Employees’ expectations are changing. Employers should take note – and take stock of their appeal.
These are difficult times for everyone. Stress levels are at record highs, according to Gallup’s global survey. People and companies are having to adapt; as individuals we’re taking stock of the priorities in our lives, and as leaders or managers we’re having to balance the urgency of today’s unique challenges with the uncertainties of what will be a next normal.
Even before the pandemic the world of work had been changing. Now, it feels as though employers and employees are sizing each other up. What strategies should companies be adopting to ensure they attract, retain, and shape a high-performing talent resource?
Leaders and talent managers should not underestimate the momentum behind the question. The gauntlet of the pandemic forced a state of equanimity, a pulling together, but with conditions easing towards stability workers are now pushing to reimagine the workplace – or if a workplace is necessary at all. Some industries – notably the technology sectors – are braced for rising resignations and mass job switching. (A Microsoft survey earlier this year revealed that in certain countries between 26% and 40% of tech workers intend to leave, in what observers are calling ‘The Great Resignation’.) Entire geographies are experimenting with altered frameworks for economic activity. (New Zealand is the latest in a handful of countries to test a four-day workweek.)
The underlying issues involve criteria of flexibility, autonomy, and engagement, and they extend into the responsibilities and roles of corporations to add value in society. If people increasingly wish to pursue happiness ahead of material wealth, companies will need to figure out how to respond to match this changing motivation behind why we work.
Employees’ expectations can be grouped around five aspects: mission (what purpose will they serve?); leadership (how will they be managed?); flexibility (how tight are the terms that bind them?); opportunities (will they be able to develop, and advance?); and remuneration (how will they be rewarded?).
It may seem clear that these dimensions are traded off into an overall package that suits both the individual and the company. But one of the learnings from the Covid-enforced work paradigm is how adaptable these employment dimensions are. We are certain, now, that many work functions can be performed remotely; indeed, many people are more productive when allowed flexibility; and a culture shock may be precisely what is needed to corral the organisation’s cohesion and performance.
Meaningful work matters
Myriad psychological and business studies prove that people thrive when they feel their work has meaning.
Below are the mission statements of two companies. Both are operational in SA, and both distribute consumer products – although one also has a strong business-to-business franchise:
“To create innovative consumer products that make everyday living easy. […] is committed to a philosophy to benefit both customers and society at large. Our products and solutions help companies around the world move information faster, improve quality and productivity, enhance security and facilitate the sharing of information.”
“[…is committed to] offering value for money in convenient and appealing locations. We are truly passionate about our customers. [Our values are] integrity, honesty and openness, respect and dialogue, disciplined, delivery.”
Both statements are jumbled, and could be refined. But, if you were a candidate with the option of joining either, in all likelihood you would be more inspired by the first one, and you’d be clearer as to what the bigger picture of your work was intended to achieve.
Managed or mentored?
Management styles and specifics are woven within the fabric of the company’s culture, and include the degree of autonomy employees have, whether they are enabled and empowered to fulfil their responsibilities, and how they are held to account.
Do leaders communicate clearly, and do they encourage openness? Candid, two-way dialogue, regular reviews, career path progression assessments, team-building as well as informal one-on-one check-ins – these are tools of meaningful management, and employees understandably expect nothing less.
At the same time, a degree of trust is a powerful factor towards stronger engagement, and workers’ commitment increases when they are mindfully mentored, not micro-managed.
How does the organisation’s culture interpret and enact accountability? The word has lost much of its meaning. Regularly repeated by leaders, emblazoned in slogans pinned to HR department walls, and uttered earnestly throughout reviews, a hybridised understanding is often that the employee must prove she is doing more, and that this will be monitored through greater use of metrics. Loud and clear, that’s the ‘count’ part of the word – but what about ‘ability’?
Employers should switch perspective, and include acknowledgement and appreciation for the employee’s contribution of productivity and goal accomplishment. Where this occurs, the employee may feel accountability is desirable, because it escalates her sense of value. Being answerable should cut both ways: the employee delivers, and the employer adds to the individual’s ‘ability’ and worth.
Work-life balance is near the top of workers’ agendas, and an employer should include this as an integral talent management principle.
How this is interpreted and implemented will be a major post-pandemic challenge. Remote or co-located – or hybrid – work? Tracking of hours, or output fulfilment as the only relevant criterion? How to restructure vacation time when employees feel they are required to be constantly connected?
The good news is that studies show that work-life balance and improvements in mental wellness – and happiness – boost performance and productivity. This happens for other reasons too, such as reduced traffic congestion, ‘Parkinson’s Law’ – the phenomenon that work expands to fill the available time – and the 80/20 principle that says 80% of productivity is achieved in 20% of our time.
The gist is that it’s not a zero-sum issue. Ultimately, flexibility is flexible.
Multifaceted growth and development
Employees understand that in the decades ahead they will probably have to change jobs and roles multiple times. Most younger workforce entrants welcome this, and factor different employment experiences into their life plans.
