Leaders who level up on purpose, meaning, flexibility and focus may turn around the ship filled with burned out employees.
This year may have been the worst for productivity in more than 75 years. People were burned out, disengaged, depressed, distracted and forgetful at work, and leaders were flummoxed on how to turn the corner and bring people back to the office, get work done and rev up engagement.
Yet 2024 offers a fresh start. Productivity, mental health, attention and engagement are not easy fixes, but leaders can still reinvigorate people and make work more meaningful—and as a result boost productivity and overall happiness.
“There is hope. With challenge comes change,” says Jim Kwik, who has been a “brain coach” to executives at Google, Nike, and A-list actors and is the author of the Limitless Expanded Edition, which offers tools on brain and productivity optimization.
Productivity, happiness and engagement will require a mix of strategies—not just one silver bullet. We asked the experts and uncovered the four most important themes for turning the corner on productivity in 2024.
1. Give them purpose
Sounds easy right? But implementing it will require a deeper mental shift for leadership, says Ira Wolfe, a longtime HR consultant, author, and speaker on the future of work.
Despite the lip service by many companies, it’s increasingly clear that people want a sense of purpose in their work. As many as 70% of employees surveyed by McKinsey said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work.
This year, burnout was still rampant: more than 38% of people are burned out at work, up from 29.6% in 2020, according to The State of Workplace Burnout 2023 report by consulting firm Infinite Potential. Another June survey by Deloitte HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence found that work stress was getting worse, and more people said it was hurting their mental, physical, social, or financial well-being—so much so that they were ready to quit their jobs.
“A strong company culture is more important than ever,” says Amy Spurling, CEO of HR tech company Compt. It’s essential to maintain clear communication, recognize achievements, and ensure alignment around shared goals and values.
Employees want to believe they’re making a difference in some way and will work harder when they believe in the purpose of the company. When there’s a sense of purpose, it means increased retention, innovation, employee engagement, employee well-being, and revenue, according to research by Great Place To Work, a UK consulting firm. It states that those companies that made expectations clear about their purpose tended to deliver returns that were 6.9% higher than the stock market.
Knowing people need a purpose is one thing. Drilling down into what that purpose is is another challenge. Spurling recommends using pulse surveys to ask employees regularly about what’s important to them and how the company is responding to things like transparency, speed, communication, values. She also recommends offering customized employee benefits rather than traditional benefits packages, which often fail to meet the diverse needs of the workforce. By offering stipends or allowances that employees can use according to their specific needs, whether it’s for wellness, childcare, or education, she says, companies can show that they truly understand and care about their employees.
Purpose may go beyond benefits. It may start at the onboarding process and extend to an employee and manager creating a plan on how to help you achieve whatever is most meaningful at work, whether that’s advancing your career, spending time with family or contributing to the world in a more meaningful way.
The pandemic prompted more people to reflect on their purpose in life and 70% of their sense of purpose is defined by their work, according to research by McKinsey & Co. It’s more pronounced for younger workers: a KornFerry recent survey found that 63% of millennials said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit.”
Leaders can dig deeper into purpose by focusing on each individual’s strengths. Not all people work the same way, so if managers can lean into those differences and encourage what someone is good at, what they enjoy most and what gives them more energy, positive results are likely. In fact, a workplace survey by Gallup found that teams that focused on individual strengths were 12% to 15% more productive and people who used their strengths every day at work were 8% more productive and six times more engaged.
2. Make them feel like they matter.
Often it can boil down to simply feeling like you matter to managers. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that just a quarter of workers thought their organizations cared about their wellbeing, and consequently, as many as 71% of those who are experiencing burnout are less likely to report it.
“It’s about making people feel like they matter,” Wolfe says. “People don’t think that managers care about them.”
That requires better empathetic communication, asking people what they want and connecting with people beyond a paycheck. Managers should take time to understand what is important to people, whether it’s spending more time with their family, earning enough to retire or sending kids to college, or it’s an intellectual challenge or making a difference in the company or the world, says Wolfe.
“People are asking, ‘why do I want to work for you?’” says Wolfe. “If you don’t make people feel that they matter and help to fulfill their personal needs, then it’s just activity.”
3. Make work flexible—yes, even more flexible.
Work is already flexible these days thanks to hybrid work. Having a choice in how and where you work tends to pay off for employers in terms of happier employees and improved productivity. In fact, HR execs that embrace something called “radical flexibility,” or the idea where employees feel understood, autonomous, valued, cared for and invested in their organizations, performance jumped by 40%, according to research by Gartner.
“Treat your people like the adults they are,” says Spurling. This means shifting away from micromanagement, fostering a trust-based culture where employees are encouraged to take ownership of their projects. Says Spurling: “You interviewed folks for their expertise and hired people to do their jobs—trust them to do it.”
More organizations are now looking at how to condense that workweek as another way to add more flexibility and boost productivity. Oxford & Cambridge Universities wrapped up the largest research study on the four-day workweek earlier this year and found that more than a third of employees reported feeling less stressed, 48% were more satisfied with work, 46% had less fatigue, 40% got better sleep, and 71% felt less workplace burnout.
“More people are experimenting with it in Asia and Europe,” says Josh Bersin, CEO of the Josh Bersin Company, which analyzes the talent market and trends impacting the global workforce.
His firm recently unveiled a study titled The Four-Day Work Week: Learnings from Companies at the Forefront of Work Time Reduction, showing reduced work time schedules result in double-digit productivity and work output increases, reduced sick days and turnover of employees, higher customer satisfaction, marked decrease of employee stress and burnout and additional recruiting power and better retention.
“What was amazing was that it was one of the most widely read pieces of free research we put out there,” says Bersin.
4. Help them focus
It’s no secret that we’re distracted and disengaged from everything these days—and that includes work. Credit the deluge of information overload we experience on a daily basis and technology that is changing our brains. Last year, the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London found that almost half of adults felt their attention span was shorter than it used to be.
Kwik, the author of the book Limitless, calls it digital dementia. “It’s where we’re outsourcing our memory to our external memory drives, like our phone,” he says. “It should be concerning that we’ve lost the ability to remember one phone number, a person’s name, a pin number or a passcode or remember that conversation we just had or that meeting that we were supposed to go to.”
People may be drowning in information, but they’re starving for practical tools and techniques to absorb it all. Kwik stresses the importance of what he calls your “MEDS,” or the impact of meditation, exercise, diet and sleep on their health and wellbeing. He recommends prioritizing tasks based on the things that are urgent and important and he advises digital detoxes– even if it’s for a couple hours without your phone because screen-based visual fatigue leads to mental fatigue.
Leaders can encourage people to stay more focused in, say, Zoom meetings by eliminating the number of unnecessary meetings and creating clear agendas and clearly-defined goals for the ones that are worth having. Taking hand-written notes can also boost memory and focus during meetings. And having a separate, quiet space with no noise or visual distractions can aid in focus and attention.
Managers can encourage teams to stay focused by encouraging everyone to participate in the meeting, telling them to turn off phones and other screens and offering positive feedback to team members who stay plugged into the conversations. “It’s like kids, you reinforce what you want to see more of,” Kwik says.
If your meetings are long, then encourage people to take breaks and be aware of dehydration: 2% increase in dehydration can dramatically affect cognitive performance.
The list of to-dos for company leaders in 2024 may be long. But it’s crucial that businesses re-energize the workforce and provide them with purpose, meaningful work, flexibility, and peace of mind. Combined they can drive that productivity and boost overall employee wellness that is so needed in the new year.