What Motivates Workers? An Exploration of How Employees Relate to Their Roles

BY Mary Pieper | November 16, 2023

For past generations of Americans, getting a job was usually just a means to an end. Although some people have always felt called to certain careers, for most individuals, the goal was simply to find work that allowed them to support themselves and their families. 

However, young people today “Are willing to trade off real income to join organizations where they feel aligned with the purpose or mission,” said Amy Wrzesniewski, the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Wrzesniewski was interviewed by Reynaldo Anderson, Graduate Director and Associate Professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University during From Day One’s recent Philadelphia conference

“Whether we're talking about neurosurgeons or laborers, and their relationships to how satisfied they are with their lives, work, and experiences of well-being, their sense of purpose and satisfaction is significantly better if they feel as though they would do what they're doing in the workplace anyway, even if they won the lottery.”

How to Attract and Retain Workers With a Calling

Although many companies are realizing the benefits of hiring people who are mission-driven, these employers often fail to support them, according to Wrzesniewski. 

Dr. Reynaldo Anderson of Temple University interviewed Wrzesniewski in the grand finale fireside chat. 

Once they join an organization, workers too often “Find that the calling for the work that they’re doing is eliminated over time by how the work is arranged in the organization, how the jobs are designed, how they’re being led and managed, and so on,” she said. 

A company’s leaders, managers, and supervisors should, instead, educate new employees and help them tap into what the organization is trying to accomplish and what their responsibilities are, says Wrzesniewski. 

The next step is to give employees as much autonomy as possible to carry out their responsibilities. However, companies must provide some guidance, Wrzesniewski added.

“I think everybody wants autonomy until you have too much,” she said. “And once you have too much, it’s paralyzing. And it’s terrifying. And it’s particularly paralyzing if you're new to the job, the workforce, or the organization, and you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The benefits of autonomy only come once new hires have a secure base of knowledge about how things are done within the organization, according to Wrzesniewski. She said one of her greatest concerns is that hybrid and remote work can prevent these employees from gaining that knowledge. 

“There’s so much information, understanding what it is that the organization is trying to make happen that gets lost when people are not working together,” Wrzesniewski said. She noted that loss contributes “to that sense of anxiety about not knowing what to do with the autonomy or how to get from A to B if you haven’t traveled that path many times previously with your colleagues, supervisors, or more senior teammates.”

Include Everyone To Boost Motivation

Although providing guidance and support to younger team members is crucial to keep them motivated, employers should also pay attention to their more experienced workers, says Wrzesniewski. She said these employees, who didn’t grow up with “a very deep understanding of all of the technological tools and bells and whistles” that their more junior colleagues had, are facing a lot of anxiety because of advancements such as artificial intelligence.

“The solution is to create partnerships, cross training, cross education, between these younger folks and these older folks, because they have such different skill sets and knowledge bases,” Wrzesniewski said. 

One of the best methods for getting team members from different backgrounds and fields to work together is to give them a common goal that they can only accomplish through cooperation, says Wrzesniewski. 

“But a way to amp up the motivation is to identify a common enemy that will wipe them all out,” she said. “That can be a competitor, a competitive environmental force that is not in the form of a person or a group that is threatening to all of them if they don’t band together to try to solve that problem. That can be enormously motivating and quite effective at erasing boundaries between people from different groups who we’re trying to bring together in service of a larger goal.”

Mary Pieper is a freelance reporter based in Mason City, Iowa.


