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Flexibility in Employment Isn’t Enough

By Peter Weddle, CEO TAtech

Employers’ most common expression of flexibility these days is to offer the option for employees to work remotely. Unfortunately, however, that’s not a viable choice for more than 40 percent of the workforce. As I noted in my post on Sovereign Work, employees in fields ranging from healthcare and transportation to hospitality and warehousing must report to their workplaces every day because their jobs cannot be performed from a distance. The solution I proposed transcends all occupations – those where people can work remotely and those where they cannot. It’s best described by a word that needs an updated definition – self-actualization.

Yes, yes, I know. That sounds as if I’m addressing a real-world problem with something from an intro college class in psychology. But, just hang on and let me explain why I think it more accurately describes what workers want from employers in today’s job market. As I’ve already noted, however, the concept must first be updated in order to be relevant in the modern workplace.

For most of us, of course, the classical definition of self-actualization is the one authored by Frederick Maslow in his hierarchy of human needs. He theorized that self-actualization was the pinnacle of what humans – regardless of their talent or station – strive for in life. It sits above their need for food, shelter, safety and esteem and describes a driving desire “to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.”

Historically, that definition has been interpreted to mean the setting and accomplishment of one or more goals which are idiosyncratic to and valued by each of us. Maslow (and a legion of psychologists since) believed that self-actualization is achieved when we successfully do something we consider especially important, challenging and worthwhile. It could be the experience of parenting, the application of our talents at work, or the result we attain in a physical or mental test. In short, it’s the actions we take to create a sense of fulfillment for ourselves.

The facts! In a talent market that is more competitive and less understood than at any other time in history, it’s the facts that matter most. And TAtech’s biweekly Start Smart podcast focuses on the facts. Join me, my cohost, Shelia Gray, VP of Global Talent Acquisition at Quadient, and our guest Thad Price, CEO of Talroo, as we examine the findings from the latest talent acquisition research and explore their implications for recruiters and job seekers. This week, we discuss a recent report from McKinsey & Company entitled “Americans are embracing flexible work and they want more of it.” We’ve given the episode the title The Good, the Bad & the Implications of Flexible Work because recruiters should be aware of both the concept’s potential value and its limitations and potential downsides.

What’s often missed in that interpretation of the concept, however, is a recognition of what must exist for us to take those actions. It is an absolutely essential precondition that’s best revealed by the term itself. It’s not actualization, but “self-actualization,” which means it involves the act or acts each of us choose to take in order to reach for that sense of fulfillment. But, in order to make that choice, we have to be free to do so. In other words, freedom is the indispensable prerequisite for our ability to achieve self-actualization. Or, to put it in the context of the workplace, we can’t achieve fulfillment without the ability to control the way we work.

What does that mean in talent acquisition?

It means that flexibility – whether it’s working from home or working four days a week – isn’t enough to attract top talent. They appreciate those options, to be sure, but increasingly it is also the norm they see – and expect – in the job market. Said another way, flexibility is fast becoming table stakes, not a differentiator. What sets an employer apart and attracts high performers is freedom that is both real and perceived. They want to be the masters of how their jobs are integrated into the rest of their lives, so they can reach for and achieve self-actualization.

Now, before you leap to the barricades, I recognize that some occupations cannot provide a pathway to self-actualization, at least according to conventional wisdom. But as we learned from the Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs, there are people who actually do self-actualize in jobs many of us would find … well, disgusting. And, what was common to every one of those individuals was that they chose to be employed in those jobs and that they believed they were the masters of how the jobs fit into their lives.

Those sovereign workers were motivated by the same need driving many of today’s job seekers. They don’t want to be Chaplinesque cogs in some great corporate machine. But, also they don’t want to be a stand-alone business operating as a gig worker. What they do seek is the sense and the reality of being treated as an equal in the contract with their employer. They want to be respected and managed as someone with the talent to perform the required work and the right to do so in a way that both fulfills them and achieves the employer’s desired outcomes.

So, employers that offer flexibility in the way work is accomplished are definitely off to a good start with today’s job seekers. Going beyond that, however, establishing policies and practices that support their reach for self-actualization with authentic freedom sets an employer apart and puts it well ahead of the competition in the race for top talent.

Food for Thought,

Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the founder and CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. You can download his latest book – The Neonaissance – FOR FREE at And, if you don't have time to read the entire book, just download a short excerpt of his inspirational message.