Companies across the globe, and particularly those in the US, are facing a great challenge: people are quitting their jobs or people are checking out. One could say that this movement was unforeseen but progressive leaders and organizational culture experts saw it coming.
Christian Wandeler·February 21, 2022·14 min read
It was only so long that the work-life unbalance and unfair conditions would last. For decades, a great portion of the workforce has been submitted to uninspiring workplaces and meager wage growth.
And at some point, the tables would turn: the COVID pandemic was not only the catalyzer but also an accelerator.
Some people had more time, others were completely stressed out, many lost their jobs, but the commonality was that people got snapped out of the daily grind.
The “train quotidien” as they say in French got disrupted. A moment to slow down and think.
And questions that people asked themselves were fundamental:
- What if I die tomorrow? What if one of my loved ones dies tomorrow?
- Am I happy?
- Should I seek better opportunities? If not now, then when?
- What is the purpose of experiencing burnout for a job where I am nothing more than just a number?
- What are the benefits of running in the hamster wheel every day? A paycheck?
- Why invest my money in crazy expensive rent for an apartment downtown when you can buy a house in the countryside and lead a more carefree life?
People are actually changing careers and jobs or starting their own businesses, finding a lifestyle that suits them. Others decide to stay on unemployment rather than go back to a draining job.
And all of a sudden, employers find themselves competing with a variety of alternatives: remote, agile, human-first, purpose-driven companies that understand and value their people.
But what are people looking for in a workplace? Is it free food, good coffee, ping pong tables, great healthcare, retirement benefits, attractive salaries, and generous bonuses?
Employers that are still attached to the idea that these are the benefits and perks that will attract and keep talent in the house need to understand better how human motivation works. While they may keep workers satisfied for a period of time, there are other important human needs that are not being fulfilled.
My academic research in positive psychology investigated how the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs highlighted in self-determination theory impacts employees' motivation, performance, and mental health (Wandeler & Bundick, 2011).
Many other research and countless case studies support that the most effective and successful way to attract and retain talent is by satisfying people’s psychological needs and finding out what truly drives them.
Rigby and Ryan (2018) even refer to it as the “Copernican shift” in approaches to motivation and management in human resource development and management circles.
In 2011, Dan Pink did a great job highlighting some of these theories in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. As of January 2022, his TED talk from 2009 has received over 10mio views and has made research on workplace motivation very accessible to the broader public.
However, no matter how much research is conducted and how much evidence is presented, there is still a huge gap between insights from research and actually applying this to the modern workplace.
The case for change was apparently not strong enough be it because of disruptive competitors, new business models or because of a lack of attractiveness to employees.
The COVID pandemic was such a catalyst, and the Great Resignation is a testament to the lack of aligned action from some business leaders when it comes to upgrading their workplaces.
These leaders still seem quite aloof to concepts such as self-managed and empowered teams, distributed decision-making, financial transparency, mental health protection, profit sharing, to name a few.
In fact, these concepts are perceived as too utopian and radical to be considered.
Moreover, the general idea is that the time and effort they would consume, together with the risk and costs implied make it more feasible to stay put and continue to follow the herd.
This narrative and mindset perpetuated traditional styles of management for decades… until today.
It is no longer a matter of being a startup or a modern, avant-guard company. Nowadays, the reluctance to change brings about more pitfalls in the mid and long-term to businesses.
Even entire industries are at the risk of being disrupted. And not only business models are disruptive but the attractiveness of your organizational culture can make or break you. And the Great Resignation is here to prove it.
Enter Ricardo Semler and the Semco guardians.
They have been inciting leaders and workers across the globe to change the way they work. And he’s been paving the way ever since the 1980s when he took over his family’s company. In his 1990 book “Maverick”, Ricardo Semler discusses the success story behind the world’s most unusual workplace: Semco.
Semler did things differently than organizations that rely on traditional autocratic management style by choosing a decentralized participative style.
Freedom, autonomy, and accountability have always been the core values of Semco, and so have common principles of trust and transparency.
His radical approach to management created an average annual turnover of employees of less than 2% (against an industry average of around 20%) and an increase in employment numbers from 100 to over 5000. Sales also escalated to 24% annually and profits tripled. And all this took place within the two decades that he led the Semco Group.
Personally, the Great Resignation brings me full circle.
While COVID shut the world down in March 2020, I found myself in my native country of Switzerland on sabbatical leave from California State University. As a tenured Associate professor, I was expanding my research from hope at the workplace to a focus on the role of trust and performance in students who were learning as agile teams.
I was about to conclude a three-year research project in teaching the agile way. Little did I know that the next adventure was just around the corner: Semco Style.
Living with my wife and three kids in an apartment in an old Swiss castle and not needing to commute to the campus of the University of Zurich, I too did have a little extra time on my hands.
And sure enough, an opportunity sought me out. An invitation from my friends from Semco Style to start the Semco Style Institute USA. Why has no one done this yet? Why was this ultimate social technology of liberty not unleashed in the most freedom-loving and democracy-promoting country of the world?
The world’s most unusual workplace Semco first showed up on my radar in 2008 when I was working on my dissertation as a visiting scholar at Stanford University.
Psychological theories were great, and my data supported them, but where were the practical examples that really applied these principles?
When I was finishing my doctoral research in organizational psychology I looked for practical examples of self-determination theory at the workplace. That’s when I found Semco, one of my sources of inspiration with its focus on practice and tested real-life examples that have proven to work.
At the time I realized I had found a framework that was much more than plain theory and hypothesis based on observation. I could really help companies transform their culture in a tailored, flexible way - instead of the common one-size-fits-all programs agencies and consultants commonly promote.
