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The One Question You Should Be Asking Employees (But Probably Aren’t)

As the labor market stays tight and the workplace continues to evolve, employers are competing with one another to attract and retain top-performing employees. And they’re getting creative: Boxed offered to pay for employee weddings, Facebook’s office is equipped with tech-stocked vending machines (free for employees), and iCracked provides an all-access pass to their company yacht.

But while these benefits sound attractive, countless studies show that such perks are not at the core of job satisfaction and employee engagement; they’re glitzy but ultimately weak attempts to conjure connection and culture. As Dan Ruch, our founder and CEO, says: “If you try to manufacture culture, with pingpong tables and beer on Fridays in the office, it’s not genuine and it doesn’t take on a life form of its own.”

So what do people want from work? One way to find an answer, especially in a tight labor market, is to reverse-engineer the questions and ask, Why don’t employees leave the jobs they have? That question isn’t posed as often as you’d think, but it was in 2012 by the American Psychological Association. In the APA’s Workforce Retention Survey, some 1,240 full- and part-time workers were asked to evaluate nine common reasons for staying with a current employer. Here’s how their answers ranked, as measured by the percentage of participants who said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with a statement:

  • I enjoy the work I do (67%)
  • My job fits well with the other areas of my life (67%)
  • The benefits (60%)
  • The pay (59%)
  • I feel connected to the organization (56%)
  • My co-workers (51%)
  • My job gives me the opportunity to make a difference (51%)
  • My manager (40%)
  • There aren’t any other job opportunities for me (39%)

Note that, in even in a much weaker labor market, lack of mobility is last on the list. Likewise, a feeling of connection to the company—which, like pay and benefits, is obviously important—do not rank highest. Rather, what matters most to people is their connection to the work they do—how much they actually like their job—and their work’s connection with the rest of their life.

The best employee engagement programs, then, will focus at least as much on those two aspects of worklife as on the feelings staffers have toward their organizations.

How should this impact employee engagement best practices? In three critical ways:

  1. Focus on flexibility. A 2018 study from Businessolver found that 60% of workers would take a pay cut to work for an “empathetic company.” But what does that really entail? Findings from one SSRN study show flexible work schedules are a critical contributor to employee satisfaction. “Policies and practices that promote more employee-centered flexible working time may not only help workers alleviate work-life time conflicts,” the abstract notes, “but also promote worker well-being generally.
  2. Give them space to grow—at your company. A recent Gallup study found that a whopping 93% of Americans change companies when they switch jobs. Why would a vast majority of employees uproot their professional lives and start from scratch? Chances are, they felt like they didn’t have much of a choice. A perceived lack of mobility within an organization can lead to restlessness. Employees, millennial workers in particular, crave the chance to develop their skills and professional portfolio. Without these opportunities for professional growth, your employee may not be your employee much longer.
  3. Ask better—or at least—different questions. Many organizations take the time to survey their employees in regards to job satisfaction and the like. Too few take the risk of asking questions that deviate from those in the standard toolkit for measuring employee engagement. Asking employees why they’re still on the job, rather than what they want or like from their job, is just one example. There are countless others that could elicit surprising and useful answers in the quest for more effective employee engagement ideas and better employee morale programs.

And if you can’t quite think of those questions, here’s an idea: Ask your employees what you should be asking. Few things engage humans more than being included in decision-making that matters. As Dan Ruch explains: “We see that through our platform. Yes, employees love the rewards they get by taking greater control of their business travel. But in giving them a chance to improve their company’s bottom line, we’re also letting them make a real difference. Those are the kinds of people who are not only engaged, but who stick around.”

Learn what employees want from their manager and their workplace with this guide.


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