Our latest nationwide survey of how 427 companies, including 17 precast concrete producers, are trying to persuade workers to improve productivity in today's uncertain times not surprisingly finds growing numbers of employees are now primarily motivated by basics — job security and pay — and only secondarily influenced by employer efforts using the latest “employee engagement” fad.

In 2004, before the Great Recession, we visited these companies, asking executives how they were trying to persuade employees to make greater on-the-job efforts, and which ways were most effective. We repeated the survey in 2008 during the Great Recession, when construction was down and the demand for precast forms was nil; and again in early this year, during our sullen recovery. Trends in company efforts to persuade employees to improve on-the-job performance — and the effectiveness of these efforts — are shown in the accompanying charts.

The charts show five important facts:

  • First, due to the Great Recession’s impact, workers now focus on the basics: job security and economic motivators — the size of their paychecks.
  • Second, short-term economic motivators like gainsharing that match employees' short-term horizons had the greatest impact on productivity.
  • Third, employees expect to receive “extra” rewards for any “extra” efforts asked of them. Fulfilling these expectations are critical for the long-term success of any new initiative for boosting productivity and eliminating waste. If the “extra” is absent, employee cooperation is short-lived.
  • Fourth, although many employers have doubled-down on their efforts to influence employee behavior with “engagement” efforts, employees considered these to be only of secondary importance. Economics was their first priority.
  • Fifth, jargon has gone steroid. Company efforts to improve worker performance were called "motivators" in 2005, "involvement efforts" in 2008, and, by early 2012, "The Engagement Process." Not only is “Engagement” the latest buzz word, it has morphed into the “science” of “engageonomics,” at least by those promoting the latest jargon and trying to sell their version of it.

What’s behind employee thinking?
Eschewing jargon, our surveys show the obvious: recent events had key impacts on workers’ attitudes and changed how to influence their behavior effectively. The Great American Recession of 2008-2009 brought new commercial construction — and the demand for precast concrete — to a screeching halt, just as the decline in tax receipts on the state and local levels crippled public spending on infrastructure for bridges and similar structures. Soaring unemployment devastated American consumers, and economics soured worldwide. The current Euro crisis and the nascent Far East slowdown both are now harming U.S. exports and the jobs they provided.

Unless Washington faces up to our nation’s fiscal situation, the non-partisan Congressional Budget office says America will fall off a “Fiscal Cliff” early next year, triggering another recession. Recessions constrict construction, just as the current high gasoline prices at the pump squeeze consumers.

Consumer confidence and workers’ attitudes have been shaken by these events. With today’s uncertainties and tomorrow’s concerns about recessions, concrete industry executives have learned that short term, transparent economic motivators paired with supporting communications efforts are most effective in persuading employees to boost productivity and cut per-unit costs. Using them improves worker performance, bolsters future job security, and shows workers they can control their own destinies — the smarter they work, the better their future will be.