The New Employment Deal: What Your Workers Really Want

diverse team working together
Even before the pandemic, many had accepted that the war for talent was over—and that talent had won. But Covid-19 has tipped the scales even further in favor of highly skilled, in-demand talent, and businesses are being forced to respond.

When Covid-19 burst onto the scene, we found ourselves catapulted into the great unknown. The future of work was suddenly the present of work. And now, nearly a year later, the mass experiment in working from home is yielding some dramatic changes—some of which may still prove to be temporary, but many of which are here to stay.

But one thing is clear: This past year wasn’t about hitting the pause button—it was the reset button. 2020 will be remembered not for its lockdowns, but for all it unlocked. Topping that list? A new set of employee expectations.

Leaders will be well-served not only to understand these new expectations, but to adapt to what’s been coined “The New Employment Deal.” Here are five areas employers should be prepared to address in 2021.

1. Personalized Flexibility

Even post-Covid, remote work is likely here to stay, with nearly 50% of employees working from home at least some of the time going forward. That flexibility is paramount to not only satisfaction, but performance. A 2020 Employee Survey conducted by Gartner IT +0.4% showed that the percentage of employees who are high performers increases to 55% when employees are offered some choice over where, when and how much to work, compared to a baseline of 36% in 9-to-5 office conditions. Flexibility fuels performance.  But a blanket flexibility policy, such as allowing a few days per week of working from home, won’t cut it. In-demand skilled workers know they have a choice when it comes to where they work, both in terms of the organization and their preferred location, and to attract top talent, employers will need to be willing to accommodate those individual needs and preferences.

The trick, of course, will be figuring out how to do that at scale, while maintaining structure and standards. Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of GitLab, has long advocated that companies embrace a fully remote model and the detailed rules of the road required for it, but we’re bound to see a variety of other possibilities emerge.

2. Good Corporate Citizenry

Long before the recent social uprisings sparked a new level of community involvement and social intervention, corporations had been touting their devotion to causes of every kind. But true corporate social responsibility means putting your money where your mouth is. A cookie-cutter corporate statement on the company website isn’t enough. Employees are aligning themselves with employers whose actions speak louder than words.

Gartner’s survey revealed that while 40% of the respondents were considered highly engaged, the number jumped to 60% when the organization took action on today’s social issues.

PayPal PYPL +2.7% CEO Dan Schulman, who refers to his employees as “our most important constituency,” has seen that firsthand. “When we do right by our employees, our customers, our merchants, and the world at large, our shareholders ultimately benefit,” he’s said.

Another good reason to get serious about corporate social activism: In 2014, the annual Deloitte Millennial Survey forewarned of a looming and major demographic shift in the workforce. By 2025, Millennials—a generation serious about corporate social responsibility—will make up 75% of the workforce. So while the trend towards corporations being good citizens was well underway, the events of 2020 just accelerated it.

3. Deeper, More Caring Connections

The pandemic made leaving work at work impossible for most. No longer can workers clock out at the strike of 6—not when the remnants of the workday are scattered across the dining room table. This, though, has created a two-way street: If you’re going to get a glimpse into people’s lives, then they expect you to care about what you see—their circumstances, their families, and the factors that affect them most.

We’ve seriously transcended the era of “Bring Your Kid to Work Day.” This new era of work demands a broader, more meaningful connection between employees and employers. Great leaders are invested in “humanized employment”—caring meaningfully about the humans behind the name tag or job title, about their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and supporting them both personally and professionally.

And before you write this off as “soft stuff” or a nice-to-have, consider this: According to the Gartner study, employers that support their workforce more holistically realize a 21% increase in high performers. In other words, employees care that you care, and it shows in their performance.

4. Investment in Transferable Skills

In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers—14% of the global workforce—would have to change occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and AI.

Employees are feeling this change in the air, and they don’t want to be left behind. They know their organizations have to adapt their business models to an all-digital future, but in doing so, they expect them to invest in their own upskilling and provide a career trajectory that’ll guarantee them a place in that future. McKinsey suggests employers act now to address capability gaps, increase their learning budgets, and commit to reskilling their employees.

Advancements in technology were in motion before the crisis hit, so the need to invest in reskilling isn’t new, but the silver lining is that developing this muscle will strengthen the org as a whole for whatever future disruptions come your way.

5. Communication and Transparency

No one likes to be kept in the dark, and if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we need to know what’s going on so we can take care of ourselves and our families.

And no one likes transparency and communication more than Millennials. “Millennials are truly a unique generation in terms of workplace dynamics,” according to Dr. Jason Wingard, Dean Emeritus and Professor at Columbia University. “They want continuous feedback and guidance.”

Communicating often and authentically is especially critical during times of uncertainty when people of all generations are fearful about the future. Even if leaders can’t answer all the questions, they’re expected to be visible and to communicate what they do know.

“During uncertainty, no one has the answers,” Nike NKE +1% CEO John Donahoe has said. “But showing up as your most authentic self is a powerful leadership tool in our current world context.”

Covid may have changed the rules on everything from workspaces to recruiting, but as we look ahead, whatever the new playbook turns out to be, it’s clear that employees will have a big say in drafting it. Talent may indeed have won the war, but new battles rage on.


Written by: Anita Sands, Forbes Contributor

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