Thriving Within: How Companies Are Fostering Internal Mobility for Success

Why do most employees choose to leave their companies? A Gallup survey of job seekers looking to leave their current role discovered that the number one reason was lack of engagement with their organization, cites Scott David, CEO and founder of The Authentic Executive. Respondents explained they were looking for professional development, career advancement opportunities, and more interesting work to keep them engaged. The good news is that this is a salvageable situation for employers willing to focus on their employee engagement and internal mobility strategies.To retain valued workers and attract top talent, more companies are focusing on providing both upskilling and reskilling opportunities to their workers to help prepare them to move into new roles across the organization. During a panel discussion at From Day One’s Denver conference, experts discussed the benefits of improving internal mobility. In the discussion titled “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility,” the panelists discussed topics around how employers can coordinate these efforts by their executive teams and leaders in HR and talent acquisition, and why better internal mobility can align with efforts toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.Helping a Company’s Bottom LineDavid notes that studies from Gallup, SHRM, and Deloitte have found that internal mobility correlates with a 21% increase in engagement, a 23% increase in productivity, and a 40% reduction in turnover. “So when you figure it takes one-and-a-half to two times somebody's salary to replace them, those numbers add up pretty quickly,” David said.Upskilling is one of the key ways to increase retention. When employees have an opportunity for professional growth, even if it’s just skills-based rather than a title, it can increase their desire to stay. Panelist Kassey Kampman, VP of people operations at SSA Group, is a perfect example, having started as a cashier at the company then growing in her responsibilities over 15 years. Kampman shares that the company looked to its employees to guide it on what training to provide. “We took the bottom-up approach, which is very organic, leaning into our daily operations and observing skill gaps, observing our operators in the field, letting our people tell us what skills they’re interested in and what they are seeking,” Kampman said. From there, they were able to build out a standardized upskilling model.Rebecca Warren, director of customer success at Eightfold, agrees that an organic approach is most effective. “When we back it up a little bit and say, ‘what skills are actually needed for this position?’ and we start putting a focus on the person as opposed to focus on the job, those skills become really apparent,” Warren said.David Mafe, chief diversity officer & VP of HR at Denver Metro Region, UCHealth, emphasizes the need for removing hard and fast requirements, such as certain academic certifications, from job descriptions in order to let the right people grow naturally in a role. “I think that’s really the future of upskilling,” Mafe said. “It's about removing the barriers so people are able to move once they develop skills. What we'll find is that there are people who are qualified who are hiding in plain sight.”Upskilling as a DEI strategyRemoving these barriers for advancement and instituting an internal upskilling program can complement an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy, helping to ensure that employees from marginalized groups have access to all the tools they need to succeed. Mafe’s team noticed a high turnover of entry-level employees who were struggling with a need for better tuition assistance. Many of them were Black or Hispanic, often first-generation immigrants. UCHealth began offering in-house short-term skills training programs to try to offset the need for these employees to pay for education elsewhere. Getting an in-house certification in just a few months allows workers to progress to positions within the company where they can make more money.