And, as companies flex their operations into new business models, and hierarchies give way to flatter organisational structures or networks, so the linear career path model has evolved. A legal affairs director or financial manager can shift into procurement; marketing assistants may migrate to corporate affairs; a programmer with intimate software product knowledge may be the best person for client liaison. Fluidity helps to retain key personnel and cross-pollinate institutional knowledge.
This means that learning programs, too, should be flexibly structured. At DigitalCampus we advise our clients to adopt a ‘Learn, Apply, Perform’ (LAP) approach in finding the reskilling sweet spot where employees can learn according to their mode of preference, and then practice and implement the newly acquired skills.
Adequate attention to retention?
Retention is often overlooked or under-valued as a talent strategy. This can be costly: replacing a motivated, high-performing employee inevitably comes at a payroll premium, and institutional knowledge is lost.
Leaders should carefully weigh two distinct concepts: talent density, and talent development. The former seeks to increase the ratio of star performers throughout the organisation, even by letting go of good employees so that they can be replaced by even better ones. Says Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings: “We are a team, not a family. We want the best person at each position.”
Talent development has a different emphasis, prioritising the personal growth and capability expansion of employees – mainly existing ones.
The two principles are not mutually exclusive, but the balance influences the organisation’s culture, so they should be strategically implemented to ensure incoherent or inappropriate signals do not occur.
Remuneration has many nuances. At Netflix, Hastings’s policy is to pay above premium as a base salary – and that’s it. He believes bells, whistles and bonuses incentivise behaviours and decisions to what may be right for the individual but not the company, especially in respect of innovation or future-focused investments. Further, that the optimal environment for creativity is personal financial freedom. “People are most innovative when they have a big enough wage to remove a few of the stresses from home,” he writes in his book No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention.
But this may not be the best approach for other companies, particularly those in less creative industries. Jennifer Waldo, Chief HR Officer of General Electric Digital, describes how the conglomerate’s digital transformation required a digital-first talent strategy which could only be effectively implemented when tech talent was incentivised to join GE as a destination employer, necessitating competitive remuneration packages – including bonuses and stock options as market norms for high achievers in the tech sector.
Millennials – or simply ‘Perennials’?
Historically, for some companies it made sense to inform and segment their talent strategies based on differing generational characteristics between Baby Boomers, Millennials (currently aged 25 to 40), and Generation Z (‘digital natives’, born between 1996 and 2012).
But workers’ expectations are becoming more personalised and complex, and demographic segmentation may no longer be particularly useful. As generational expert and author Lindsey Pollack notes, irrespective of age cohort, people want similar things from their employers and from their work. “Fundamentals — meaning, purpose, good leaders, professional growth — don’t change. What changes is how each generation expresses these needs and what expectations we have about our employers’ fulfilment of them.”
Still, there are a few absolutes which cut through any context. A crucial criterion is to embrace diversity – and go the necessary step further by embedding inclusivity within the corporate culture. Companies which reflect society are more attractive to society. And they perform better: multiple studies, including a recent analysis by McKinsey, correlate the diversity of a company’s board leadership and the inclusivity among its talent pool with better EBIT than industry averages.
A kinder corporation
Second, as underscored in Deloitte’s global Millennial and Generation Z survey, the demographic majority comprising the world’s workforce is stressed – over 40% of Millennials, and nearly 50% of Generation Zs, feel stressed “all or most of the time” – and disillusioned with the role of business in society.
This raises two fundamental questions for any talent professional: ‘Assuming your organisation handled the pandemic with empathy, will the company continue to support employees’ mental health and wellbeing?’; and ‘How does the firm embrace the wider community of societal stakeholders?’
Trust: the corporate brand as a beacon
At a very basic level, the pandemic has highlighted that people have to trust companies with their lives. Employees are probing for answers to a real question: How is the company keeping us safe? More broadly, communities are demanding to know what corporations are doing to improve the state of the world – socially, economically, environmentally. As Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher notes in her book The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It, “It’s almost impossible to imagine a company being able to be trusted by its customers if it’s not trusted by its employees.”
This all starts internally. Do you like what your company does, and how it does it? If you were to engage your employees as consumers and customers, what would they say?
There is possibly no clearer distillation of the appropriate approach to attract and retain talent than the advice of management sage Peter Drucker: “Treat your employee as a volunteer.” What he so pithily conveyed is that everything an employer expects and wishes from its employees flows from appreciating them. In return, as volunteers do, they’ll ask not what the company gives them, but, rather, the most important question in an employer-employee relationship: “What can I contribute?”
Talent Management tips to improve employer attractiveness:
Fine-tune the company’s mission. Does it still have maximum relevance in the context of Covid and a next normal? Then, amplify the corporate brand as both a retention buoy and a recruitment beacon.
Use KPI metrics mindfully. Performance and accountability is non-negotiable. But deliverables should motivate, not discourage. In particular, avoid multiple KPIs. (Wise counsel again, from Peter Drucker: “If you have five goals, you have none.”)
Re-evaluate learning programs. Twice-yearly, standardised training sessions do not translate to development. Employees want upskilling programs that mirror the state of flux in the world of work and help them develop broader knowledge as well as soft skills.
Senior Partner and Managing Executive