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In an article about the future of corporations from 2001, the management thinker Peter Drucker mused about the future of the workplace in The Economist. “The management of knowledge workers should be based on the assumption that the corporation needs them more than they need the corporation,” he said. “This means they have to be treated and managed as volunteers.”

Debt weighs heavily on millennials in the workforce.

One could make the argument that Drucker’s prediction only came half true, given the economic realities many workers have faced in the past two decades, including rising wage inequality and student loan debt. But I believe he was spot-on about how most knowledge workers think about their work. I’ve recently read different job satisfaction studies that show that work is in crisis, with as few as 40% of workers and as many as 70% declaring themselves to have checked out of their work completely.

Many factors contribute to this job satisfaction decline, including the sheer boredom of many modern workplaces, where many workers are still treated like cogs in a wheel instead of recognized for their creative contributions. We’ve traded hard labor on a factory or farm for digital repetition—and it’s killing us, quite literally.

What would happen to modern organizations if we applied the Drucker imperative, and started managing workers more like volunteers?

Building a Collaborative Workplace

At 18 Coffees, we’ve started applying the principles of community organizing, learned through years working for President Obama, the Organizer-in-Chief, to workplace development and employee engagement for our clients. The Obama organization mantra was Respect. Empower. Include.

What would happen if those principles were applied to the workplace? A few mindshift changes would happen:

  • Respect: Human Resources would start nurturing and protecting employees just as much as it protects the company’s reputation.
  • Empower: Managers would seek to build consensus, and train up the next generation of leaders, rather than only drive for performance.
  • Include: The workplace would cease being a hierarchical panopticon, with every employee constantly looking over their shoulder, and start being a community of professionals organized toward a common purpose.

Command-and-control models of management can lead to both cultural and financial problems. For years, Microsoft’s senior leadership made some very public bets on the wrong direction for the company. Once Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014 with a more empathetic management approach that empowered individual business units, the company soared back into relevancy.

What Do Employees Want?

Treating employees like a cog in a wheel of the corporate machine is the fastest way to burn out employees who are looking for reasons to care about their work. Contrary to common belief, employees don’t usually need more money or perks to report better job satisfaction. What they need instead:

  • Purpose: They need to understand why their role matters to the larger organization, and how it works in partnership with their managers and coworkers. They want both an individual purpose and corporate purpose; respect for their work and common cause with their peers.
  • Experience: It’s not enough that a company puts a mission statement on paper, even if that mission is one that resonates with its employees. A mission needs to be lived. Employees need to feel it in their bones. Constant communication about the mission, why it matters, and what progress is being made toward it goes a long way toward people not feeling like it’s only corporate B.S.
  • Structure: The most passionate employee will lose morale if the bureaucracy of an organization hinders any forward movement. Too often companies have hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy, technology for the sake of technology. Simplify and empower.
Could treating employees like volunteers help increase engagement?

To really treat knowledge workers as volunteers, it means flipping from the typical corporate HR narrative. Companies have to stop throwing money at the problem of employee engagement and do the real work of changing the culture in practice, often through re-training management, improving processes, building sophisticated internal communications, or in extreme cases, re-aligning org charts and job descriptions.

Management teams worried about employee engagement should stop innovating around the edges and put a real stake in the ground with bold moves. Community organizing is hard work, but it will pay off in better job satisfaction and better outcomes for the business.

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