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Want Economic Recovery? Focus on Workers

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Not one, but two wars. Natural disasters of near-biblical proportions. Pandemics, global warming, pervasive and entrenched corruption.

And then there is the "Great Recession," as coined by the Wall Street Journal: Lost equity, evaporating personal retirement accounts, foreclosures, work furloughs, and a veritable ocean of unemployment. Is it any wonder that America is suffering from what is arguably its biggest morale deficit in decades?

Unsurprisingly, the media spotlight has brightly focused on the compelling plight of the unemployed. The inherent assumption: There is no real story in the workplace. With no place to go, workers should be happy to have a job, right? But this single-minded approach may be obscuring a rising tide of disquiet among the still-employed, a tide that could potentially capsize our long-term economic wellbeing.

A new Conference Board survey found that a scant 45% of workers are satisfied with their jobs--fewer than those satisfied with their job security--and a significant drop since 1987. Opinion Research Corporation data further showed that a full 25% of workers are planning to jump ship as soon as the economy stabilize. Typically, the most talented and resilient lead the way.

Financial pundits argue that America's corporate captains have stumbled onto some new secret sauce for increased long-term productivity: A workforce of the ever grateful still-employed, rowing the (significantly lighter) corporate lifeboat faster and further than before. Survival instinct is strong, they say, while workplace happiness is fuzzy and subjective, a luxury we just can't afford.

Whether worker satisfaction is intrinsically valuable is always debated. I approach this problem as consultant who, for over 25 years, has worked with thousands of managers and executives on five continents, to build more effective, engaged workforce-for profitability, not charity. I have seen what research has shown: demoralization stymies our ability to innovate-the so-called "engine out" of this mess, especially in our knowledge-based economy.

In an oft-repeated trope of the decade, America is rapidly losing its competitive edge, with Detroit as a stunning case-in-point. While the loss of international economic supremacy might bruise the collective American ego, it speaks to a more ominous trend. Our exceptionally high quality of life is predicated upon America's role of leadership in the global marketplace.

The fundamental question becomes this: How can we buoy workforce morale and thereby foster innovation to reassure our place as global leader? Here are three concrete steps-low hanging fruit-that managers can take to turn the tide:

1. Flexibility. Promote scheduling and location flexibility as a dynamic work tool that can be used to profit both the business and the employee. For decades, corporate action has not matched rhetoric of "flexibility as a business tool" which, when used well, can unleash well-documented positive business outcomes such as increased per person revenue or reduced real estate costs, cycle time and overtime.

Reset thinking and practice to leverage the power of workplace flexibility to promote innovation. For example: Enable people to work from anywhere, including emphasis on achieving results vs visibility; establish quiet spaces at work to enable focus and clarity; institute meeting-free times when uninterrupted thinking is possible; cross-train employees to ensure back-up and encourage collaboration; allow workers input on scheduling; bring back experienced company "alums" to work on special projects now lying fallow for want of resources; and, when compatible with job requirements, hire superb remote talent to work virtually, enabling world class people to be hired without geographic constraints.

2. Innovation Zones. There needs to be a radical reemphasis on innovation in the workplace. At a bare minimum, start a "Blue Sky Thinking" campaign. Establish a regular time and/or place where innovation rules. Set boundaries of time, place and expectations for report out - not guaranteed success.

The motto: "Failure Welcomed Here" should be explicit, because encouraging failure often unleashes peoples' capacity to succeed. A team of workers (or even a lone wolf) can cook up ideas, proposals, and solutions with reckless abandon. If leadership and management genuinely support this, what emerges is guaranteed to surprise, with change that can reverberate far beyond the company.

3. Service. As finding meaning in work positively impacts low morale, managers should explore ways to inject a renewed sense of purpose into employees' work. Provide every employee with a regular time to engage in a collaborative, pro-bono project of the company's-or their-choosing. While a community service day once a year is admirable, ongoing efforts by employees (design, accounting, sales--anything) that benefit a needy organization (and there are many these days) have more meaning and are more effective. Even better, encourage efforts that might create or enhance products or services the company can then sell in the marketplace. Worried about losing employee time at work? Don't. You'll get even more loyalty and productivity toward business goals from employees.

A cure-all might not be in sight, but these actions can help us navigate this tempestuous period in American history, not only sustaining less damage but enabling both employees and their companies to thrive.

Karen Noble is President of Karen Noble Consulting.