Why People Stay - Maslow’s Importance in the Virtual World

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Jim Champy
10/21/2020

It was in the pre-COVID days that a barista handed me a free cappuccino. I was standing in the plush kitchen of a Silicon Valley tech company and my host, the company’s CEO, was describing the importance of food to the happiness and productivity of the company’s people.

I had a similar experience in Boston, when I noticed the free beer and wine in another tech company’s reception area. Expansive thinking about workplace accoutrements was not just a West Coast phenomena. But for many in this virtual world, those accoutrements have now disappeared.

Remembering What I Learned From a Ten Cent Coke

That cappuccino did remind me of what I learned in my first company–this will date me. We didn’t have a barista or much of a kitchen. We did have a Coke vending machine and a self-serve coffee brewer. Both Coke and coffee were free. That is until our CFO–a very cost conscious and analytical engineer–determined we could no longer afford the free Coke.

There was an uproar in the company, but no one left. Everyone just put ten cents into the vending machine. People loved their work and had a sense of purpose. That’s why they stayed with the Company.

Times Are Changing

That love of work and purpose is becoming increasingly important as work has become more “virtual” and as people lose physical contact with each other and with their office, laboratory or factory floor.

It’s now predicted that somewhere between one to two thirds of a company’s associates will continue to work at home, even after the COVID pandemic subsides. But will people continue to love their work and achieve a sense of self-fulfillment when their contact with customers and other associates is through a Google or Zoom screen?

Did Maslow Have the Answer?

That question was partially answered by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It’s still where most discussions on motivation begin. Maslow’s theories provide a good starting point for thinking about what keeps people committed to the work of an enterprise.

The Basic Idea

Maslow argued that we all share a hierarchy of needs, often represented as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are basic needs–food, water, warmth, rest, safety and security. These were important needs in the industrial age, and that’s where Maslow saw motivation beginning.

Next were psychological needs–belonging, love, relationships, esteem, prestige and a sense of accomplishment. At the top of the pyramid was self-fulfillment.

Inverting the Pyramid

I’m not a philistine. I enjoy good food and nice surroundings, but for many associates those virtual surroundings may now be a kitchen table, a study, the basement or a garage–and the food isn’t catered. I've been concerned–even before this pandemic–as to where companies were placing emphasis to keep their people engaged.

Today, I might invert Maslow’s pyramid and start with the importance of self-fulfillment. People stay committed to an enterprise when, first, they subscribe to the enterprise’s sense of purpose and then believe their work is contributing to that purpose in a meaningful way.

A Sense of Purpose

Some enterprises, like those engaged in healthcare, are fortunate: they have a built-in sense of purpose that keeps people engaged.

During this pandemic, we've seen there’s nothing like saving the lives of people to inspire. Most companies have an implicit sense of good purpose, but it needs to be clearly articulated, together with what the company values.

About 20 years ago, companies began putting what they believed in on the walls of their reception areas. You sensed the enterprise’s purpose as you experienced a real place and other associates. In the virtual world, there will be no such physical experience.

If there is any recent good news on the need to establish a company’s sense of purpose, it’s that the Conference Board has now endorsed the importance of an enterprise articulating its purpose. These are hard-nosed executives now saying that, for public companies, Boards of Directors must see that a purpose is articulated and followed.

On Psychological Needs

But words alone will not keep people engaged. Companies will have to pay more attention to how an associate’s work embodies that purpose. And there are other real actions that must be taken to satisfy psychological needs.

First, in a virtual world, paying attention to how personal relationships will be developed and maintained is critical. Workplaces depend on trusting relationships between people. Real conversations between people, real collaborations are critical–even over Zoom.

Second, I learned a long time ago that promotions and compensation are important components to a sense of accomplishment. I’ve seen many people believe they were not being fairly recognized–even in companies with flat structures. This condition continues today, especially with respect to women.

But just throwing stock and money at people won’t suffice. What’s critical to a genuine sense of accomplishment is a fair system of recognition and reward. Having such a fair system requires a lot of care and attention.

Experiencing fairness in a virtual environment is all the more important. It’s much easier for people–who feel unfairly treated–to walk out the door when there is no door.

And What About the Cappuccino?

Well, many people will have to learn how to make their own.

Interestingly, feeding people in the workplace didn't begin in the Valley. It actually began in Chicago during the depression, where the basic need for food was not being met in homes. The banks in Chicago built large cafeterias and started to feed their people three meals a day.

It’s All About Focus and Authenticity

My point here is really not about the food; It’s about where to put focus and resources. Hopefully, food can be bought. Self-fulfillment cannot.

To keep people around, companies must design work to support a sense of purpose, act authentically on that sense of purpose and create fair reward and recognition systems.

This focus is especially critical as competition for good people continues. Digitization will reduce the number of people a company needs; But for those people still around–at the workplace or at home–their psychological needs will remain critical to the success of an enterprise.

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