What progress means to employees – and how you can help
The feeling that our work is driving us forward can really matter. Making progress at work is a key part of employees feeling motivated, engaged and productive.

SEEK research reveals three-quarters of candidates (74%) say making progress in their career is important, yet 40% say they haven’t made progress in the past year, or they’ve gone backwards.

So, what exactly is progress and how can you help your employees make meaningful advances at work?

Progress isn’t one-size-fits-all

Progress comes in many forms – some people value measurable and outcome-focused (such as pay rises and promotions), while others aim for lifestyle or values-based outcomes (like enjoying work and feeling like you’re making a difference). For many employees, progress can be something small they do, such as leaving on time, (73%) or even failing at something (72%).

The top 5 ways employees feel they have made progress recently

  1. Advanced my skills (50%)
  2. Personal growth and development (41%)
  3. Taken on additional responsibilities (31%)
  4. Better work-life balance (27%)
  5. Received a pay rise (25%)

“Traditionally progress at work has been considered to be getting a promotion or moving up the corporate ladder and receiving an increased salary as a result,” says Expert360’s Cameron Norton, 2019 SEEK SARA Recruitment Consultant of the Year. “But people new to the workforce may now view progress as expanding their learning, enhancing their skill set and increasing income over time, whereas more established employees may see it as achieving greater work-life integration.”

Supporting employees’ progress

Managers can support their employees’ progression by seeking to understand what drives each of them. “You need to understand employees’ motivations and gear the relationship around achieving the individual’s goals to ensure engagement levels stay high,” Norton says.

“For some, money represents being able to buy a home or another life goal. For these employees, setting 12-month goals that are tied to remuneration increases is important and then following through with the increase if the goals are achieved.” For many employees, however, progress is linked to learning new skills, growth and development and taking on additional responsibilities.

The pressure to progress

Despite progress being important, one in two candidates (48%) feel frustrated by expectations that they must be seen to be progressing in a traditional sense. “Not everyone wants to progress in a traditional sense,” Norton says. “Some people are content with what they are doing and like the certainty of their present situation.”

In these circumstances, the concept of horizontal career growth can be an important discussion point. “Horizontal career growth is where an individual remains in their current role but grows their skills, knowledge and expertise in complementary areas and expands their value to the organisation as a result,” Norton says. “This means they don’t experience the disempowering feeling of ‘I’m not learning anything’. It tends to result in a higher level of engagement due to the new value that the person can provide.

Small steps to progress

If you do have employees who feel pressured to progress, Norton recommends a relaxed conversation about what progress means to the employee. “This can be critical in releasing the stress and anxiety they’re feeling,” he says. “Managers may also need to expand their view of what ‘progress’ means to them as often this is skewed by their own beliefs or experience.”

You can then work together to identify and implement tailored goals with a series of smaller steps to help the employee know how they are progressing.

Progress at work means different things to different people. Understanding what drives your staff, knowing the value of horizontal career growth and setting small but achievable goals are all key to helping your team take the steps forward that matter most to them.