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Making It Personal: The Voluntary Employee

I think the most significant issue our profession will face in 2017 is the continued rise of the voluntary employee.

We’ve all heard the stories about companies that experience meteoric rises. I was part of one in the 1990s at Dell. It presented those of us in HR with a new kind of problem. Suddenly, lots of our employees were rich. We called this the “voluntary worker” issue. Simply stated, they didn’t have to be there. All at once the traditional means of retaining and motivating our employees were obsolete.

Today our most talented employees are more mobile. They expect to change companies. They own their careers. They have lots of options about where and how they will work. They are volunteers.

It’s personal

With volunteers, pay, promotion, and benefits have little power to motivate; but can still demotivate. They are merely the proof that the company is treating people fairly. Programmatic approaches to things like performance management and development don’t hit the mark for volunteers. If they choose to work for you, it will be for their own reasons. It will be personal. So what do we do? What incentives appeal to the volunteer employee?

Know their reasons and act accordingly

Volunteer motivation is intrinsic. We need to understand what makes each individual want to work. For some, it will be the inherent satisfaction taken from the work itself. To retain them, we must help them keep doing it.

Others seek professional mastery; development programs help them be the best. Some volunteers value the ability to exercise autonomy, or at least to influence the course of their work. For them we must structure jobs to allow for that.

Some volunteers want most to be part of a community. We can use company social networks to support these needs. There are volunteers who want to “make a difference.” Often this is linked to personal concerns. So we must find a link between the work we need and the causes they serve.

And some volunteers want professional recognition. Our recognition programs, not to mention company PR, can help fulfill such yearnings.

Hire with this in mind

This isn’t just an issue of what to do about current employees; it’s about understanding what kind of employees fit best with our organizations. It’s about hiring for motivation as much as for talent.

Expect them to go

For all our efforts, volunteers probably won’t stay long-term, so organizations will have to build systems, processes, job, teams, and workplaces with the knowledge that this cohort won’t stay. After all, their careers are their own. It’s business; but with volunteers it is also very personal.

Read more 2017 talent predictions by other thought leaders.