This realization led me to become the country partner of the Semco Style Institute in the USA and found the Semco Style Institute USA so that we can bring the Semco practices to the US.
From practice to theory with constant iteration and improvement - this was a methodology I felt eager to explore and contribute to with my own professional experience.
During my consultancy sessions, I am thrilled and motivated to dive into the struggles of the clients I work with and to work on the solutions that bring about long-lasting change and improvement.
This methodology is not about having a consultant drive a leader through a process that’s been drafted by someone who knows nothing about the business at hand.
Every case is different and I treat each organization as an ecosystem of its own, helping them transition to a more human-centric workplace where people are empowered to contribute with their unique potential. From decentralizing decision-making to adopting an evolutionary purpose, we guide leaders in which practices to adopt.
By working together with the people of the organization in designing a tailored and adaptive journey supported by the Semco Roadmap, it becomes easier to address the most pivotal issues as I gain insights on how the processes, systems, and relationships at work truly impact the whole organization.
I now feel that my academic background and passion for organizational and positive psychology together with such a flexible and adjusted Framework allow me to work my best as an organizational and culture change consultant.
While one may understand and even agree with some of the ideas shared by Ricardo Semler and some of the great thought leaders nowadays, there is also a need to turn these ideas into practical, understandable practices that can be applied in an organization.
I am not going into detail about each of these practices but the information I will share should help you get a clearer insight into the work you can do to retain the talent in your organization and attract great workers in the near future.
Here are some practices from the Semco Style framework that contribute to creating the engaging, meaningful, and human-centered workplaces employees crave:
The first Semco practice to use is to ask “why” three times? Why are people leaving you? The answers will teach you a lot about the gaps in your own work environment. Are your salaries competitive? Is your culture attractive? When working with a client, a younger employee was headhunted and offered more salary and a better position. Our client interviewed the employee, developed an attractive career path and also met the salary expectations. A key benefit was also the opportunity to be part of developing a Semco Style culture and thus a unique work environment with lots of freedom.
People decide when, where from and how long they want to work.
Employees are given the trust, freedom, and flexibility to manage their personal and professional lives. When discussing this with different groups of employees it becomes immediately clear what an impact this can have. “I like the idea of flexible schedules because I have two young daughters. And it would be nice to be able to drop them off at school. Or on other days go pick them up.” A Latina in her 60’s. “I get up at 3 am in the morning to beat L.A. traffic. I get here at 5 am, but then I have to wait until 6 am to start my work.”
Fewer rules and more common sense. Employees are seen as adults capable of making rational and wise decisions that benefit the company as a whole.
Workers decide how they wish to perform their tasks and have the possibility to openly share their ideas, develop new processes, and test concepts. More than often people have proven to take action according to the company’s best interests.
While a company needs to be sustainable, it should not overlook ethics and good culture over profit. Everyone in the company should expect and demand others to stand up for the right thing and adhere to values of honesty, transparency, and ethical behavior.
Company data is available to everyone in the whole company. This further busts bureaucracy and helps increase employee engagement and a sense of trust throughout the whole organization. The more informed your employees are, the more conscious decisions they can make and the more ownership they feel towards the organization.
Remove the walls and the corner office privileges and transform your workplace into a common ground area where everyone is equal and power distance is drastically reduced. This allows for more open communication not only between leaders and teams but also between people in different departments.
Status symbols have no place in more human-centered workplaces as they reinforce workplace inequalities. The initiative should come from top management to cast away the designated parking spot, the best office, the personal assistant, in favor of a more democratic approach.
Create a platform of innovation where everyone is allowed to share and think about radical, disruptive new ideas without any fear of judgment. This platform is open to every single employee from the production line to top management and everyone’s insights are to be heard and respected. The purpose of the brainstorming session is not to follow through with every idea. Only later can you assess which are realistic and which can and should effectively be implemented.
Employees are encouraged to develop their career, not in a vertical way to climb a career ladder but to explore and experiment in different areas of the business. Instead of following a conventional way to develop their skills and interests, workers can break down the boundaries of predefined roles and open up to their full potential.
While most people have to pursue their personal interests and hobbies outside working hours, this practice promotes work-life integration with remote work policies and flexible hours. Employees are allowed and encouraged to tick items off their bucket list before retirement, while they still have the drive, the energy, and the motivation to follow their dreams. This, in consequence, promotes employee loyalty, productivity, and engagement.
As far-fetched as it may seem, this is only the summary of some of the practices companies going the Semco Style adopt.
And these companies are the ones building up the future healthy ecosystems people wish to work in.
"I had to make the jobs more meaningful. . . . If you enrich the jobs you enrich the people."
Robert McDermott, former CEO of USAA
As a leader of this change leadership consultancy organization, it is my mission to change how work is perceived and managed by both the leaders and employees I work with.
We at Semco Style Institute US aim to shape the world of work into one where people are happy to be at their jobs and are motivated to contribute to the sustainability of the company they work for.
This is done first with an overall assessment of the culture of the organization and then followed by a personalized approach that is designed specifically for your business. Together we will prepare the fertile ground for change within your ecosystem and afterward initiate the process of shifting to better, more agile ways of working by strategically applying the Semco practices that best fit your company.
There is more to a company than just profit.
Purpose, human forms of management, and agile teams versus profit, top-down hierarchical structures, and bureaucratic processes.
There is more to a worker than just performing tasks.
Work-life balance, flexibility, and autonomy versus burnout, strict guidelines, and micro-management.
Which path do you choose to go?
Book an organizational culture assessment session with me and discover how you can unleash the potential of your business.
Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin.
Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Self-determination theory in human resource development: New directions and practical considerations. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 20(2), 133-147.
Wandeler, C., & Bundick, M. (2011). The development of hope at the workplace. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6,(5), 341-354.