By now you’re undoubtedly aware of the latest pandemic paradox: at the same time millions of people are out of work, millions of employers can’t find workers. The explanations for our current labor shortage have been chalked up to a variety of causes from health concerns to unemployment benefits to remote schooling. I’m not going to get into which of these is right. Probably a lot of them are.
But there’s a simpler, more mundane explanation that hasn’t gotten as much attention: that people everywhere have come to the conclusion that the conditions and requirements of their jobs just weren’t worth the money.
That is very different from the idea that people don’t want to work. It means instead that they have decided they don’t want to work where they had been. Maybe it was the commute, maybe it was their boss, maybe it was the lack of career opportunities or the office politics or the nature of the work itself. Whatever the specific reasons, they are all part of the same equation. There are pros and cons to everything; and anytime we add up all the positives and subtract out all the negatives and realize that we’re operating at a deficit, we decide to do something different. When this happens in relationships, we break up with somebody; when it happens at work, we make a career change.
Every job comes with some negative aspects, and in general businesses can counteract the effect of those negative things by offering more money, perks, or other benefits. In general, if you offer enough money to do something, you’ll find somebody willing to do it. That’s exactly what’s happening right now, as businesses everywhere are offering better salaries and benefits in an effort to attract workers. Whether those businesses want to offer better salaries and benefits is a separate issue, but I for one am happy to see it. Wages have been relatively stagnant for 40 or 50 years, and it’s nice to see some positive financial movement on the employee side for a change.
But money isn’t everything. The companies renowned for their excellent salaries and benefits (think free massages and beer on tap in the breakroom) turn out to have the same issues as everyone else. Their employee turnover isn’t noticeably lower than all the other “ordinary” companies. Which means that there’s more to the equation.
This is where the intangibles come in – the culture you’ve created, the value your company creates in the world, the ease with which your employees can make it into the building, or the ease with which they can tend to personal issues when they inevitably interfere with the workweek. And the questions that come with these issues – “Am I wasting my life away in my car?” or “Does my job actually mean anything?” – are often bigger drivers of employee movement than the financial ones. After all, EVERY job comes with money, and there are plenty of companies that will pay people approximately the same amount that you will.
No company is excited about the prospect of a prolonged worker shortage. And I’m firmly convinced that the ones who most effectively weather all this are the ones that focus their energy on providing good answers about all those intangible things. By focusing on convenience and flexibility, on results over process, on building careers instead of just offering jobs, and on demonstrating how meaningful the work they’re offering is, companies have the opportunity to attract millions of workers who have become disenchanted with where they were – and who will probably be quite happy to stay attached to a better place for a long time to come.
And if you can’t (or won’t) think of anything you can do to improve on those intangibles, well then you can do what companies everywhere have always done – keep offering higher salaries and better benefits until people decide that the work you’re offering is worth it. Be careful, though – if that’s the only thing you’re offering, it might get sort of expensive.
Thoughtful article. But I came up with something else as I listened to the radio on the way to work this morning… Why would anyone want to go to work when radio and TV announcers bash work all day and marketing promos blast us all day with: we need a better house, a better car, a better job, etc. The negative messages in advertising are sowing discontent in people for everything! It doesn’t always have to be bigger and better. WE NEED TO BE CONTENT sometimes and slow and steady like the turtle we win the race. Yep, I’m old fashioned but old fashioned built this country and I’m not seeing a lot of building going on right now – just lots of malingering and complaining. I work in manufacturing and without people willing to work, this alone is driving up inflation for ALL of us (higher wages paid/less goods produced due to no workers/ what goods produced are priced higher/ etc). Our company has always paid above minimum and above market, offered stable work and necessary and customary benefits without a lot of bells and whistles. We are employed to WORK, its a job. Work done well is gone. Just felt the need to share because your articles are thoughtful. Have a great day!
Thanks so much for the comment! I entirely agree with what you’re saying, especially the part about people needing to be content. I’m married to a Spaniard, and her family (and I think Europeans in general) have a slightly different idea of what comfort and success look like than Americans do. They don’t all expect to have multiple houses, multiple cars, and some of the constantly ‘bigger and better’ things that we do. I completely agree that people need to learn when enough is enough, and to not continuously be looking for more.
However, my goal with my article was to discuss a different angle for people to think about. There has been a lot written about “lazy and entitled” people who don’t want to work hard, are just taking government benefits, etc. The last part of your comment was in line with those thoughts, and I don’t disagree that they are valid thoughts; there are those people out there. But there are ALSO people who are looking for work that feels meaningful, that provides a real sense of community and contribution, and I believe that companies often overlook the importance of that kind of thing. Salary and benefits is a powerful way to attract and retain good employees, but it isn’t the only way. I’m trying to argue that if you only think about the financial element of what you’re offering to your employees, you’re missing an important piece of the overall puzzle.
I hope that makes sense. Thanks again for sharing!
Jeff, you hit the nail on the head. Many people who haven’t been off work for several months may have realized that they are a lot happier not doing meaningless work for heartless bosses within a disheartening culture. Once people have enough income to pay for their basic expenses, money drops to 8th place on the list of things that make them like their job. A supportive supervisor, positive workplace relationships, and being appreciated and respected at work arise to the top of factors that matter to employees who have a roof over their heads and food on the table. People want to feel that they matter. When managers feel their employees matter and show it, the organization and its employees win big-time.
Thank you for the comment Cathie!