Employees Seek Personal Value and Purpose at Work. Be Prepared to Deliver.

Image credit: iStockphoto/SIphotography

In short:

  • Talk of the Great Resignation doesn’t explain the fundamental shift happening in how people are reflecting on their lives and work as the COVID-19 pandemic endures into 2022.
  • People have developed a new sense of awareness and worth for themselves and the world around them. This is prompting them to demand more personal value and purpose from both life and work.
  • Smart employers will acknowledge this truth and respond with a more human and purpose-driven employment deal.

More than 4.5 million people in the U.S. voluntarily left their jobs in November. Nearly a quarter of Singapore workers reportedly intend to quit their jobs in the first half of 2022. The drivers of attrition are many, but this news only adds to the slew of headlines (including Gartner’s own) about the talent risks these developments present. And yet, many organizations still seem focused on patching together short-term reactionary tactics to solve what is fast becoming a longer-term systemic truth. 

We asked Gartner's chief of research Chris Howard what more we need to know about the Great Resignation and how progressive organizations are tackling the people challenges they face as 2022 unfolds.

Doesn’t the term “Great Resignation” tell us all we need to know?

The Great Resignation is a pretty accurate description of what’s happening — at least in certain locations and within certain employee groups. But it still describes the symptom, not the cause. More important, it focuses — as do terms like “reshuffle” — on the impact felt by employers. 

What is happening now is happening to people, to humanity. Gartner research confirms that the intent to leave or stay in a job is only one of the things that people are questioning now as part of the larger human story we are living. You could call it the “Great Reflection.”

Copyright: Gartner

Is it really the job of employers to account for people’s “great reflection?”

Possibly not, but I would argue that ignoring it is, at the very least, shortsighted. Every organization’s strategic plans contain goals that cannot be met without people. You can ride out the pandemic era and hope your employees will still be there, but I don’t know many successful business leaders who watch major trends from the sidelines.

You can also place your bet on employees just “getting over it.” But the pandemic has stretched this piece of elastic so far that it can’t snap back. Moreover, people don’t want to go back. Many are developing a new sense of self-awareness and worth, and they won’t easily forget if they have felt undervalued, especially in an environment with less physical visibility, as occurs with more remote work, and where it can feel a lot harder to be seen. 

And remember, people aren’t just employees. They are your customers and your stakeholders. Increasingly, they drive the organization’s conscience and expect organizations to engage on contentious issues of fairness and equity — in society as well as at work.

You believe people’s sense of personal value is at the center of this sea of change?

Yes. People are asking themselves questions like, What makes me happy and whole? What truly satisfies me? Where have I given away too much of myself for little return?

The pandemic has been a catalyst to elevate personal purpose and values. Gartner surveyed more than 3,500 employees around the world in October 2021, and 65% said the pandemic had made them rethink the place that work should have in their life. Fifty-six percent said it made them want to contribute more to society.

This translates into soul searching over whether you feel valued in your work or whether you are merely creating outcomes and value to benefit others. Dissatisfaction with the answers increases the intent to leave your job.

This is all because of the pandemic?

We have endured the pandemic for so long now that we rarely dwell on — or even acknowledge — that this has been and continues to be a human catastrophe. And it isn’t some exercise in existential philosophy. The pandemic has forced us to make real, everyday choices about how we spend our time, energy, and social capital. We have seen how our choices literally affect our survival, and many of us are emotionally and physically exhausted.

This is a starting period of transition, one in which people are equalized by some external force but the outcome has yet to be determined. We’re all questioning our before and after states. We’re asking ourselves, Can I go back to doing what I did before in the same way? With family, travel, work, life? Should I? My well-being relies on my ability to innovate, imagine a new future, and take steps toward it, but what should that future look like? Sixty-two percent of surveyed employees said the pandemic had made them long for a substantial change in their lives.

