Today’s galley slaves can jump ship

If you try to force productivity from your workers by beating the drum too fast, they will probably quit

The war for talent is spreading in Canada beyond high technology jobs in major cities. Shortages of high quality staff are occurring in a growing number of professions and skilled trades. Increasingly organizations are finding that the ability to recruit and retain staff is becoming a limiting constraint on growth. In some professions the shortage of qualified candidates is becoming so acute that bidding wars are breaking out between employers.

As a consequence, staff retention has become the leading challenge facing many human resources departments. Retaining key staff is usually a far better investment than the cost of recruiting a replacement. Research has shown that one of the most significant reasons why employees leave an organization is to escape poor work environments.

If providing a good work environment for staff is so important, then why do so many organizations feel like galley ships? On Greek or Roman galley ships they would beat the drums faster and whip the crew more frequently to increase speed (performance). Far too often that is how organizations try to motivate workforces today.

The 1990s were characterized by organizations downsizing and then absorbing increasing amounts of work with the same number of staff. The focus has been on everyone working harder to keep up with increasing demands. Rarely did management provide adequate recognition or reward for the increase in effort and difficulties faced by employees. Many people kept quiet and worked harder out of fear.

Managing by beating the drums faster has been a successful approach for many organizations in the short term. Employees responded by working harder and longer. In extreme cases, employees have been working increasingly harder without receiving raises in eight years. Hence productivity has increased faster than costs.

Employers have escaped most of the costs of this strategy to date. Unfortunately employees have absorbed most of the adverse consequences. There is evidence of higher levels of employee stress, increasing rates of burnout, widespread chronic fatigue and increasing disabling illnesses. Highly capable and experienced people are leaving organizations because they have had enough. The growth in disabling work-related stress is forecast to hit epidemic proportions in this decade.

The growing war for talent is beginning to shift the adverse consequences from employees to employers. Organizations with poor work environments will suffer from two related developments.

First, the highly talented, experienced employees will leave at a higher rate than organizations with excellent work environments. Good experienced employees will leave because their employer is motivating them to seek out or accept opportunities to move to other organizations. The inability to retain high quality talent will leave organizations unable to innovate or meet the needs of their customers.

Second, people entering the workforce are becoming more selective of the type of work environment they are willing to accept. Hence organizations with poor work environments will be less successful in attracting talented new employees. Good people who join the organization will not stay long because other organizations will offer them a more suitable work environment, better career opportunities, higher compensation and better benefits.

As a result, organizations with poor work environments will become less competitive. In the long term, organizations that fail to provide motivating, supportive and sustainable work environments will pay the price through organizational failure.

Unfortunately, many human resource executives face a difficult task in convincing their organizations to improve the quality of the work environment and working conditions for employees. It sounds like heresy to many executives to have the head of HR suggest that the organization needs to slow down and reduce the average workload per employee. It looks like a terrible “return on investment” especially given today’s focus on short-term results.

The challenge is to help senior executives focus on the long-term implications of a war for talent that lasts for at least 15 to 20 years. Organizations need to understand that they are running a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint. If your employees are always sprinting then they will not be capable of sustained performance.

Organizational survival is dependent on having employees who are highly productive and innovative at a sustainable work pace. It is critical that employees only frequently be required to sprint at peak performance levels in response to the occasional crisis. Beating the drums fast is effective when done sparingly.

Brian Orr is consulting for OrgArchitect, which helps organizations enhance the capability of their people, knowledge and systems. He can be reached at (416) 453-8633 or [email protected].

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