Walking Employees Downstream Improves Retention, Productivity, Recruiting, and Engagement (Part 1 of 2)

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Mar 18, 2019

The Powerful Impacts From Showing Employees That Their Work Is Meaningful

Forget engagement survey results. If you really want to kickstart actual hands-on commitment, “walk employees downstream” to see their work’s impact.

Walk employees downstream is a tool whose goal is to increase the emotional connection between an employee and those who use their work. Fully realizing that their work is meaningful will likely have a measurable impact on increasing their retention, motivation, and productivity. An example of the walk employees downstream approach would be showing a doctor what happened to a former long-term patient months after they left the hospital.

If retaining top employees is a burning issue at your firm (as it is with most), realize that nothing other than stay interviews is likely to have a larger impact on reducing turnover than walking employees downstream. This approach is designed to reconnect and remind employees of the tremendous impact that their work and the company have on its customers and community. It’s called walk employees downstream because you actually show them what happens “downstream” from their job.

Often you physically show them their impact by putting them in touch with the beneficiaries of their work (i.e., customers, users, and coworkers). Of course, many generations of both job applicants and employees want their work to make a difference in their community, the environment, and their customers. As a side benefit, reconnecting with former customers may provide feedback which will also improve your products and services. 

An Example — Increasing Retention By Helping Nurses Discover Their Impact

Hospital nurses have some of the highest turnover rates of any occupation. They work tirelessly and literally help thousands of patients each year. But they are often frustrated because it’s hard to see any long-term impacts of their hard work. And, because of nurse work shifts, they are often not even there to feel the human connection when a long-term patient who they have bonded with leaves the hospital. This is because there is no formal mechanism to provide direct feedback on how the patient is thriving weeks or months later.

Not knowing what happened results in many nurses saying that their work “isn’t meaningful.” However, nurses could be reenergized if a hospital were to periodically provide them with a short follow up — “Your impact discovery report.” This update report could (with the former patient’s cooperation) cover the positive events that patients (aka beneficiaries) later experienced, along with pictures, positive comments, and even quotes about how the nurse made a significant difference.

Being reminded of their personal impact would increase current employee engagement, retention, and even productivity. Showing that the hospital cares about making a nurse’s work more meaningful will also improve recruitment. Teachers and professors (like myself) would be additional examples of those who would feel more fulfilled and energized when they later learn (now, it only happens accidentally) about the growth and the success of their best former students. Even police officers might be reenergized if they were to receive formal follow up on what eventually happened to the child accident victim who they help to save.

The Many Business Benefits From Walking Your Employees Downstream

In order to fully understand the impact of this simple but effective “make work meaningful tool,” managers and executives need to understand the many business benefits that result from connecting employees with the results and impacts of their work. These business benefits included increased motivation, productivity, attendance, retention, recruiting, and product sales.

  • The No. 1 employee motivator is connecting employees to those who benefit from their work — Yes, connecting employees with those who benefit from their work was found by no lesser research source than Harvard Business School to be the key employee motivator. Many practitioners already know this intuitively. However, this research found that across these studies, the key factor that improved worker motivation was a direct connection to those who benefit from one’s work, including customers and clients.”
  • Productivity increases when you strengthen the employee’s connection with their work’s final output — Obviously, a direct personalized connection with their work’s final output has the highest impact on an individual employee’s productivity. However, even a video showing the connection can increase productivity. For example, in the previously cited Harvard Business School field study, employees harvesting tomatoes at a California tomato-processing firm merely watched a short video telling them about the positive impact they had in the factory. The employees who watched a video “achieved a 7 percent improvement in productivity,” compared to others who were not reminded of their impact.
  • Physically coming to work occurs more often with meaningful work — The above HBS study also revealed other positive business impacts from showing employees that their work was meaningful, including “employees with very meaningful work spend one additional hour per week working and take two fewer days of paid leave per year.”
  • Retention improves dramatically when the work is meaningful — “employees with ‘highly meaningful’ jobs were 69 percent less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next six months, and also had longer job tenures” according to a different Harvard study by S. Achor and A. Reece.
  • Recruiting attracts more candidates when they perceive meaningful work — even though money is usually the top recruiting attraction factor. The above cited S. Achor and A. Reeces study surprisingly found that workers would sacrifice “23 percent of their lifetime earnings in order to work in a job that is always meaningful.” So, recruitment marketing should make the fact that the work is “always meaningful” crystal clear to potential applicants.
  • Sales and product development can improve with more follow-up contact with customers — when companies make it possible for employees to learn their impact on significant former customers. That follow-up connection may have the added benefit of showing customers that your firm really does care about them. And these extended employee/former customer interactions may increase future return sales and referrals. The additional feedback may also help to improve the product and the company’s services.

Focus Your “Walk  Employees Downstream” Efforts

Initially target only a few job families for the “walk employees downstream” program. Start with the job families that have high turnover rates. Within those job families, focus on the jobs where post-exit interview results indicate that a lack of meaningful work is a significant cause of turnover. Also, focus on jobs in production, supply chain, product design, or any job where the work being done has a significant impact on the result, and where there is little contact with the actual customer or user.

If you’re worried about the potential time and expense involved in “walking” many employees downstream, realize up front that you don’t have to connect every employee with their downstream beneficiaries physically. Multimedia materials might be enough to convince them. However, when you do strive to make a physical connection, there will be a viral effect, because the initial group of connected employees will virally spread the word to the other employees on their team.

Start with a small selected sample of the most influential employees. Well-connected and influential employees will be the ones who will most likely be believed when they tell other fellow employees about what they’ve learned about their impacts.

Next week on March 25, 2019, Part two of this series will be published on


Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s April event in San Diego on “recruiting in a candidate-driven market.”