Boese: 3 ways HR tech can help employees find meaning at work

One of the most interesting work and labor market developments in the pandemic era has been the tightening of the labor market, especially in the U.S. The combination of near-record-high job openings with the surge in American workers voluntarily leaving their jobs–along with workers’ ongoing concerns for their own health and safety, and lack of affordable childcare–have created a kind of labor market perfect storm, making the filling of open positions and employee retention HR’s top challenges today.

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The increase in voluntary terminations, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics refers to as “quits,” is unprecedented. The total number of quits hit another record high for the data series in September, according to the latest Job Openings, Layoffs, and Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report from the BLS. For the previous six months, the number of quits was higher than at any other time going back to December 2000, when the BLS began tracking quits numbers. With 4.4. million U.S. workers leaving their jobs voluntarily in September, it seems likely that the trend is accelerating, and certainly not showing signs of slowing down in the near term.

While the availability of open jobs elsewhere, and the other external factors cited above as likely drivers of the increase in quits, that raises another interesting aspect of macro labor market dynamics at play: Fewer Americans see their work and career as a source of meaning in their life.

See also: Endeavor CHRO: Linking purpose, talent is HR’s ‘enormous opportunity’

According to recently released data from the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who cited their work and career as a primary source of their life’s meaning declined from 24% in 2017 to only 17% in 2021. In fact, in the U.S., “work” or “occupation” is the fourth most frequently cited source of meaning–behind family, friends and material wellbeing. Additionally, of the 17  advanced economies included in the Pew survey, the share of adults in the U.S. who listed work as a source of meaning comes near the bottom, ahead of only South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. As the pandemic era stretches on, it does seem apparent that more and more workers have reevaluated their relationship with their work and many have determined that work has a relatively lower place in the hierarchy of what creates meaning and helps define their lives.

So, it seems plausible that employers searching for ways to improve employee retention and even to enhance their ability to recruit and hire in this historically challenging labor market could focus on developing the meaning that working at their organizations creates for their employees. That’s a pretty complex task, though; in addition to being challenging, it can also be something that HR and business leaders just don’t have time to concentrate on intentionally or directly.

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Usually, the more mundane and practical issues of the day take precedence: Do we have enough staff to continue normal operations? Are we able to support and service customers? Are we able to generate demand and new sales to continue growth? The question of “How can we make our work more meaningful for our employees?” probably falls quite low on the list of “to-dos” for most of us. But, with the labor market presenting so many difficulties for employers today, any advantage or opportunity to improve the overall employer value proposition should be explored. Let’s think about how companies can leverage HR technologies specifically in the quest to create more meaningful experiences for employees.

Employees can find meaning at work when they feel the organization values and invests in their development and success. Winning organizations create a learning environment that energizes employees and increases the opportunities for their personal growth. Modern HR technologies that center on AI-powered skills analysis and development can help employees identify and develop skills. Additionally, HR tools are increasingly supporting more creative approaches to skills development. Specifically, several HR technology providers have introduced the idea of employee “opportunity marketplaces,” which surface internal roles, recommend mentors, connect employees with short-term assignments or gigs, and offer learning and development resources that align with an employee’s career goals. Showing support for ongoing employee success is one way to drive more meaningful work.

Next, encouraging employees to form more meaningful connections with their peers and increasing the opportunity for friendships to emerge in the workplace can help to build and maintain high-performing work teams. New HR technologies are emerging that can allow HR and business leaders to better understand work teams, the composition of skills across the team, the individual work styles of team members and more, all in service of creating more effective and diverse teams. Over time, allowing employees to participate in more teams, especially with colleagues from different functional areas, can round out their networks, encourage dialogue and challenge their thinking. These opportunities help them develop more high-quality relationships, which typically lead to a feeling of connectedness and deeper meaning in their work. Team management is going to be a real point of ongoing emphasis in HCM technology in 2022 and forward.

Related: 3 strategies for meaningful engagement long-term

Finally, perhaps the most direct way to help employees find more meaning at work and identify with the organization as a source of trust is by the organization demonstrating support for employee wellbeing across multiple dimensions. Probably the most interesting category of HR and workplace technology in 2022 will be employee wellbeing tools–including those that support physical, mental, emotional, financial wellbeing and more.

The events of 2021 have shown us that employees in all industries, locations and job functions have undergone an extended period of stress and pressure. Several CHROs have told me recently that job candidates are asking much less about potential salary and job title and are more about benefits and support for wellbeing–both for themselves and their families. From financial planning technology to on-demand access to earned wages to subscriptions to popular mental health applications, smart organizations looking to create more meaningful workplace experiences will strive to deploy programs and technologies to support overall wellbeing. These can foster a deeper connection with employees and a sense of purpose that can be a driving force in retention efforts.

Most organizations are in a pitched battle to find, attract, hire, develop and retain their best talent. As you assess your HR technology strategy and platforms as 2021 winds down, I encourage you to take some time to consider your ability to create, enhance and emphasize how the technology you have, or that you are considering for 2022, can help you create more meaningful work experiences for your employees and support your organization’s HR, talent and business objectives. After all, you can only raise wages and benefits so far, and chances are there are competitors that can beat you on that front.

Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®, which will take place Sept. 13-16, 2022, in Las Vegas. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at sboese@lrp.com.

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