As employers recall their workers to the office in the coming weeks and months, expect fireworks.
Not fireworks to celebrate employees or the end of COVID, but rather a wave of people quitting after the shock of re-integration into a physical workspace and the vice grip of “command-and-control” leadership.
Things won’t magically go back to “normal.” Because “normal” was really normalized burnout, micro-management, lack of diversity and inclusion, lack of learning and development and, frankly, lack of meaningful care for employees.
In the HR world, we talk incessantly about employee experience, remote nurturing and upskilling/re-skilling. But aside from coaching conversations with clients, where I always bring it up myself, I’ve rarely ever heard anyone mention employee experience from the employee’s perspective.
That brings us to an important inflection point for employee awareness. Over the last 15 months or so, hundreds of millions of employees around the world have had hundreds of days to reflect from home on whether their work is serving their human needs when it comes to career progression, skill mastery, learning and development, financial and family goals, among others. A very large percentage of them have come up lacking.
In short, companies that succeeded in digital transformation too often failed in human transformation. And they will pay the price when those people leave en masse after offices reopen and employees are quickly called back to resume “normal” office life.
The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of companies and leadership teams have never been forced to see things from the employee perspective, even if they send regular engagement surveys and do weekly team Zooms.
With the exception of well-coached top executives and premium pipelines of talent in certain industries, in my experience, most employees are never able to drive their own personal and professional development as they see fit.
As a result, barring solid and up-to-date guidance from a top coach or mentor, career and personal development decisions were usually made ad hoc or in a vacuum, based on job offers, recruiter calls or ads served up on Facebook.
Instead, people relied on whatever professional development their employer offered (with its own interests and adverse incentives and blind spots), whatever their alma mater’s career services department recommended (usually outdated or irrelevant) or what their former classmates or friends were doing to get ahead in life.
COVID-19 brought a sea change to this equation, shifting the professional landscape under employees’ feet. With many more potential dream jobs suddenly available remotely, and more time spent at home without commutes and away from micro-managing bosses, people have more time to second-guess their career trajectory and current workplace. Employees can now find the time to learn new skills, take online courses, start side businesses and otherwise create or seek greener pastures.
Even before COVID-19, employee loyalty was already bad and getting worse. For example, according to a 2020 global workplace culture study, a staggering 59% of employees would have left their employer right away if offered a job at a different company with a similar role, pay and benefits.
With leaders no longer able to command and control and their employees working remotely, a new reality has emerged. Employees have greater choice of employers for career growth, instant mobility (remote work), decreased stigma around short tenures, plus a growing distrust of institutions by millennials and Gen Z.
In short, these days it’s much easier to take your talents to Hollywood — or to Miami, NYC, London, Tel Aviv or anywhere else around the world. And of course, in the same vein, it’s easier than ever to grow said talents by curating your learning and skills and experience in the way you see fit.
As such, leaders have little choice but to adapt — and quickly — to this new reality. The post-COVID talent war is unlike any other because both supply of and demand for top talent are vastly greater than ever before. Instead of playing catch-up and reacting, savvy employers must embrace the sea change of “experiential employment.”
What does this mean in practice? First of all, it means budgeting for an average tenure of two years or less, with more agile hiring and firing, improved onboarding and constant realignment around mission, vision and values. It means fewer useless meetings, greater empowerment and trust, tech enablement, flexible work arrangements and relevant benefit coverage, as well as mental health and coaching support.
But above all, top talent will want to be staffed on well-aligned projects with high-profile clients, to have constant learning and development through coaching and interactive workshops and trainings, to manage others, to get constructive feedback often and quickly, to have clarity about career pathways and time lines for promotion and higher pay, to have a say in company decisions (or at least be asked regularly for their opinion on subjects important to them), and to feel proactively supported through meaningful and well-funded DEI initiatives and employee resource groups (ERGs).
With expectations managed proactively from both sides and plenty of outlets for talent to be their best selves in the workplace, the downside risk is controlled for the employer and the upside is captured quickly for both sides, aligning incentives effectively.
And while there will always be some information asymmetry between employers and employees, the disparity is quickly shrinking. More talent with greater leverage and mobility means even top companies have little choice but to adjust to the new reality of experiential employment.
Those companies agile enough to adjust their thinking will win the best talent. Others will suffer the consequences of failing to adapt and reinvent.
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