“You can start as a front desk person earning X amount, and then [transition to a role] where there's an immediate $3, $4, sometimes $5 difference that you're able to gain access to within about seven months, which is really powerful and makes a tremendous difference in the lives of the people that are working for us,” Mafe said. “We had this expectation that it was going to improve engagement, retention, and DEI and we saw all of those things right away.”In a conversation moderated by Elizabeth Hernandez, reporter at The Denver Post, the panelists discussed the topic “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility.” Melissa Uribes, VP of talent, diversity, equity and inclusion at Trimble, says her organization began working with workforce partners to provide accelerated boot-camp style training to employees that have demonstrated the right competencies for success in an effort to bring in more diverse leaders to a traditionally white male skewing team of engineering professionals. The partner even screens training candidates for Trimble and develops the 20-week curriculum. “Of the 20 employees who came through that cohort, Trimble ended up hiring about seven of them and they are really thriving in terms of their contribution to the company,” Uribes said.  “And we have dramatically changed their economic mobility because they've now had access to a career field that they did not have access to before.”Employers are also recognizing that networking and mentorship are just as integral as education when it comes to retention – and that too can affect DEI statistics. Kampman says SSA Group built a mentorship program in 2015, when at the time it had only 23% female representation in its general management positions. “We had an ‘Empower Her’ ERG that was fostered toward empowering women in leadership. In leaning on the mentorship program, we were able to shift that representation to 52% in 2023,” Kampman said. The company has expanded the mentorship program to also include hard skills training as well as leadership exposure for its hourly workforce, 75% of which comes from marginalized groups.Shifting the Mindset Toward Internal MobilityOne of the biggest challenges to ensuring internal mobility can be a mindset shift for leaders who may not have prioritized it in the past. Part of this comes from recognizing past patterns, such as talent hoarding among departments and from there, developing benchmarks to reinforce accountability, Uribes says.This keeps efforts from being performative, what moderator Elizabeth Hernandez, reporter at The Denver Post, called a “one-off brown bag lunch” meeting so that the leadership team can say that they tried. “Every organization in the company has goals around career mobility and career growth, and we do monitor,” Uribes said. “Very quickly, we were able to ensure that almost 25% of our requisitions are filled with internal talent.”That mindset shift can also mean seeing internal mobility as not just tied to roles, but also to responsibilities and projects, Warren says, which are all “different ways to get people invested” and can keep the work fresh and exciting for employees. Managers are encouraged to develop gigs that can help employees build skills and try out new projects, while simultaneously ticking the boxes of major tasks needed to move the company forward.Leaders should set the standard for workplace pride, Mafe says, by having a system in place to celebrate employees who take on new roles or complete training programs. And it’s also about developing a bit of tolerance for risk, “to be willing to take the risk of investing in a B player, or letting an A player go in order to continue to further their career,” David said, and focus on developing talent with the hope that it will engender company loyalty.Ultimately, employee mobility and engagement should be the natural result of an overall focus on human resources development. “The right managers shouldn't be project managers, they should be people developers and enablers allowing folks to do what they do best,” Warren said. Uribes emphasizes the need to look at career development holistically rather than in terms of lines on a resume. “We believe in the lattice,” Uribes said. “Career growth isn’t always upward mobility.” Too often, David cautions, senior leadership is focused on the numbers, the achievements, and the deadlines. That shortsightedness can cause employees to get frustrated and leave. “Your primary job is to develop people,’ David said. “If you do that, the numbers will take care of themselves.”Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | November 27, 2023

