The debate about the future of work has largely focused on jobs – what they will look like, the decline of well-paid jobs for lower skilled workers, and how jobs will be impacted by AI and automation.
However, there is a bigger conversation that is worth having: it’s about the changing relationship between employer and employee – a relationship that is drastically different from 30 years ago and one that must evolve to better match the shifting demands of today’s workforce.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the relationship between employers and employees guaranteed workers job security and financial stability with generous benefits. It was a ticket to the middle class. In exchange, workers pledged their loyalty to one company, often spending their entire careers there. Employees were given the opportunity to move up, earning greater pay and securing their families’ futures and their own retirements.
But this relationship has become outdated for the type of economy and workforce we have today: Technology has created a new class of worker – one that increasingly works “on demand” and often on his or her own terms. It’s also now much easier for people to change jobs with online recruiting tools, and likewise easier for employers to use these same tools to recruit replacements and find new talent. While this workplace flexibility may have brought great benefits for both parties, it has also disrupted work-life balance for many.
Taken all together, Americans’ attitudes toward work and the organizations they work for have changed. A 2017 Gallup survey of US workers found that employees were mainly indifferent about their jobs with only a third of people who were surveyed saying they felt engaged at work. Employers and employees don’t need each other in the same way we used to, which has inspired a fluid, opt-in attitude toward work for many, and less employer investment in the employee experience and benefits.
While the relationship between employers and employees has changed, the things we fundamentally need from each other have largely stayed the same. Each side wants stability and security: employers still want the stability and security of a consistent, productive workforce with the right set of skills; and employees want the stability and security of steady, liveable wages and a great place to work, where they feel comfortable to be their authentic selves and aspire to do and be more.
Although our needs haven’t changed, the ways we meet them have. Fortunately, we have an opportunity to return to a more mutually beneficial, less chaotic place for employers and employees by forging a new understanding between them. As business leaders, perhaps we should take the first step in rebuilding this vital partnership, allowing us to once again inspire loyalty and trust in each other.
The new relationship will require a new set of tenets that meet the needs of today’s workforce. Here are a few thoughts on things we can bring to the table:
1. Purpose-driven, meaningful work that links employees’ jobs to larger societal issues and reminds them that their day-to-day activity is contributing to important progress in the world.
2. Multi-dimensional growth opportunities that are not just linear and allow people to explore different skill sets and passion points within the same company (in effect, employees should have opportunities to “have different careers” within the same organization).
3. Benefits that accurately meet demands of people today such as higher costs of child and eldercare, chronic health issues, challenges to mental and emotional well-being, the crushing expense of student loans, etc. These benefits should also be modular to allow employees to choose what is most important to them.
4. Inspired leadership that is a living example of empathy for workers. Corporate leaders should foster a culture of mentorship and sponsorship, and an environment where every employee feels “looked out for” regardless of background. This also includes a diverse C-suite that lives the values of the business and are visible, accessible leaders, and not just figureheads.
5. An environment that embraces diversity and inclusion, and that is a safe place for people to be their authentic selves at work. Work-life integration is so common now that we can’t compartmentalize in the way we used to when work was a purely nine-to-five gig. We each need to be able to talk about our lives and experiences and be met with empathy.
If we are serious about creating fulfilling jobs and meaningful work for a 21st-century economy, we have to start by redefining and modernizing the employer-employee relationship so that all parties opt in. CEOs have a responsibility to co-create a new relationship with workers – one that will not only create better value for business, but that will treat employees with dignity and help tackle the demands of today’s work-life balance.
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Together a new employer-employee relationship can expand what the old one did for decades, create shared prosperity and hopefully build better and more meaningful work and lives for millions.