Expectations in the workplace have definitely shifted since I started my career. Employees are demanding empowerment in the workplace driven in part by millennials, now the largest workforce generation in the United States. Far from being entitled, as popular opinion may have you think, these roughly 26 to 34 year-olds are changing the way we work at a fundamental level. They expect flexibility, a positive environment, teamwork and transparent communication from leadership. This push toward a new kind of work environment promises to reap benefits far beyond happy staff members.
Policies need an overhaul to meet new expectations, but not at the expense of productivity. This requires us to shift our mindset to one of trust, coupled with a performance management philosophy focused on uniting the workforce around common goals. It may sound daunting, but it's the only way organizations can evolve to empower their workforce to do their best for customers, partners and shareholders.
With this philosophy, organizations can empower. One company I know started offering unlimited vacation and flexible work location. One employee said, "Working from home when feeling a little under the weather (but not wanting to take a full sick day), working from another state because a family member is sick and you need to visit, working from a coffee shop just because you feel like a change of scene – all of these are enabled by a policy that meaningfully empowers employees while ensuring that they remain accountable." Their accountability ultimately falls with projects and needs, and the expectations of their fellow team members. After a couple of years with this policy in place, this company has seen heightened productivity and consistent success with deliverables.
This kind of approach won't work for every business, but don't despair. I've worked in several high-tech and manufacturing environments. One of the best ways we've found to move toward empowerment is by taking a more structured approach. If you can't let your employees have unlimited flexibility (let's face it, this doesn't work in every environment), here are a few ideas to jumpstart your thinking:
Uncover corporate culture. When you peel back the layers and find the key foundational aspects of your culture, you can drive day-to-day decision-making for everyone from the C-suite to entry-level employees. Create predictable and consistent cultural pillars that span all levels and departments. This gets everyone in the company on the same page, empowering each employee to support his or her own growth, because they clearly know the corporate goals and how they can individually contribute to them.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Once these principles are defined, communicate them clearly and often. I often say that you must communicate a message at least seven times in order for that message to be retained. Recite the message in meetings, put it on the intranet, sign emails with it. This isn't a one-way street either. Opening multiple channels of two-way communication between all levels of employees is not only key to empowerment, but it can help ensure everyone is working toward the same goals and mission. At my current company, we developed a web/mobile software application just for this purpose. It centers around real-time feedback that can be provided to and from anyone and facilitates regular check-ins between employees and managers.
Don’t forget the customers. Of course, we can't ignore the bottom line. As with any policy that is implemented at a corporate level, it must contribute in some way – directly or indirectly – to profitability and success. Employee empowerment is no different. When you look at how things like flexible work schedules and open door management policies affect success, you can start to track the effect on interactions with external audiences as well. It's a no-brainer that great customer experiences start with your workforce. Employees at every level have the ability to influence relationships, whether your company is a local brick and mortar or a global technology provider. By arming employees with knowledge and resources, I have found that they then have a much better chance of delivering superior customer service. And this means a positive impact on your bottom line.
Thoughtfully empowering your workforce is not about indulging the whims of a generation. Demands for empowerment are creating opportunities for companies to change the way they treat their people, which, in turn, creates a culture that frees them to do their best work.