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Want happier employees? Create a community, business scholars say

Pay is great, but simple measures like showing kindness and recognizing workers go a long way, too, speakers said at a recent Academy of Management event.

Published March 21, 2024

Ryan GoldenSenior Reporter

Amid a downward trend in U.S. employee engagement, organizations must reshape their people management approach to more directly address employee happiness, panelists said Tuesday at a virtual event hosted by the Academy of Management.

Gallup data published in early 2023 found that engagement consistently declined in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic. For Christian Busch, associate professor of clinical management and organization at the University of Southern California, it’s not difficult to understand why.


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“When you face how quickly something in life can change […] you then try to find an anchor, and I think a lot of people […] looked to their organizations,” Busch said, “and they didn’t find it there.”

The multitude of crises affecting workers in everyday life exposed employers that failed to react with empathy, Busch continued. Layoffs particularly damaged trust between workers and leadership, he said, given that many organizations extolled a belief in purposeful, meaningful work before the pandemic.

Conversely, “a lot of companies and leaders showed how far they can go to help their employees, and that’s raised expectations” said Hakan Ozcelik, professor of management at California State University. “The expectations component of it really triggered all employees, especially those who are not getting their share of happiness right now.”

The manifestations of that unhappiness are all too familiar for HR, from the ubiquitous “quiet quitting” to the more ominous “great gloom.” Presenteeism, absenteeism and operational miscues are all risks for employers in the current environment, according to Bonnie Hayden Cheng, associate professor at Hong Kong University.

“We’ve got a workforce that is running on stress, that’s running on empty, and that’s just not sustainable,” Cheng said. “That leads to careless mistakes, that leads to blaming and shaming, and it’s just not a pleasant or collaborative environment.”

What can employers do? Start with community.

Tasked with responding to these dynamics, HR might immediately think of compensation. There is evidence supporting this approach, as a 2023 United Culture survey of global employees found that 55% said a good salary was the top factor driving their fulfillment at work. And employers have responded, with pay increases projected to remain above historical averages in 2024, according to WTW.

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But money is only one aspect of what constitutes “decent work,” said Simone Phipps, professor of management at Middle Georgia State University, borrowing a phrase from the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development. Respect, security, safety and dignity are all important contributors to decent work, “and if you have decent work, you’re more likely to have employees who have their health and well-being maintained,” Phipps said.

Flexibility is also key, she continued, with workplaces increasingly shifting from a position of work-life balance to more complete integration between employees’ work and personal lives.

At a more basic level, however, organizations “can provide a listening ear and an open environment for dialogue,” Phipps said, especially when factors external to work affect employees’ health and well-being. This can take the form of listening sessions or safe spaces for discussion, or employers could provide resources or counseling benefits.

That framework could appeal to HR teams struggling to deal with employee loneliness. Loneliness is such a problem for some areas of the country that it has been declared a health crisis, as occurred in California’s San Mateo County in February. A community approach to the workplace can help address loneliness and disengagement, according to Busch.

“A really good organization is a really good community,” he said. “An organization can distinguish itself by being that kind of place where people feel psychologically safe, where they can arrive and feel that the world is still a little bit better here than it is out there.”

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