your business. In the meantime, all at OpenBlend wish you a very Merry Christmas. See you in 2023!