We are all searching together and recalculating our strategies as the context remains unstable. All our cards are on the table. We have become more vulnerable with one another. Everyone has experienced trauma, even if they didn’t actually lose someone to the virus. We have to make room for this vulnerability in the workplace.

Isolation, of which we have had long periods during the pandemic, has contributed to this liminal state. Old habits have been broken and new ones have formed. We have built new mechanisms to deal with change. And some of these are improvements. We shop differently, cook more at home, have taken up new hobbies, think twice about travel and feel lost in conference rooms without our digital home office around us. We may not know how to go back to our prepandemic lives and selves, even if we wanted to.

So what should employers do about this? Just pay people more?

Pay will always be a factor, more so in certain situations — if people were chronically underpaid in their pre-COVID-19 roles, for example. But it turns out that pay is far from the only motivator. 

People are motivated when they feel valued and create impact (and commensurate pay is part of that equation). It turns out that people want acknowledgment, growth opportunities, and to feel valued, trusted, and empowered. Frontline workers, in particular, voice a desire to feel respected. Employees increasingly want to bring their authentic selves to work. 

People want purpose in their lives — and that includes work. The more an employer limits those things, the higher the employee’s intent to leave. And employees are considering that balance now more than ever. We at Gartner have been talking for some time about the need to make work a win-win proposition for both employees and employers, but we are seeing a fundamental change in the value equation.

The era of the employment contract, when a worker provided services purely in exchange for monetary compensation, is over. Employees want a more human employment value proposition: They want employers to recognize their value and provide value to them on a human level. Monetary compensation is important for surviving, but deeper relationships, a strong sense of community and purpose-driven work are essential to thriving. This is the value that employees expect their employers to provide. 

Will the need for purpose fade with the pandemic?

Doubtful. Psychology, neuroscience, and biology are all domains with empirical data that demonstrate the foundational changes in human behavior the pandemic has caused. Work needs to catch up — and we honor our employees as people by changing with them. 

Leaders of all types of organizations, including public sector and higher education, also are engaged in reflection about their future and purpose. They are forming board-level strategies that incorporate the “voice of society” along with the voices of customers, shareholders, and employees. 

There is a growing recognition that enterprises exist within society and bear responsibility for the outcomes they produce, good and bad. And this type of sustainable business mindset — in which organizations shift from a mindset of “doing less harm” to “doing more good” — is increasingly a dimension of valuation for investors, so it cannot be ignored. 

Quantifiable financial measures, though, are just one dimension of valuation. Investors are also assessing nonfinancial factors such as environmental, sustainability, and governance to identify both opportunities for growth and significant risks. CEOs pursuing a growth strategy must accept that it will not happen without investment in employee growth and sustainability. 

How do you make the employment deal more human-centric?

Gartner's research shows that a human-centric approach, which provides people with more control over their work and work environment, also makes them more productive. But it requires employers to rethink their approach, from making hybrid work models human-centric, not location-centric, to providing employers with flexibility to balance personal needs and autonomy to achieve business outcomes.

As with all fundamentally transformative strategies, this will take strategic commitment, leadership, culture development, and thoughtfully applied technology.

In both leaders and employees, we must incorporate new norms and normalize new behaviors for enterprise culture that support the new reality. For example, leaders and managers will need to focus on eliciting sustainable performance without compromising long-term health. In surveying thousands of employees and managers, we found that sustainable performers were 17% more productive than other employees — and 1.7 times more likely to stay at their organization.

Performance management itself will also have to change, moving beyond just measuring employees’ outcomes to reflect more context and empathy. 

When it comes to technology, organizations have focused a lot on replacing in-person and analog operations with digital constructs — because they had to. But now we have an opportunity to leverage technology to improve every facet of the work experience. The best-designed technology (think artificial intelligence) helps people be more human, and organizations will need to get serious about the total experience: the combination of interactions, aptitudes, and value creation and delivery that are at the core of work.

The original article by Gartner is here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/SIphotography