Could it be true? Could the era of employee engagement really be over? Of course not. I’ve been talking about engagement in its many forms since the beginning of my career, and I’m sure I will be talking about it at the end. But as technology matures, the robots take over, and Uber becomes a verb, the one-on-one relationship of employee engagement must evolve.
It used to be that a company hired an employee, defined when and where work was done, cut a check at the end of the week, and if you were lucky threw a holiday party at the end of the year. Then we realized that if people cared more about the work they were doing, and felt the organization’s goals and priorities aligned with their own, not only would they feel better, they would perform better. Employers took care of employees, employees took care of customers. But then companies started looking around and realizing that employees were harder and harder to come by, and organizations realized that just like dating, in order to get engaged, first you had to have someone to take to the dance.
A prime example of this was an Uber driver I had the other day. This friendly young woman had worked for a large home improvement retailer for 3 ½ years. She had moved up from cashier to running the paint department, and said she loved her coworkers and her employer. But family was important to her and she was missing important events at home. So when some friends started telling her about their experiences driving for Uber, she left her former employer to drive for them as her main source of employment. She told me “they treated me really well, but they just couldn’t offer me a schedule that worked.”
Somewhere along the way the workforce got the silly idea that if employers wanted productivity and profitability, employees should receive not only compensation, but also choice. Suddenly top talent was demanding flexibility of time and place of work, and in compensation, choosing their own mix of base pay, variable compensation and equity. And the frontline hourly workforce realized that new employment models offered them flexibility over who they worked with, at what price point, and on what schedule. Now employers are competing on a daily and weekly basis not only with individual commitments and priorities, but with potential other employers for the time, talents and loyalty of their workforce. Suddenly engagement isn’t just about alignment of goals and priorities, it’s about aligning with the preferred location, tasks, and schedule of the workforce needed to execute on their business plan. It’s about a network of relationships, not an exclusive commitment.
There is an old expression that says if you love something, set it free. Smart companies – from disruptive startups to 100 year old retailers – are learning that engagement and commitment are no longer synonymous with exclusivity. Being a true employer of choice in a networked, Uber-fied world is what the new world of engagement will look like. Organizations ignoring this shift just might find themselves dancing alone come next New Year’s Eve.