Whole-Person Management: Listening, Gaining Trust, and Helping Employees Connect

At a past job, Rachelle Carpenter led an HR team whose desks were situated at the back of the office, behind a locked door. The physical barrier did not make for a connected work environment.“One of the first things I did was change that, and they all came out on the floor.” Being in close proximity with the employees helped the HR team to listen, gain trust, and connect, she says.Carpenter was one of four experts speaking on a panel on “Enhancing Employee Well-Being Through Whole-Person Management” at From Day One’s recent Denver conference. Carpenter recalled a time when a boss who listened made a big impact on Carpenter. With her husband deployed in the military and two boys at home, she needed flexibility at a time before remote work was commonplace. “The care my boss showed for me so that I could both be successful in my role and continue growing in my role versus being stagnant, and taking care of my children while their dad was in Afghanistan, was something that meant the world to me,” she said.Now at Apryse, a software company Carpenter has the opportunity to pay that thoughtfulness forward. The company is remote-first, and what she has heard from employees is that they crave connection. So Apryse holds regular in-person events, like picnics, where everyone can meet up and connect. And if workers are in the office and they experience water-cooler moments when ideas come up on the fly, it’s important to document these. “When we see those moments, we capture them, then we share them,” she said. It helps remind people that they can connect with each other and foster a feeling of togetherness. Humanity in BusinessCompanies need to focus on employee wellness from the top down. Judith Alemendra, a group VP at TTEC, a customer-experience technology company, put it this way: “Our purpose as an organization is to deliver humanity to business.” But how to do that, especially in a large company? At TTEC, engagement surveys are offered quarterly, but getting this information in real time is crucial. Employees can also give feedback anytime. “You don’t have to wait for a survey to be connected to your people. You can have focus groups, conversations, one on ones,” Almendra said. “All of those are forums in which you can continue to gather information,” she said. This is where leadership learns what is most important to their people, because it’s going to be different from organization to organization. Gathering the info is only part of the equation. It’s the part that comes after that is crucial to enhancing employee well-being. “The action-planning after the survey is probably the most important component,” Alemendra added.Previously at TTEC in the U.S., many employees were single moms, so childcare was important, and as an organization they focused on that. After the pandemic, however, Alemendra said employee needs have changed somewhat. Employees who are returning to work at the office are worried about their pets at home. As part of its benefits offerings, the company launched a new app which provides a discounted service for someone to check on your pet. It’s all part of keeping up with what employees want and need to help them feel safe and productive at work.“A lot of our programs and benefits, we look at them every year make changes based on the feedback that we get from our employees,” Alemendra said.Gaining and Keeping TrustWhile managers need to respond to individual workers needs, it’s also important that employees can voice their sentiments anonymously. Said Jessica Hitt, a VP in HR at TIAA, “We spend a lot of time making sure people understand the anonymity of our employee engagement surveys. We do a lot to protect that.”Because gaining the trust of employees can be difficult, companies must take care not to undermine it by failing to follow through. “If you have the opportunity to do something, and you didn't do it, why would I ask you to solve this next thing?” The speakers, from left: Rachelle Carpenter of Apryse, Jessica Hitt of TIAA, Judith Almendra of TTEC, moderator Noelle Phillilps of the Denver Post, and Mel Faxon of Mirza (Photos by From Day One)Another thing for company leaders to keep in mind is explaining benefits to their employees so they are aware of what the organization already has to offer them. At TIAA, Hitt explained that their Business Resource Groups connect employee identities and affinities with relevant benefits and program. “Right now, this is our Disabilities Heritage month. So we're doing all sorts of events talking about Alzheimer’s, or preparing your family for retirement, or an aging workforce,” Hitt said. “Right there, we could slip in information about our benefits, or we could talk to you about retiring with dignity aligned to our whole philosophy. We try to be creative, but consistent. It’s all about the consistency of messaging and taking advantage of every avenue.”The Bottom LineSome companies may say that giving extra benefits to employees sounds good, but how is it sustainable? Mel Faxon, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Mirza, a family-care solutions provider, broke down the numbers. In a 1,000-person organization, parents, on average, miss about nine days of work per year due to childcare-related needs. At $20 an hour, that equals about $432,000 in just lost productivity from parents missing days of work. “If you take that same spend, and invest it in stipends,” Faxon said, “you can offset costs for each of those parents about $1,500 for the year. Plus, you can then take advantage of federal tax credits that are about $150,000 a year (23 states offer incentives).” So the company is spending less than half the loss incurred by parents missing work, which doesn’t even take into consideration employee retention and other positive impact.At Mirza, the company offers its employees eight care days a year, which says volumes to workers, Faxon said. “It’s giving people the reassurance that when life happens, that is the priority.”Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.  

