It’s fair to say that when Abraham Maslow proposed his Theory of Human Motivation in 1943, he never envisioned a world or a workplace that would be digitally transformed. Nevertheless, his “hierarchy of needs” framework remains a popular principle in management training and workplace motivation practices today, focused on tapping into the five levels of human needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization.
The premise of Maslow’s work is undoubtedly still relevant in shaping exceptional employee experiences, but the workplace has drastically changed. Digital transformation has greatly influenced even the most basic of human needs in the workplace, including how we get work done. If you agree with that assertion, the next logical question is, “What would (and should) Maslow’s theory look like in today’s digital world?”
My organization explored this issue in a study of more than 3,000 workers across the U.S. Our conclusions form a compelling blueprint for updated HR practices that can lead to fulfilling experiences for employees.
Physiological Needs: Digital Tools Trump Clean Bathrooms
Historically, humans’ basic needs were considered the things we need in order to survive, such as air, food, water, sleep and so on. In the workplace, this has historically translated to pay, a comfortable work environment and access to essential facilities such as restrooms. However, in today’s digital world, workers indicate some of the most important basic needs are digital in nature.
In our study, when asked to rank the most important aspects of their workplace, employees placed “my work computer/laptop/device” at the top of that list (75%), followed by “fast internet and Wi-Fi” (68%). Interestingly, digital needs outranked things like, “my office/cubicle space,” “air conditioning and heating,” “my office chair” and “clean bathrooms.” Digital tools have clearly become a basic need in the minds of employees.
Safety Needs: Feeling Secure In Their Jobs
Feeling safe in the workplace has expanded beyond the physical sense of the word to include professional safety and security. Diversity and inclusion, as well as the ability to voice concerns, is huge, and digital tools — especially anonymous ones — can help employees feel comfortable speaking up.
Employees also have a strong desire to know where they stand in their performance and job security, and they want to know often. While traditional feedback mechanisms — such as face-to-face reviews and interactions — remain vital in delivering this insight, on-demand feedback via digital or automated technologies can provide the high-touch performance management workers want. This should come as welcome news to HR leaders, given these technologies can help increase the frequency of performance feedback in real time.
Belonging Needs: Digital Helps Connect Remote Workers
Face-to-face interactions will always remain the most effective way to foster a sense of team and teamwork. However, according to Gallup, 43% of Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely last year, and many projects today are achieved with inter-office and even cross-functional, project-based teams. With this becoming more common, employers still need a conduit for driving a sense of belonging and team. When in-person time isn’t feasible, collaboration, video and other digital technologies can facilitate and foster those much-desired connections with coworkers.
Self-Esteem Needs: Offer Opportunities To Digitally Upskill
Self-esteem in the workplace has historically only been tied to acknowledging and celebrating a worker’s performance on the job. Yet, we’ve found that this too has evolved. Many workers are concerned about their ability to succeed in their jobs, which are now largely tied to their digital prowess. In fact, in our study, their ability to attain technology-related skills was cited as more important than savings or financial assistance programs and vacation.
Self-Actualization Needs: Digital Can Deliver The Tools Employees Need
Self-actualization sits highest on the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. All the other needs allow workers to achieve them, and it’s become clear that being equipped with the latest digital tools and technology skills plays an important role. Digital helps create the human connection where it might not otherwise exist, assists (and requires) upskilling, ensures people can access the information needed to do their jobs well and can deliver time savings so workers can focus on more creative, fulfilling tasks. Digital tools are ultimately laying the groundwork for what workers need to grow and advance.
Why Apply The Post-Digital Theory Of Motivation?
If Maslow were here, he may well have his own take on today’s digital world and its influence in motivating people at work. But chances are, he’d be happy to know the theory is still very much alive and well — albeit changed. And, just as Maslow designed the hierarchy by studying what he called “exemplary people” such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass, this new approach to employee experiences and motivations serves as a lens for forward-thinking business and HR leaders.