A New Way of Working: The Life-work Journey

May 21, 2020      By Cecile Alper-Leroux

Ultimate Takeaway
  • Ensuring a superior employee experience amidst disruption requires a different approach.
  • Workforce trends have begun shifting from work-life balance to work-life integration.
  • The Life-work Journey model offers a fluid approach to perceiving career paths.

In this extraordinary period of disruption and uncertainty leading to radical shifts in working models—and, in some cases, unemployment—managers and HR leaders need to take a moment to revisit traditional employee hire-to-retire lifecycle ideas to better understand their people, and focus on what is most important to them. Despite efforts for more than a decade to enhance employee engagement, many people still find their jobs dissatisfying and their career trajectories ambiguous. Policies and programs promoting work-life balance and work-life integration have helped move the needle, but not enough. 

This is a major concern for employers, especially because of how the employee experience—the ways employees think and feel about the day-to-day realities and benefits of their jobs—could impact business results. Research shows that organizations focused on the employee experience report four times the profit, and more than double the revenue, of organizations that don’t prioritize it.

What, then, can HR leaders and managers do to ensure a superior employee experience? For one thing, more attention must be given to the realities of an employee’s journey through their working lives. For decades, we conceptualized this journey as a hire-to-retire cycle, propelled by a set of transactions designed to move hard-working, talented employees up the corporate hierarchy. However, this orderly process doesn’t leave room for an understanding of each employee’s unique work and life challenges as they moved forward in their careers. For example, during the birth or sickness of a child, the careers of many people are temporarily put on hold—in a way that may affect their professional prospects going forward.

Employers are well aware that life intrudes on work, and work intrudes on life. To promote equilibrium, many companies unveiled work-life balance programs that encouraged separating employees’ professional and personal lives, while more recent trends favor the notion of work-life integration, that attempts to recognize the inextricable connections between life at work and life outside of work, but still fails to fully capture it.

Despite these well-intentioned efforts, surveys reveal the same stubborn obstacles: employee disengagement with their work, and uncertainty over their career prospects. Overcoming today’s malaise requires a new approach, one that moves beyond the employee journey as a linear path and instead shows it for what it is—a winding road interrupted by unexpected twists and turns. 

Six Stages of an Employee’s Life-work Journey

The Life-work Journey is made up of six stages—At Risk, Security, Growth, Self-realization, Influence and Legacy. These stages can be consecutive, but they can also interrupt and overlap one another—an “early” stage can pop up in the middle of a later one, and vice versa. This reflects the fact that our lives and work do not run in straight, neat lines—they tend to meander, less like a train on a set track and more like a migrating bird dodging storms and stopping to eat on its way south for the winter. By leaning into the disorderliness of the employee experience, managers and HR leaders can lead with more compassion and provide clearer guidance. Although these experiences may differ on an employee-by-employee basis, many people are likely to fall into the six journey stages that follow.

Let’s begin with the At Risk stage. Typically, this stage begins the day the employee is onboarded. The employee’s primary concern at this stage is self-preservation—more specifically, through getting paid. Approximately 23 million Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck to make ends meet, and nearly half could not pay for a $400 out-of-pocket emergency. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, an eye-opening 83% of employees worry about losing their jobs. Because this stage is driven by fear—of job loss, of taking a pay cut, of alienating colleagues and managers—employees tend to keep their heads down in the workplace and will often prioritize following orders over challenging the status quo. As a result, they may not contribute their thoughts and ideas to discussions, which in turn can limit innovations that would improve an organization’s business and financial outcomes.

To moderate the stress employees are under during this stage—particularly during these extraordinary times—we need to give them greater control over their lives. In a study by the Jensen Group, a staggering 96% of respondents said that “the ability to create and control their own destiny” at work was key to their sense of engagement. Rather than leaving them in suspense between paychecks, we can support our people in the At Risk stage by giving them the opportunity to get paid on an on-demand basis. 

In the Security phase, employees worry less about compensation and the censure of their contributions by colleagues and managers. As they begin to feel a sense of stability and control over their lives, their focus shifts from self-preservation and immediate financial needs to building capital and expressing themselves more freely. Free of previous worries, people at this stage feel secure enough to plan for the future, whether that means deciding to marry and have children or building a nest egg. Bear in mind, however, that in this second stage of the Life-work Journey—as in all six stages—elements of the prior stage may return. For example, the decision to have children may lead to financial worries, or an unprecedented event may induce anxiety over job retention.

The next stage, Growth, typically occurs when an employee reaches a level of stability and confidence to take bigger risks in their work and beyond. Motivated by financial reward and recognition, the employee steers their career forward. For example, a position may open up in the organization that requires a specific set of skills and is particularly demanding, but the person believes they have what it takes to do the job well, despite not having all the required skill sets. A strong belief in one’s career prospects is considered the number one factor influencing job satisfaction

Could an employee in the prior stages take the chance to apply for that open position? Probably not. In the At Risk stage, the employee can’t contemplate applying for such a demanding position, given the risk of failure. In the Security stage, the employee’s skills may not be at a point to take on a difficult job.

Moving forward, in the Self-Realization stage, employees attain feelings of fulfillment in their career ambitions. They arrive at a long-hoped-for threshold in their work lives, and are now motivated by the work of earning the respect of their colleagues and managers. No longer focused internally on improving their job situation (as in the three previous stages), they need reassurances of trust in their abilities before they can venture outward with confidence, to share their ideas and help others succeed in their roles. 

This stage easily flows into the next one, Influence. Now adept at sharing and innovating, the person is self-assured enough to lead others by example, from their colleagues at work to people in their local communities. Some people reach this stage too early, adroitly jockeying to seize a management role. Their focus, however, continues to remain inward, limiting their ability to empathize with the concerns of others. As a result, they cannot influence employees to be more open and confident in expressing their ideas and opinions—to the detriment of the business.

The last stage of the Life-work Journey is Legacy. At this stage, an employee wants to contribute more of themselves to the organization and the world around them. They focus on the transference of knowledge and helping others find their purpose in life and work. They put their reputations on the line for the greater good, sponsoring the efforts of employees and the needs of customers. Their selfless goal is to leave things better off than they were.

Most importantly, we can’t lose sight of the fact that even during the Influence and Legacy stages, unexpected life and work disruptions can pop up, sending a person back to feeling At Risk or grasping at Security. A competitor develops the “shiny new thing” that takes an axe to the organization’s market share, resulting in the loss of a job. Parents pass away, children leave the nest, spouses and partners break up, and so on. We move forward circuitously, not knowing the endgame—pausing, tripping, turning backwards, moving forward. Life intrudes on work and work intrudes on life.

To manage someone through this uncharted course of events requires two very crucial skills: empathy and listening. Truly get to know the people you work with, to sense the signs when they don’t seem like themselves today. Ask questions. How are you feeling? Is something wrong? How can I help?

A ten-minute private conversation is all it takes to discern where someone is stuck in their Life-work Journey. It could be work-related or something that happened in the person’s life away from work. By capturing where people are in their Life-work Journey, managers and HR leaders can provide the compassion and guidance needed to move beyond the mess, knowing their own paths are just as winding and messy.

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