American employers are currently facing a number of large-scale cultural shifts that will impact their workplace and their employees.
But one trend seems particularly troubling.
Employees are not engaged in their jobs.
In fact, two-thirds of U.S. workers say they are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work.
If we zoom into the experience of most workers in today’s economy, we can see that many office and administrative jobs that were once the backbone of the white-collar economy have now been rebranded as largely superfluous—even redundant. Namely, people in these positions have come to be known as “paper pushers."
The term “paper pusher” is now synonymous with corporate bureaucracy and dead weight. It’s the ultimate symbol of a bloated organization and menial labor that has little connection to the ultimate mission of the business or the rest of the world.
The truth is that having an army of bureaucrats within your organization doesn’t just create red tape and slow operations inside your business. It’s also draining on the employees themselves.
No one wants to be a paper pusher.
As a leader, it’s imperative to give workers a sense that their strengths are recognized and being put to use.
Workers of every generation state that their intrinsic motivation to do meaningful work is really the most important aspect of their job. In fact, many workers say they would be willing to forgo pay increases or work titles in exchange for more meaningful work. (The definition of “meaningful” varies slightly depending on the generation, but each one seems to be some variation on a feeling of fulfillment rather than some extrinsic motivation.)
As we transition from the labor-based economy of the 20th century and into a new era of technological advancement, employers will be charged with doing more than just providing a steady wage.
Their role will also be to help employees feel fulfilled—to find meaning in their work.
The most important thing to know about how employees define meaning in their work is that it is often not related to the specific tasks that they are doing. It’s about the larger cultural impact of the organization.
Employees want to know that their work—whether it’s processing documents or masterminding a multinational campaign—is moving the ball forward in some meaningful way.
Many studies have attempted to identify all of the factors that create a sense of meaningfulness for employees. The results of such studies often vary, which is said to indicate the deeply personal nature of the question. Achieving a sense of meaning is not accomplished in the same way for all workers. But there do seem to be some consistent characteristics throughout research on this topic.
One such study, conducted by MIT’s Sloan Management Review, involved interviews with 135 people in 10 different occupations. The findings reported that factors that contribute to a feeling of meaningfulness include:
Individual employees, of course, will prioritize these characteristics in different ways. Some may even value salary and titles above all else and care little for recognition or “purpose."
But the overarching theme seems to be clear.
Employees that feel valued—and feel value in the work their company does—tend to be more satisfied. Employees often just need to feel like their presence matters to the success of the organization and its larger mission.
Invest In Employees
While the statistics on employee engagement may be gloomy, the same Gallup study that found so many employees are disengaged also demonstrates how organizations that manage to overcome the engagement gap can unlock huge enormous new opportunity.
Engaged employees are significantly more productive and more effective.
Another analysis from Gallup found that organizations with employee engagement ratings in the top 25% saw substantially better performance in almost every aspect when compared to companies in the bottom quartile, including:
- 10% increase in customer satisfaction ratings
- 21% increase in productivity
- 22% increase in profitability
What this tells us is that it’s important to consider how organizations can overcome low engagement and how to make employees feel that their work is meaningful. It’s not just a matter of good politics of having happier employees. It’s important to the health and growth of the business. Employee engagement can be a major competitive advantage.
This makes it clear that investing in employee engagement is critical. And finding ways to reduce the instances where employees feel they are “just paper pushers” is much bigger than just a gesture of goodwill.
Of course, many organizations still rely on a large part of their workforce to perform day-to-day administrative tasks. It’s work that needs to be done and a necessary part of most business.
But there are a lot that of ways that organizations can minimize the amount of menial work that needs to be handled by people. In many cases, it starts with smarter use of technology.
Reduce Busy Work
Motivation and meaningfulness are tied closely with the overall mission of the business, but the work that employees do on a daily basis also matters. Being considered a “paper pusher” is ultimately a derogatory way to say that someone is charged with handling busy work—the kinds of tasks that could be handled by anyone without special skills or training.
This kind of busy work is often repetitive and unengaging. As such, it tends to grind down the motivation of employees while also being an inefficient use of time and talent for the company.
One way to improve worker engagement while unlocking more productivity and creativity is to invest in reducing the amount of busywork. This requires systems and processes that allow this kind of work to be automated or streamlined.
Most business leaders know that technology can drive faster and more efficient business processes. This is not a new trend—but it is one that’s accelerating.
Technology and digital systems are increasingly good at all kinds of tasks. But one thing they are especially well-suited for is handling repetitive work that is often tedious or grating for employees and can lead to lower engagement.
Increasingly, companies are using digital workflows and modern platforms to streamline even complex administrative processes. With the right tools, these systems can run almost entirely autonomously. And rather than focusing on inputting data or managing paperwork, employees can focus on designing better systems and increasing the efficiency for core business operations.
With smart use of technology and well-designed digital systems, no one in your organization has to be a paper pusher. That will free up their time to do more meaningful work and to provide more value to your organization.
No more busy work—no more pushing paper.