Kari’s Hierarchy of Workplace Needs

Employees have a wide range of needs in the workplace. Some are the absolute basics that need to be met in order for somebody to stay in their job. Other needs are what allow employees to not just survive, but thrive in the workplace. But if those basic needs aren’t being met, then those higher level needs are suddenly a whole lot less meaningful.

If at this point you’re thinking, “Kari, this sounds an awful lot like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…”, well, you’re not wrong. But whereas Maslow was dealing with the whole self, I’m really looking at just how we exist in the workplace.

So I put together my own pyramid – Kari’s Hierarchy of Workplace Needs.

Pyramid with layers from base to top: Compensation, Safety, Work / Life Balance, Meaningful Work, Relationships, Perks

The most fundamental two levels, compensation and safety, are the absolute baseline of what an employee needs to remain in their job. The next three levels, work/life balance, meaningful work, and a supportive team, are where employees are able to become truly engaged with their work. The topmost level is the fun, shiny stuff that employers like to talk up and where start ups like to pull out all the stops.

For each of these levels, there will be a whole lot of individual variability in what it looks like for somebody’s needs to be met. It will depend on the individual what it looks like when those needs are barely met versus comfortably met. A single person who loves living with roommates is going to have vastly different compensation needs than the breadwinner of a family of four. A person who prioritizes hobbies and travel is going to have different work/life balance needs than somebody who loves nothing more than to throw themselves intensely into their job.

What is consistent is that somebody is not going to be motivated by needs higher on the pyramid if their more fundamental needs are not being met. And similarly, once a fundamental need has been comfortably met, focusing on that level isn’t going to be further motivating.

An employee who is falling behind on bills is not going to stay in their role simply because they adore their co-workers. If an employee is well-paid but bored out of their mind, throwing more money at them is not going to make them more engaged.

And this is where employee engagement and employee recognition programs can fall flat. You have to understand where your opportunities are as an employer. What is the lowest level of the pyramid where employees’ needs are being barely met, or perhaps not met at all? That is where you want to focus your efforts. If you miss the mark on that, the best case scenario is that you’ve wasted resources. At worst, you’ve come across as tone-deaf and managed to drive your employees to further disengage.

As you’re building your engagement plan, be mindful of the pyramid. It will guide you to the most impactful actions. The actions that help your employees feel truly heard, valued, and engaged. And when that happens? Everybody wins.

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