To Keep Your Employees Happy, Make Them Work More, Not Less

Woman works on laptop at home
Woman on laptop

Last year our children made it back to school after the global home-school experiment came to an end. They couldn’t wait to replace Zoom lessons at the dining room table with real lessons. They were happy to replace their lovingly cooked midday meals with overcooked school lunches.

Yet when offices opened again, most of our friends didn’t embrace the idea of returning with as much enthusiasm. Even the ones who worked in cool offices with beanbags, foosball tables, and gourmet cuisine.

Part of that is because these two audiences are at different life stages with different needs and experiences. But much of it comes down to the fact that working from an office doesn’t offer much more value to many employees than working from home.

Many people are telling us about their hybrid arrangements. Some of them are telling us they’re now fully remote. And quite a few of them are telling us they’ve quit and are finding a role that better suits their lifestyle.

This last group is part of The Great Resignation (less than ‘great’ for most organizations). Because remote working isn’t about people limiting their work environment to home, it’s about expanding their working opportunities to the entire world. 

This has forced employers to pull out new tactics to hold onto their talent. They’ve been bumping up salaries, adding more benefits, offering more paid time off, and being flexible with working hours. These are the obvious first steps for any business to make. They’re trying to hold onto people by offering them more for doing less. It’s about tipping the balance in favor of the employee.

But there may be some benefit in doing the exact opposite. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s worth considering asking your employees to do more if you want to hold onto them.

Humans are designed to be active, both physically and mentally. And the less active we become, the more it will manifest in our mental states. 

Less work doesn’t always lead to healthier lives. However, good friction from purposeful work often gives us the physical, social and mental stimulation we need to stay healthy. Without it, we don’t function properly as human beings. 

The Gift of Good Friction

The way we tell the difference between bad friction and good friction involves a bit of neurochemistry.

Good friction releases feel-good chemicals into our system. These happy neurochemicals are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, and – in the right circumstances – adrenaline. These hormones have historically encouraged us to keep seeking and repeating beneficial behavior. And they still shape our behavior, even though we no longer have to forage, hunt and roam the prairies.

It often takes a bit of friction to release these chemicals. And, as you’ll see, they play an essential role in the workplace today. 

Dan Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” talks about the three dimensions of motivation: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose.  

Realizing these three dimensions takes extra time, effort, consideration, and sweat. The good friction of more challenging, responsible, and meaningful work comes with significant rewards.

Mastery

Becoming more competent at something is central to growing our motivation. So, encouraging your employees to push themselves further than they’ve gone before can be a great way of keeping them engaged.

This strategy is focused on helping employees practice, improve, and enhance their skills. It’s about failing and trying again on your journey to proficiency. This is the good friction of effort you must consistently apply for weeks, months, and years on your journey to success.

The journey to mastery releases a heap of positive neurochemicals. We get the reward of dopamine each time we attain something along the journey, as well as when we simply anticipate our success at the end. We get serotonin from raising our status and proving our abilities. And we get squirts of adrenaline that drive us onwards until a new skill becomes innate.

You don’t get any of this by simply doing the same repetitive, predictable task. So, let’s look at how you might use this tactic to develop a more talented and motivated workforce that will want to stick around.

A mentoring program can be a great way of using your more experienced talent to raise the abilities of others within the organization. People try harder when they’re accountable. And having someone else investing in them makes them feel valued.

Continuing from this, it’s always good to invest in staff training. That’s how you create a talented workforce that sticks around. The alternative is something no company wants.

Finally, when you have a team of people growing their skills, you need to allow them to put their newfound knowledge into action. That means you need to offer them the freedom to fail. So, give them projects where they can push themselves and prove themselves. 

Celebrate their achievements and successes publicly. Make sure that everyone in the organization sees that you value the extra effort. That will make them want to be part of the action too.

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Autonomy

Autonomy is a two-sided coin. On one side, you give people more freedom to do the job their way. On the other, you’re giving them responsibility for their successes and failures.

Most companies take a frictionless approach and avoid this altogether by giving employees no latitude for input. Instead, they are expected to do what they’re told. Because dealing with predictable cogs is more straightforward to manage than looking after a team of individuals.

Many companies rely on software to remove effort and add trackable metrics. That might sound like a good thing, but it’s leading to employers ignoring personal differences and treating everyone like an identical work unit. 

The corporate cookie-cutter slices off all the extracurricular activities and passions that make an employee attractive. And the value that these things could add is lost

You end up with a workforce of similar-minded, similar-thinking employees who struggle to think beyond the perceived limits of the organization. 

Conflicts are discouraged under the mistaken belief that they are bad for business. If any disputes arise, the HR department intervenes to ensure the offending behavior is nipped in the bud. This leads to a workforce too worried to disagree, speak up, or step on anyone else’s toes. As a result, anything innovative or ground-breaking is self-censored before it has the opportunity to blossom. 

So, let’s look at how you can benefit from encouraging more autonomy.

We recommend allowing employees to step up to challenges and giving them the latitude on how they will run them. You define these projects at the start by being clear on the outcome rather than how you expect people to get to the result. If this worries you, start with small projects and work your way up.

Marrying this approach with an ideas box is also a good idea. Encourage people to pitch their innovative ideas to the leadership team. The people who come up with the winning concept get to lead the project in the way that feels right to them.

Again, it’s vital that you publicly recognize the employees who are brave enough to put themselves on the line. You may be glad to know that recognition beats financial reward because it releases a heap of happy chemicals.

When people are publicly celebrated, it douses their brains in serotonin. Then when other people decide to follow in their footsteps by stepping up to lead a project, it turns on the dopamine tap as they anticipate the recognition at the end of the project. While leading a team in one of these projects, it releases oxytocin as the team bonds over the shared experience.

Who would want to leave after experiencing this?

Purpose

This is all about asking employees to do something worth talking about. And you get that by asking them to go to the effort of caring about something bigger than just doing the task.

A purposeful company often results in a good company culture that actively asks your team members to participate in its creation and maintenance. This can reduce workplace stress, enhance morale and improve productivity. This means team members are happier, more committed, and stick around longer. 

Building a good culture could be one of the most sensible investments a company can make. It’s excellent for company profits as well as for the team of humans helping to hit those targets. 

So, how can you use this as a strategy?

It’s a good idea to share a strong vision with the workforce to let them know what they’re helping the organization achieve. This is all about the why rather than the what. 

Think of the story of JFK being shown around NASA. He met a man sweeping the floors and asked him what he did. The man responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” That’s what you’re looking for.

Let your mission trickle down through the departments. Ask each of them to consider how their function is helping the organization achieve its mission. This is about moving from the why to the how.

Now encourage each employee to consider how their role fits into the mission. This is moving from the how to the what.

Keep hammering away at the mission in cross-organizational meetings and communications. Don’t let people forget it. And celebrate collectively each time you’re a step closer.

Employees will bond over their shared purpose. This shared belief is an oxytocin-releaser. It’s also an opportunity for a collective dopamine rush as the team achieves new wins.

Embrace friction

All of these approaches ask for employees to do more. They’re not about making it easier. Yet, as you can see, they’re the very actions that make individuals feel more invested and want to stick around.

All these tactics work whether your team is in the office, fully distributed, or somewhere in between. They take trust, consistency, and strong communication. And a bit more focus on the individual.

But the rewards are just waiting for those willing to do the work.