Article: Empowering the 80%: Strategies to engage and retain the essential workforce

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Empowering the 80%: Strategies to engage and retain the essential workforce

In this exciting webinar, HR leaders discuss practical actions to engage and recognise people meaningfully.
Empowering the 80%: Strategies to engage and retain the essential workforce

In today’s rapidly evolving landscape, the conversation over the past few years has squarely focused on top talent, higher performers and upward mobility. In this discourse, a significant part of the global workforce, often called the ‘80%’, grapples with unique challenges. This broad spectrum of workforce who are critical to our economy and touch every part of our lives often lack the necessary access and enablement to thrive. Four-fifths of employees worldwide lack opportunities and autonomy in their work, and many feel ignored and unvalued despite the imperative jobs they do. Consequently, the vast majority feel unseen, unvalued, and uncared for.

To address the needs and expectations of this growing section of the workforce, People Matters, in partnership with O.C. Tanner, organised an insightful panel discussion discussing contemporary cultural and employee practices from the lens of the 80% workforce. The discussion saw brilliant takes from Chandini Kamal, Global Head - Diversity and Inclusion, HCL Technologies; Karan Bhasin, Director Sales, Recognition & Workplace Culture Strategist, O.C. Tanner IMEA; Rajita Singh, Chief People Officer, Kyndryl and Sumit Sabharwal, Head of HR Shared Services, Fujitsu International Regions. The following article is based on the top insights from the webinar. 

Understanding the 80% workforce: Who are they?

Setting the context for the conversation, Karan discussed the findings of O.C. Tanner’s 2024 Global Culture Report, which gathered insights from 40,000 people across 24 countries. With a focus on understanding culture from the employee perspective, the report identified practical empathy, 80% experience, equitable flexibility and nimble resilience as the megatrends dominating the workplace culture.

One of these trends talks about how a majority of the workforce, or roughly 80% of the average and above-average performers, feels underappreciated and overlooked due to the near-absolute focus on top performers. This is highly pertinent as the report shows integrating recognition into everyday employee experience can have significant results. For example, adopting this practice can make the organisational culture more empathetic, increase satisfaction, and make the overall employee experience positive.

This finding is all the more relevant across industries like manufacturing, retail, IT and BFSI, wherein the day-to-day experience of empathy varies across different levels. The report found a wide gap between the employee and employer perception of care levels, positive employee experiences and empathetic leadership, with employees witnessing lower levels across all these domains. The two major factors behind this alarming chasm are:

  • Access: Differential availability of systems, resources, benefits and people to do their work and be taken care of at work
  • Enablement: The degree of autonomy, influence and openness to voice concerns at work

Karan concluded by emphasising that focusing on this 80% of the workforce by investing in the right tools, championing autonomy and recognising people often and in meaningful ways is vital if organisations wish to accrue the benefits of better engagement, retention and results. 

How to involve the 80% in decision-making and leverage modern leadership management models to enhance engagement 

Even if a person is not a top performer, it’s essential to recognise that they are good at some aspect of their work, and giving everyone a forum to showcase their strengths is vital, emphasised Chandini. She added that we must teach leaders how to get through to every last member of their team by listening to people. Any gap that needs to be plugged should be a team effort, delegated to the very people who proposed solutions to make their contribution visible and increase the stickiness of the change. The modern leadership style is essentially listening to people, involving everyone and bridging existing gaps by taking input from everyone on the team.

Rajita added that the 80/20 equation will likely change as labour shortages dictate workplace trends, and redefining career pathways for development and mobility will be critical. Forming cross-functional groups, practised at Kyndryl, helps promote this idea of purposeful work for everyone, builds intrinsic motivation and helps people master autonomy. Sumit said that at the core of the idea, the goal is to increase inclusion and belongingness in a diverse workforce that may have few things in common with each other. He explained that at Fujitsu, this process begins with a ‘purpose carving’ exercise during the induction to break hierarchical barriers. Furthermore, driving employee-centric conversations around performance and culture can help cultivate a mindset that listens to people and puts their needs first. 

Making corporate learning programs inclusive and impactful by encouraging people to learn 

Rajita shared that helping people understand how their role fits in the larger picture of the organisational and business framework can drive home the importance of skilling. When everyone understands business goals and can identify how they add value to business change, people are more likely to actively decide what skills they want to learn to perform better. At Kyndryl, for example, a comprehensive global skills career framework based on business, client and employee expectations helps people understand what competencies they need to perform their role today and in their future roles.

Chandini further said that rigid learning structures often dissuade people from committing to skill-building. She shared that at HCL, employees are free to select any skill they want to develop. Everyone has access to the same quality learning courses with top educators from around the world. Furthermore, there is no distinction between technical and non-technical skill-building courses, and both are considered equally valuable. Finally, gamifying some aspects of learning to nudge and encourage people and developing robust mentorship frameworks can increase people’s motivation and willingness to learn. 

Meaningfully recognising and rewarding the performance of the 80%

Access is a very integral value when providing opportunities for recognition, and it has to be found in every environment the employee finds themselves in. Karan shed light on O.C. Tanner’s partnership with Starbucks, and how especially for the workers operating out of the cafes, they devised a recognition strategy that was symbolic, technology-enabled and very accessible. From on-the-spot awards to long-service appreciation, everything was made easier through the right platform and offerings. 

Chandini also highlighted that HCL’s recognition portal is called ‘Extra Mile’ to signify that recognition is something people have to do beyond their interpersonal interactions. We can make recognition more meaningful by democratising recognition, removing hierarchy-based barriers, making social recognition and creating a tangible rewards system. Another thing that HCL does differently is involving the employee’s family while recognising them to make the experience truly memorable for them.

Sumit added that acknowledgement and validation are innate human needs, and in addition to having the right intervention framework, we must strive to understand how recognition and rewards influence organisational culture. Being mindful of recognising the right thing, whether it’s effort, result or milestone, can shift the focus from the technology aspect of rewards and make the act more authentic. He also shared that training managers to build personalised connections with their team members is the most effective way to make employees feel valued and wanted. 

Rajita also highlighted an important aspect of recognition, which is instant gratification. Every manager and team member acts differently, and we need to set the right precedent by encouraging the right people to do it in a manner that influences others to aspire to the same status. Karan explained that while the challenges of governance and budgets will always plague recognition efforts, getting the managers to do it consistently and at scale is vital. Ultimately, if the company’s top senior leadership follows the right recognition practices, it will inspire the second rung of leaders and middle managers to follow suit. 

Chandini summed up the conversation succinctly by explaining the ABCD framework leaders and HR managers can follow to build a meaningful rewards culture and experiences in their organisations. This entails adopting a bottoms-up approach by listening to the 80%, building a positive culture based on transparency, carving meaningful career paths for comprehensive growth and devising the right recognition strategy to engage every employee. 

Watch the recorded webcast to learn more about actionable strategies and best practices for designing impactful and meaningful recognition programs. To dive deeper and learn more about how to empower the often overlooked 80% of your workforce, please visit

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Topics: Benefits & Rewards, Rewards & Recognition Technology, Leadership, Culture, #HRTech

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