The world of work is constantly evolving. What was common practice 10 years ago is now antiquated and what was once seen as ground breaking is now viewed as the minimum standard. The question that should be in the minds of all business leaders is "what's next?" You need to ensure you are keeping up with these changing norms or risk being left behind. In people management terms "being left behind" means being unable to attract and retain the best and brightest in your field.

However, not everything that is coming next is necessarily new. Sometimes the "new trends" are actually people going back to old ways of doing things, albeit with a twist. Employee engagement is one of those trends. It used to be the norm, went out of fashion for a while but is now making a comeback. We seem to be going full circle, back to an old model that is being reinvented to suit modern times.

If you look back in history to the agrarian model, work and family life were one with no clear distinctions between them. People were able to get a sense of personal fulfilment from growing or making something and seeing it go to their customer. We then moved to industrial model, with work being physically and emotionally separate from the rest of our life requiring us to find a way to balance the two competing forces. This was not good news in terms of maintaining passion at work, which is hard to do when you feel pulled between your personal and professional commitments. Today we seem to be swinging back to the original work life integration model and the distinctions are again starting to blur. What people are hoping to achieve is a return to the days of feeling a sense of satisfaction, a personal connection to their work. In other words, a return to feeling engaged at work.

So what specific changes have occurred in the workplace to cause this cycle and what can we expect in the future? To answer this question let's take a look at the world of work from three perspectives:

  • Where we have come from
  • Where we are now
  • Where I'd like to think we are heading

Where we have come from
If you look back only 20 years you can see some dramatic differences in how we work compared to now. The workplace back then was very much a "one size fits all" arrangement and bad luck if you didn't fit the mould. This was a workplace where men and women had quite defined roles and progression was slow, particularly if the seniority rule was adhered to.

As Ann Coombs describes it in her book "The Living Workplace", management expectations ranged from "bring your hands to work" (ie do as you are told) to "bring your head to work" (use your knowledge to help the organisation) with very few asking people "bring your heart to work" (be engaged in your work). The management methods employed would be best described as command in style, not dissimilar to the military model.

Career paths involved following a single ladder model, with long service in one organisation the goal for most people. Personal satisfaction was a low priority whilst job security was high on the agenda, so much so that organisations used the "golden handcuffs" principle to keep people working. Banks were a typical example. The work wasn't exciting and the pay wasn't great but the opportunity to have a job long term and get a cheap housing loan were what attracted and retained staff.

Throughout this period we did see some development in workplace culture. Organisations were starting to consider the needs of women and becoming gender friendly. People of other cultures were starting to find more acceptance as were people with a disability. Even family friendly policies were making an appearance.

Where we are now
Fast forward to today and you will find that we now have an acceptance of family friendly policies as the minimum standard and a move towards being generation friendly. In other words, we are starting to see organisations catering to the needs of people of diverse generations. With four distinct generations now in the workforce, organisations have been forced to adapt to changing times. This could be in terms of working hours and location, dress codes or the office environment.

The old "security in return for loyalty" model and the golden handcuffs have gone, as more organisations move to flexible staffing models. This has been both a positive and a negative move. Positive in that it allows people to have more diverse careers but negative in that some organisations still view a long resume as a sign of instability and lending institutions don't always look favourably on this career path when writing loans. We now also have the dual career ladder, with two separate paths for technical and management oriented people which, in theory, gives them equal status and income potential. The lattice career is emerging as a viable option, allowing people to incorporate sideways moves into other disciplines as part of their plan.

We have also seen changes to leadership styles with the acknowledgement of leadership as a discipline, with a more "feminine" leadership style replacing the very "masculine" managers of the past. This feminisation has come about as more women make their way into non-traditional roles and society's attitude towards working women changes. However, we still have a way to go in terms of meeting the needs of working mothers (and fathers). As this article is being written, Australia is still one of only 4 countries who have no form of paid maternity leave. The majority of countries who supply leave give a generous 20 paid weeks. We are fixing this situation but only for some people and not at the same level of compensation as other nations.

A new term has entered the management vocabulary in recent years... the triple bottom line. Whilst it is encouraging to see the development of reporting structures that consider "people, planet, profit" it is disconcerting to note that the people aspect currently only refers to the end of worker exploitation and social responsibility, rather than talk of measuring the level of engagement of employees.

Where I'd like to think we are heading
I'd like to think we can move beyond family friendly and generational inclusion to lifestyle friendly, taking into account the needs of people of all ages, backgrounds and personal circumstances. After all, isn't that what many organisations are trying to do for their customers... to take into account their unique personal circumstances and come up with a product or service that meets their real needs rather than a generic solution that fits very few? It's about time we extended the concept to include employees.

This would require, amongst other things, customised career paths (such as those advocated by Benko and Weisberg in their book "Mass Career Customisation") and the true use of "work from home" policies rather than a begrudging acceptance of their need in special cases. We used to talk about the paperless office so perhaps the next term will be the "stress free commute". In other words, taking a few steps from your bedroom to your home office most days of the week and only going to the "office" when required.

In terms of leadership, there is growing evidence that Gen Y will become true leaders rather than technicians forced to be manager/leaders. We are starting to see young people emerge from the pack ready, willing and able to take on leadership roles. Perhaps this generation, along with Gen Z and the "just being born" Alpha generation will learn from the mistakes of past generations and stop forcing people into leadership roles against their will.

Employee engagement should become the 4th measure of bottom line performance for organisations. If you think about the implications of this from a social perspective it makes sense. Workplace stress, caused by job dissatisfaction, is a major cause of illness and injury. Imagine if we could reduce that, taking pressure off the overloaded public health system. Workplace stress is also blamed for marriage breakdown. If we could keep a few more couples together the social security system would also get a break (although I suspect the lawyers may suffer).

Finally, as the available pool of talent diminishes through the globalisation of the workforce and people's increasing desire to be self employed, the time must come when the goal of employers is to see full and active workforce participation by all available potential employees including women with small children, mature workers and people with disabilities. I believe if we can remove the barriers for these groups and make the workplace an engaging place for all we will solve many of our skill shortages and talent gaps.