Productivity without commitment
A guide to motivating short-term employees, like generation Xers.
By Norman J. York

The "Friends" of Generation X are changing more than the content of television programs; they are also changing the world of work. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit and cursed with a downsizing workplace, generation Xers are less likely than their elders to have long-term employment in a single organization. This creates challenges for managers who must inspire high levels of performance and commitment from employees whose jobs are likely to last a few months or a few years at best.

In the "good old days," people went to work for a company and stayed there for many years, if not until retirement. Then, it was relatively easy to get production out of employees. People did what they were told and usually did it well, partly because they expected the company to provide continuous employment and all the bells and whistles that went with it. For most folks, those days are gone. So how do you obtain the desired performance from people no longer motivated by the fear of lost jobs?

Start with what we know about motivation in the workplace. Frederick Herzberg, who conducted the most definitive research on motivation, found that salary is low on the list. He called money "hygiene," saying that money is like a clean workplace restroom. People expect it to be right, that is, hygienic. If it is, fine. If it's not, employees will be de-motivated. The real motivator, said Hertzberg, is the nature of the work itself, closely followed by recognition for good work and the opportunity to advance.

Therefore, the place to start is by enriching the nature of work. This is especially important for Generation Xers, who often see every job as a stepping stone to something else. Through the perceived value of work and the employer's effort to make it meaningful, people are most likely to respond in a positive and productive manner. Latitude and recognition can also go a long way toward motivating performance.

One company was experiencing high absenteeism and turnover in its payroll department, which had 10 people. Each person did one-tenth of the payroll preparation every payday. We studied the system and came up with a better strategy. Each pay period, one of the 10 employees was responsible for the complete payroll. Each of the other nine people checked the work until his or her turn came up in the rotation.

This enriched the work of the staff. It gave each person a greater sense of accomplishment and led to an 80% reduction in absenteeism and turnover. The staff was happier and the quality of work improved dramatically.

In some plants, assembly-line workers were given the power to stop the line if they encountered a problem. Generally, the quality of the work increased, yet the line was not stopped more frequently than before. The workers' performance and attitude improved because they had some power over the assembly process.
The examples are legion, but command and control managers find them hard to believe. To motivate workers, the locus of control must be shifted from external (management) to internal (employees). With few exceptions, freedom to choose results in more, not less, responsibility by the empowered individual.

Those who thrive in the evolving workplace see change from a positive perspective and look for opportunities created by the nature of change itself.

In this work environment, there is little job Security in the traditional sense. But there is security, the security that results from a person's confidence that he or she has the skills to maintain vitality in the workplace and the ability to find new employment when one job ends.

Consequently, employers will win the loyalty of short-term employees by providing opportunities to acquire skills to help them remain employable. People need to keep up with the rampant changes in technology. The more time and financial support they receive from employers, the more gratitude they will express with productive service and commitment to work assignments.

Finally, because many employees will find themselves in periodic transitions between jobs, they expect their employers to provide professional, financial, and sometimes emotional support. In particular, generation Xers are characterized as a nomadic workforce. However, because the employment relationship is unlikely to be a long one, their demands will not be as great. The emotional impact of change and the fear often associated with lost earnings should not be as traumatic as when long-term relations—often at mid-career—have ended.

Employers can achieve positive results if they apply these concepts and remember that there is no better principle of management than the Golden Rule. People who are treated with respect, dignity, and consideration will be productive employees for both the short and long term.