In 1843, Charles Dickens introduced the world to a terrible miser named Ebenezer Scrooge. Oh, he turned out all right in the end, thanks to a haunting and sometimes terrifying lesson from beyond the grave. But although Dickens’ tale deals mostly with issues of social equality, class divisions, and the importance of maintaining the general welfare of one’s fellow men and women, the story is underscored by themes of commerce: the greed that leads to downfalls and the generosity that bolsters productivity. With Bob Cratchit as a pivotal character in the plot, a meek and beleaguered employee who toils away for a stipend in Scrooge’s counting house, the fable becomes more than a simple morality tale; it delves into the very nature of employment culture in the workforce.
As SHRM reported a couple of years ago, citing pivotal research from Gallup, the nation’s workforce is not reveling in the yuletide cheer:
Gallup has been measuring employee engagement in the United States since 2000 and finds that less than one-third of U.S. workers report that they are "engaged" in their jobs. Of the country's approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent say they are "not engaged" at work—meaning they feel no real connection to their jobs and tend to do the bare minimum. Another 17.5 percent are "actively disengaged"— meaning they resent their jobs, tend to gripe to co-workers and drag down office morale. Altogether, that's a whopping 68.5 percent who aren't happy at work.
The situation hasn’t really improved since then. More recent data from Gallup suggests that up to 60% of workers remain disengaged at work, representing more than $600 billion of lost productivity per year.
Happy workers are more productive, more creative, more engaged, more willing to innovate and take calculated risks, and they require minimal supervision. That’s a recipe for success in today’s lean business climate. And even a Victorian like Ebenezer Scrooge came to understand that satisfied talent will always boost a company’s bottom line.
As the Ghost of Christmas Past returns Scrooge to his former mentor, Mr. Fezziwig, the spirit seemingly criticizes a gathering of young workers (Scrooge included) who have willingly given themselves to long hours of demanding work while still singing the praises of their boss. The ghost questions why spending a “few pounds” on an office party would have such a profound effect.
“‘It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self. ‘It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, continues to top the list of most beloved business leaders. Corporate performance aside, the accolades bestowed on him by employees comes from his activism, compassion, humanity, and championing of the workforce. Fortune’s Alan Murray and
David Meyer explored the “wisdom of Marc Benioff” in an October article, which illuminated the philosophies that have created a vibrant talent community at Salesforce:
- Benioff believes that capitalism should be more fair, equitable, and sustainable for all stakeholders, including employees.
- Benioff champions equal pay for women and pay parity in general.
- Benioff has aggressively fought against legislation that discriminates against LGBTQ people.
- Salesforce developed a robust corporate culture initiative based on the unifying principles of Ohana.
A Happy Workforce Is a Thriving Workforce
Today, contingent talent choose their freelance lifestyles. Temporary or contract-based work is not a matter of circumstance or situation, it’s a choice—a preferable career arrangement for highly skilled, tenured and credentialed supertemps. And the most recent industry statistics point to even greater numbers of freelancers and contractors penetrating the workforce of the near future. Why?
Salaries have flattened, pay raises have diminished or vanished, and hard-working talent struggle to make a living wage while their work-life balance suffers under increasingly demanding conditions. They want the security of sponsored benefits, reasonable compensation, a sense of purpose and clear paths toward advancement. The rise of the freelance economy and a permanent contingent workforce has, for many, become the solution. Consider how temporary or freelance work inherently satisfies the three characteristics of workplace happiness.
- Challenges. Workers stagnate in the absence of challenging tasks that provide opportunities for them to grow, hone their skills, and innovate new solutions to old problems. In an environment of staid routines, employees become discouraged, disengaged and lose motivation. With contingent assignments, talent get to work with a variety of companies across different industries. They constantly learn new skills and solve fresh problems. They develop into increasingly more valuable, more qualified and more satisfied professionals.
- Work-life balance. Today’s talent understand that life doesn’t stop once they clock out. Happiness at work affects happiness overall, and vice versa. In a study conducted by Groupon, “Sixty percent of respondents indicated that the pressures and responsibilities of the workplace and home life don't have boundaries,” explained EHS Today. “A third of Americans said they work too hard, with 40% responding that they work too many hours.” Temporary professionals appreciate the flexibility of contingent work; they remain in control of their schedules, their assignments, the companies they choose, and have more leverage in negotiating their rates.
- Rewards. You might think incentives, bonuses, and reward programs exist only in the realm of full-time employment, yet top staffing professionals have often led the pack in finding creative ways to recognize their exceptional talent and make them happy.
The Morality of High Morale
Staffing firms can improve employee morale, performance, and productivity through simple rewards programs.
- Recognition matters. Today’s talent value growth, career advancement, purpose, and they respond to recognition for their contributions. Their strong emphasis on being a valuable part of a community also translates to a stellar focus on teamwork, collaboration, acculturation and bonding. Not only do these traits fuel productivity, they raise morale. Team awards are also excellent ways to inspire talent. Formally acknowledging the accomplishments of your workers by handing out awards at the completion of projects or critical milestones can be a great source of motivation.
- Cash incentives. Money never hurts, and performance-based cash incentives work just as well for temps as for full-time employees. Many staffing professionals incentivize their talent with quarterly or bi-monthly programs that reward excellent work. Other examples include rewards for solving unique challenges, meeting special deadlines, longevity on assignment and at the firm, and more.
- Full-time employment opportunities. Contingent talent are not always seeking a permanent freelance lifestyle. Some anticipate full-time work as a result of stellar performance while on temporary assignments. Working with MSPs and hiring managers to develop temp-to-hire programs can become another potential incentive for your agency.
- Gift programs. Consider purchasing gift cards from local retailers or restaurants that your talent can win through contests or by meeting specific objectives.
- Paid time off. All talent, regardless of employment status, love paid time off. More staffing firms than one might imagine do offer these perks. Many set milestones that workers must reach prior to achieving the compensated time away. For example, a contingent sales professional might be required to meet a predefined sales quota or produce a set number of leads.
Choose Your Scrooge
We like to invoke Scrooge as a cautionary icon. The character’s name has become synonymous with misanthropy, excessive thrift, abusive management, and existential despair. Right now, there are plenty of business publications warning managers and executives not to be Scrooges. And that idea seems to have missed the entire point of Dickens’ story, ignoring the sweeping transformation that allowed Scrooge to become the hallmark of goodwill and decency—not a wretch who lines his pockets with gold while refusing to spend any of his coin for the betterment of the economy, and who subjects his workers to meager pay, a hostile business culture, and no chance for advancement.
In fact, Dickens emphasized, “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world… And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” It’s a valuable lesson for a season that honors our connection as brothers and sisters in the world of work. Happy holidays!