Carrie Snider | November 27, 2023

Leading the Human Side of Rapid Digital Transformation

Jeannine Tait walked into a “turbulent” industry in educational publishing in 2022 when she took over the role of chief HR and communications officer at McGraw Hill. Higher ed, and education in general, was experiencing more upheaval than it had in years, and arguably still is. On top of that, the pandemic was persisting and at least in the U.S., many were still fighting about how to reopen the economy, and when. But that uncertainty and chaos wasn’t the case at McGraw Hill, Tait says.“For me walking in, the one thing that I noticed right away was the culture for McGraw Hill. Employees were just starting to come back.. But during that time, the pandemic had really accelerated our digital transformation. So as part of that, our employees rallied, they came together to really help teachers in a time of need,” said Tait.During From Day One’s conference in Philadelphia last month, Tait spoke about digital transformations in HR at McGraw Hill in a fireside chat moderated by Ariella Cohen, assistant managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.Coming into the organization as a new leader, Tait says her job was to look at the state of HR and enable digital transformation. “Taking that assessment, How do we transform HR to meet the stage where we were in business transformation with digital transformation? And then keep up with it?”Returning to the idea of what digital transformation means in the world of HR, Tait pointed out that McGraw Hill used to be known for their print materials–the “textbooks” company, as Cohen phrased it–but the world of publishing has changed, and McGraw Hill with it. “So how do we stay closely connected, whether it’s talking to a K-12 teacher or talking to professors and colleges about how they are doing their job? What tools will make their jobs easier–where they can really focus on the learning of the student? And each student’s needs are very different, so how do we make sure our products are keeping up with that?”Jeannine Tait, chief HR and communications officer at McGraw Hill, speaking at From Day One’s Philadelphia conference (Photos by From Day One)The role of HR in a changing world is to facilitate a business model that can evolve. McGraw Hill looks at the skills needed in the company, as well as worker profiles to fill that skillset. The other aspect to staying dynamic, Tait says, is making sure the company is there to support their employees and the company’s journey.“I feel like in my imagination,” Cohen said, “HR was more of a back-office kind of function, more transactional. And what you’re talking about is really being in the executive suite, really talking about business strategy.”Responded Tait: “In our case, it shows up as changing to a high impact HR operating model. So you think about a sports team, right? Everybody on the team has a position to play, vs. trying to play every position.” Every discipline gets broken down for sharper focus, she said. The company has a Center of Excellence that focuses in several key areas: talent management, DEI strategies, culture, compensation, benefits, HR, technology, and analytics. That team explores and brings information back to the company so they can act on it. “And making sure that we’re operationally excellent in the ways that we do things so that we can be scalable over time,” she added.Looking at that dynamic shift in fine detail, Tait goes back to the pandemic and says McGraw Hill had to look at how managers were connecting with their employees, or not connecting. They had to ask themselves how they could give leaders the tools and guidance they needed to better connect with their employees and help give structure in a way that performance goals and expectations were clearly understood. In the remote and hybrid world going forward, they’re focused on how they strengthen those connections. Asked Cohen: “When you’re kind of refining the model for performance management, is there one golden rule that you have really ascribed to?”“One of the things I say is there should be no surprises, right?” Tait said. She elaborated that the role employees play, performance expectations, and whether they’re veering off the mark, should all be information a workforce can readily access, not something that comes up in a performance review at the end of the year. She boils this down to a coaching, mentoring relationship between workers and managers, not simply a transactional one. “I’m giving feedback to my boss on how things are going. It’s this symbiotic relationship, where it’s constantly focused, not just on the performance, but also [on] authentic relationships,” Tait said. “Do you have a relationship? Do you understand your employees? What motivates them?”Zeroing in on a few products that really embody the shift towards digital transformation, Tait touched on Sharpen and McGraw Hill’s customer-success team. Launched in 2022, Sharpen is a college-study app students can pull up on their phone. It allows them to go through curated content and take quizzes; it’ interactive and akin to social media. “It’s what we’ve heard from the students who helped inform the product bill. They said it’s like their textbook and TikTok had a baby,” Tait said. It’s basically education in small, bite-sized pieces that can be tapped anywhere, any time, she said.The other element that exemplifies their digital transformation is their customer-success team, which is “responsible for making sure they’re meeting with instructors and students to make sure the products are sound. And customer centric–It all comes back to the customer and the needs of the customer to make things easier for them,” Tait said.Ariella Cohen, assistant managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer How does McGraw Hill disseminate that consumer-centric focus to their teams so that it informs the hiring process? Tait says that from the top of the organization to the bottom, their mission is clear: to help the teachers and students they serve. Furthermore, there’s transparency with their senior leadership. “And then it comes down to the leader, ultimately. Every manager is responsible for making sure we get back to performance management: What do I need to do to make sure that I’m making that connection right back to the customer?” Tait said.To sum up not just her role in HR, but HR in general, Tait described the universality of what HR does, bringing strategy into business, and relationships to customers. “HR has the unique ability to jump industry. You can go across and transverse a lot of different industries. And coming to the business to really understand what is it we do. How do we do it? How do we need to do it better?” Being in a leadership role, Tait says, puts her in a unique position at the table with senior leadership to discuss the direction of the company and how HR can support those goals. Lastly, it’s about relationships, she said. “Our customers in HR, our employees, the business, the business leadership, our owners, the executive team, of course. And so we pretty much have everybody as our customer. And so it’s important that the business coupled with what we deliver for HR is highly connected.”Matt Koehler is a freelance journalist and licensed real-estate agent based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in Greater Washington, the Washington Post, the Southwester, and Walking Cinema, among others. (Featured photo by AzmanL/iStock by Getty Images)

Matthew Koehler | November 22, 2023