Everyone was moved by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. But September 11 was a knee-bending, one-two punch for employees already reeling in a softening economy beset by worthless stock options and a climbing unemployment rate. The attacks--which occurred so publicly and at one of America's best-known business addresses--have left many employees re-examining the reasons why they do what they do for a living, and at what cost. Since September 11, time off the clock has taken on new meaning. Suddenly, not letting employees telecommute or leave an hour early to watch their children play T-ball can make you look less than human.
In the post-September 11 workplace, "work-life balance is no longer seen as a dream but as a right," says Richard Donkin, a workplace historian and author of Blood, Sweat & Tears: The Evolution of Work (Texere). Roughly 82 percent of 1,800 employees surveyed last fall by Aon Consulting's Loyalty Institute said they are reassessing their priorities and trying to devote more time to their personal lives. The brass rings that employees used to value in exchange for long workdays--money and fancy titles--don't mean as much as they did just one year ago. According to a Society for Human Resource Management survey done after the attacks, some workers are turning down promotions they've already accepted, and employees seem less worried about going beyond the call of duty to prove themselves--even though unemployment is at a four-year high.
"People are looking for a way to do their jobs, but with less intensity," says Pat Wiklund of Wiklund & Associates, a Mountain View, California, consulting firm. She sees the effects of September 11 as more than just a temporary malaise in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. The events have caused a permanent shift in how employees feel about work, awakening feelings that existed all along but have suddenly come to the surface. "Our world view has changed," says Wiklund. "What was motivating employees before all of this came down may not fit right now."
In a post-September 11 world, you'll have to rethink how you manage employees, because the bells and whistles you're using may not work as well anymore. Employees are testing your words and actions, looking past the entrepreneur to the person. Some surveys suggest that businesses aren't exactly acing the exam: When 1,800 U.S. workers were surveyed following the attacks, they gave their employers an average grade of B- in meeting their needs. When asked to rate how their employers were dealing with employee stress and anxiety, employees gave them a C+.
If traditional brass rings such as promotions and salaries don't mean as much anymore, what do employees want? The new brass ring can be summed up this way: a sense of security combined with the opportunity to do good. "Two years ago, work was about making money. Suddenly, it's about making a difference," says Steve Rothberg, CEO of Minneapolis-based career Web site CollegeRecruiter.com. What's going on, particularly for many 20 and 30-something dot-commers, is a form of personal cleansing. "They've done their selfish, greedy thing; [now they] want to do something for the betterment of society," says Rothberg, who is seeing this trend in the job seekers who use his site. In fact, more than 65 percent of companies in the SHRM survey say they see a "kinder, gentler" employee emerging since the attacks.
This new sense of calling may explain the sudden rise in applications for government jobs since September 11. The public sector took a beating over the last five years as it struggled to compete with the compensation packages being offered in the private sector. Within one month of the attacks, however, the FAA received more than 20,000 applications for its federal air marshal program, and college students are doing something they haven't done for a long time: cruising government recruiting booths on campus. To compete, your company's recruiting and retention message has to pick up the new buzzwords--"low turnover," "no layoffs," "stability" and "profitability"--while also letting employees know how they can make a difference that goes beyond the four walls of your company. "Working with cool technology to create a Web site that nobody goes to is not making a difference," Rothberg says. "Two years ago, people thought it was."
You'll also need to ask your employees what motivates and inspires them because chances are, it's different now. Go out of your way to reveal the person behind the entrepreneur. "If we could tell leaders anything right now, it's to be visible, show that you have feelings, encourage some dialogue and let people see your vision and core values," says Christine Mockler Casper, president of Methuen, Massachusetts-based Communication, Motivation & Management Inc. and author of From Now on with Passion: A Guide to Emotional Intelligence (Cypress House). "That's the challenge facing all organizations."
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.