In October, the Gagen team traveled to sunny Orlando for Gartner’s annual ReimagineHR Conference. Gagen Senior Director Greg Voeller presented on the concept of professional fulfillment, and how truly human-centric businesses need to evolve their engagement orientations to incorporate an employee-first lens. We caught up with an energized Greg when he returned from Orlando to discuss the idea in more detail.
The interview has been edited for brevity.
Greg, in the presentation you gave at ReimagineHR, you called employee fulfillment the “holy grail” of employee engagement. What exactly is professional fulfillment?
Firstly, the idea of “Professional Fulfillment” is really meant to be an evolution of employee engagement. It takes the question that engagement surveys have always been rooted in — Are we getting our people at their best? — and adds much-needed, human-centered depth to it. As humans, we know that our experiences and emotions dramatically affect the choices we make. Making fulfillment an objective is about helping organizations take those realities out of the dark, and better leverage them so they can genuinely empathize with and inspire employees.
We’ve known for years that fulfillment is an incredibly important objective — and goal— for our employees. When you focus on fulfillment, you’re shifting the focus to how the people in our workforce view their own desires — in terms of how they want to work, what they want to gain from their work and the outcome they want their work to achieve. Ultimately, the extent to which their work life is fulfilling them.
It's also important to note that fulfillment is an ongoing journey of exploration. Some folks really embrace that journey. Others, admittedly, are somewhat fearful because they don't necessarily enjoy changes in life and prefer the status quo. Regardless of how you feel about the ongoing nature of fulfillment, however, the reality is that it’s not something where you ever just “arrive” and are done.
Can you say a bit more about how fulfillment relates to employee engagement? Is fulfillment a replacement for engagement, or do you see it as a supplement to the existing frameworks?
In advocating for fulfillment, I’m certainly not advocating for the end of employee engagement. I’m advocating to make engagement more robust, and a more holistic measurement. One that serves both the organization and the employee — not just the organization. For more than five decades, employee engagement has really just been code for productivity. It’s always been rooted in the organization’s agenda, and was built to gauge how well employees were serving that agenda. Historically, when organizations focused on engagement, they really wanted to know how they could drive higher productivity by better connecting with their people.
In my opinion, when we bring fulfillment into the conversation, we set ourselves up for a more complete, and more balanced view. If engagement is driven by the organization’s agenda, fulfillment gets explicit information from employees, in terms natural to them, and measures how well the organization is serving their agenda.
It’s that balancing of the organizational agenda and employee expectations where the real opportunity lies.
There’s nothing wrong with a business seeking to better connect with people, even if their goal is increased productivity. However, for the billions of dollars invested in engagement over the years, it’s never shown much demonstrable business impact for most organizations. That’s because engagement surveys are a rather simplistic tool, and engagement is an equally blunt metric. It doesn’t really capture the nuance necessary to truly understand how you can motivate and inspire your people. That’s only possible by giving more weight to their own experiences.
Why is this an important conversation to be having now?
Because, quite simply and quite dramatically, the world of work has changed. We are truly in an employee-first era. At ReimagineHR, Gartner showed a statistic estimating 65 percent of employees are currently reconsidering the role of work in their life and how they want to experience their jobs. That’s an astronomically high number. And it makes sense! Over the past two and a half years, how we connect to work has become more central in many people’s reflection, introspection and decision-making than ever before. It’s that introspection and reflection that leads to the 65-percent number Gartner quoted.
For leaders, the relationship with their people has fundamentally changed too. As command-control, factory-model workplace expectations have faded significantly, a sincere, two-way employee-employer dynamic has become the expected norm among employees.
This new world means we need to define newer, deeper metrics to make our companies better and more attractive. Evolving from engagement to a focus on professional fulfillment is, in our opinion, a fantastic way to start growing your thinking and deepening that connection with your workforce.
What would you say to a leader who is interested in embracing fulfillment but wants to know the impact that doing so will have on efficiency and productivity in her organization?
This concept is built upon the deep belief that when an individual feels truly recognized and cared for by an organization, and subsequently makes a conscious decision to meaningfully connect with that organization, that person will contribute in ways that naturally drive productivity and enhance performance. I would confidently hypothesize that organizations that successfully apply this idea of “professional fulfillment” will inherently become more productive, and strengthen their brand in the process.
There are already examples of organizations that are very in touch with their people becoming talent magnets. Organizations like Southwest, Chipotle and Chik-Fil-A have already adopted a lot of this thinking into their processes and measurements. They’re also seeing the results, in terms of that deeper connection between organization and employee.
To be clear, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or create something brand new here. We’re trying to take what smart, people-focused organizations, like the ones I mentioned, have already been doing, and help more businesses build that into their models. From our observations of the market, particularly now when everyone is desperately looking for committed talent, there’s a lot of opportunity to improve.
At ReimagineHR, we held a roundtable discussion and asked the 24 senior HR folks across a variety of industries to what degree they felt their roles involved advocating for their people, as opposed to supporting the agenda of the organization. Many of the HR professionals acknowledged that they have traditionally leaned primarily toward the organization’s agenda, and that they have lost the aspect of their roles that involved advocating for their people. You would think that would be a responsibility of theirs, as well.
Let’s assume I’m all in on adopting professional fulfillment. Where do I get started? What’s step one?
It would be easy to say you should start with an assessment, but I would say it should start with facilitated small group discussions — classic “prick-of-conscience”-type conversations that really throw out some thought-provoking questions and yield some organic, internal “a-ha!” moments.
Build real, genuine understanding of what professional fulfillment might require you to do differently but, just as important, what are the business and human opportunities if you lead from that viewpoint?
Building from that foundation of honest, objective discussions, I genuinely believe you can start to figure out what your people’s fulfillment means and what they would want and need from you to make that core to their experiences inside the organization. This isn’t easy or quick work, but if we truly want to re-balance the scales between the agenda of the organization, the increasingly uncompromising agenda of our people and a culture that gets work done in a healthy, sustainable way, we have to get started now.