Leading the Return to Work – November 2021

The pandemic has created more introspection among business leaders than any other event in recent history. The early months of shut-downs and reorganization caused leaders to question just about every old-school belief in how business is done. Months later, the question was, “When will we get back to normal?” Then, when Open sign was finally re-lit, no one seemed to want to work anyone. Soon, arm-chair psychologists had theories as to why Americans didn’t seem to want to work anymore. But it didn’t take long for those theories to take a beating.

The easiest culprit was extended federal benefits. I mean, who would want to go back to a 9-5 when they are getting hundreds of dollars a week from Uncle Sam for doing nothing? Surely, once those benefits stopped, job applications would start flooding in. Except, when the benefits ceased, workers did not return. Another reason was lingering fear of COVID in an in-person workplace. Only time, and the eventual fading of COVID, will tell if that assumption holds water.

Another hot topic kicked around when people talk about the worker shortage is the question of wages. According to some, people are tired of being paid a barely-living wage just so some investor can walk away with the profit. The assumption has always been that, when unemployment dries up, employees will return. I mean, some money is still better than no money at all. Right? It turns out, no.

Those of us who study influence and human behavior are constantly reminded that money, while certainly important, holds less sway than many other factors when people are weighing important decisions. Look at the ways companies try to woo new hires:

            Huge banners listing fantastic starting wages. Ask restaurant servers across the country who are quitting en mass just how much money matters when they are being told by customers to lower their mask and smile before getting a tip. (This is happening a lot. If you do this, please stop.)

            Signs at the front door that state Join a (winning) (fun) (happy) team. The sign is meaningless when you walk through the store and see staff that is anything but happy, fun, or winning.

            Posters by the check-out counter that list the discount employees get by working there. Are you really advertising that you want people to work there so they can spend the money they earn at the very place they work? And who buys so much stuff from one place that working there is a smart financial decision?

I am going to go out on a limb and claim that these ideas are the result of different generations not talking to each other. Business leaders are still comprised of Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and the oldest Gen Y. These folks are tying to influence the mindset of young Gen Y and Gen Z. (If you are hiring Generation Alpha, born after 2011, we need to talk about child labor laws.) If there is one constant in the universe, it is that older folks are much better at talking than listening. So, an older business leader thinks “We’ll promise great pay and a great place to work. Isn’t that what everyone wants?” But that leader is using logic borne from a different generation. These tactics are the product of talking to a new generation without listening to them.

One sure outcome of the pandemic is that it has forced people of widely differing views to acknowledge that other viewpoints cannot simply be brushed aside, ignored, or dis-respected. This trend should extend to how business leaders communicate with staff. Of course, people will return to work. Savings accounts and government support don’t last forever, but with birth rates the lowest they have been in over 40 years, and immigration’s unsure future, smart leaders must act to change their workplace culture now.

The first step is to find a new way to communicate with staff. Younger employees are not blank slates. Each generation has unique experiences that shape a particular world view. If you want to lead a workplace that attracts the best, do more listening than talking. And resist the temptation to compare the needs and desires of your generation to those whom you are trying to hire. To attract people, don’t pitch…listen.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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