Millennial employee’s guide to a happy — and engaged — working life

Alexandra Tymienaugh and April Fedesky are researchers at the Cornell Center for Applied Research in the Workplace. Earlier this year, they offered an in-depth analysis of work culture at a high-profile magazine company. Their work offers a window into what workdays are like for the few staff that stick around on a permanent basis and a guide for companies looking to attract that group.

The researchers interviewed 84 people in senior management positions at the company, which they wouldn’t name. (Nor did they name the author of this piece.) They also offered up a 12-question measure of job satisfaction. Some examples: How often do you feel a sense of disconnection from the work you do? How much feedback do you receive on your performance, and who does it? What comes naturally to you? Who does it most? And what are you doing to enjoy your work?

The first two items account for most of the messages many people received, they found. The people on the scale above reported feeling disconnected from the work they do and with “a sense of minimal communication” about their performance.

Our findings were consistent with what we saw in our company interviews. That’s not surprising, given that these are the same sorts of messages we tend to encounter as candidates for jobs.

Research shows that it’s easy to believe in a work culture in which everyone is committed, so employees seem really invested in their jobs and in the company as a whole. But we’ve also learned that that culture can also feel reactive rather than proactive.

That’s true for our company, too. Senior leaders still want high performance, but a lot of what goes on in those management meetings was reactive — they agreed with the workers, who had complaints. They thought no one would come to them with a problem.

Each one of us in the company had a different experience with the workers, just as this research team had. Some people, hearing that a large percentage of the company viewed us as part of the problem, were tempted to check out. Others, as a result of meeting us and feeling close to us, felt encouraged to stay. They felt they had been heard and that management understood how they felt. They were happy.

There was one surprise. For our company, returning to the office was not seen as part of a problem but a positive step. For people on the higher rungs of the ladder, leaving for greener pastures — more money, prestige, a better reputation — was considered an act of betrayal.

At our company, management now knew that being engaged is good for business. Top performers keep their jobs and do great work. And the best managers really do “walk the walk” when it comes to their employees.

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