• As worker retention continues to challenge business, it’s time to lead in the new ways valued by top talent.
  • Research on why employees leave shows the reasons are within your control as a leader: culture, work environment, growth opportunities and leadership disconnect.
  • When an organization has a clear, well-defined purpose and pathway forward, it is more likely to attract and retain top talent.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

It’s one of the notorious job-interview questions of our time, isn’t it? And a valuable one, as human resources professionals seek to evaluate candidates’ thoughtfulness and ambition.

I say it’s time to flip the script. With talent scarcity a top business concern, maybe employees should be asking their companies, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” They might follow with a few others: “Will you have a truly flexible remote or hybrid work policy?” “Will your company take a stand on important issues?” “Will you encourage and support a healthy work/life balance?” “What steps is your company taking to become more sustainable and reduce its impact on the environment?” “Will you be a company I’m proud to work for?”

In a post-pandemic world in which talent demand outstrips supply, leaders who cannot give the right answers will have trouble competing. The solution, I believe, is to refocus on leading with purpose and practicing corporate empathy.

Power and priorities

Some believe the Great Resignation can be traced directly to a worldwide COVID-related reexamination. A feeling emerged that life is short, and while workers naturally want reasonable compensation, many no longer view their employment as their defining trait or top priority. Others maintain that the Great Resignation (or Great Reevaluation, as I prefer to call it) is the continuation of a trend that originated more than a decade ago. Whatever the case, the reality on the ground is that employee retention is a major, and expensive, problem for business.

Adecco Group’s recent “Resetting Normal” study includes several red flags for leaders. Nearly 40% of the 14,000 respondents said they’d either changed careers in the past year or were considering such a move, and 26% had either left the workforce altogether or were considering it. One analysis found that the cost of employee retention essentially doubled during the depths of COVID-19. The market has shifted; workers have more to say in how the future of work narrative will play out.

Image: The Adecco Group

Moreover, this is not a problem that businesses can solve merely by cutting checks. In our report, we explored workers’ priorities and expectations of their employers — and salary was just as important as being able to maintain a good work-life balance and feeling trusted to get the job done. Rather, workers want leaders who exercise empathy and align the company with a greater purpose.

I meet executives who, faced with these shifts in worker priorities and power, throw up their hands with a sense of powerlessness. But I urge them to reframe the matter this way: There is plenty of research on why employees leave, and the reasons are within your control as a leader: culture, work environment, growth opportunities and leadership disconnect. To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, have the courage to change the things you can. I’m confident leaders can change their practices and processes in such a way as to attract and retain top talent.

Leading with purpose

When an organization has a clear, well-defined purpose and pathway forward, it is more likely to attract and retain top talent. That’s because people want to work with companies that have a vision for the future, and they want to understand their own place within that purpose.

Gathering input from all stakeholders, leaders must declare, refine and continually communicate the company’s mission and purpose. That includes traditional business initiatives such as product and go-to-market strategies, but purpose encompasses more. Leaders should define how customers, workers and trading partners will be treated, and where the organization sees itself regarding such big-picture issues as sustainability and equity. A recent Gallup survey found that the Millennials and Gen Z workers highly prized by businesses prioritize ethical leadership in their workplace.

Corporate empathy

Empathy, of course, is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to understand how they feel and the challenges they face. At the corporate level, leaders who practice empathy develop a better sense of what employees need if they are to remain loyal to the company. Imagining what it’s like for a single mother to get her kids on the school bus while preparing for an 8:30 AM meeting is one example. Another is truly hearing tech workers’ frustration when they’re asked to create leading-edge results with years-old software tools.

Starting in the C-suite, leaders should cultivate a corporate culture that values empathy. Often, this requires un-learning old habits. Honesty about one’s limitations and frustrations should not be viewed as weakness. While ambition is an admirable trait, so is the desire to spend time with family — even when it impacts deadlines.

COVID, workers, well, health

What is the Forum doing about keeping workers well?

Keeping workers well. It is the united aim of a global community influencing how companies will keep employees safe. What is the role of COVID-19 testing? What is the value of contact tracing? How do organizations ensure health at work for all employees?

Members from a diverse range of industries – from healthcare to food, utilities, software and more – and from over 25 countries and 250 companies representing more than 1 million employees are involved in the COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative. Launched in July 2020, the project is a partnership between the World Economic Forum and Arizona State University with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

The COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative leverages the Forum’s platforms, networks and global convening ability to collect, refine and share strategies and approaches for returning to the workplace safely as part of broader COVID-19 recovery strategies.

Companies can apply to share their learnings and participate in the initiative as a partner, by joining the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare.

Learn more about the impact.

Empathy is its own reward, but leaders who develop corporate empathy will also unlock a business payoff. Connecting with the workforce and supporting employees will ultimately lead to better results when it comes to employee engagement and talent retention.

Taking steps

Leading with purpose doesn’t happen by accident. It requires intentionality, perseverance and continuous communication. Here are steps businesses can and should take:

  • Listen to employees: empathy starts by understanding and recognizing others’ realities.
  • Create new office models to support and retain talent.
  • Institute leading-edge flexible work arrangements. Our report found that work-life balance is a top priority, alongside salary, for workers in the new normal. Among other things, these arrangements should be tailored to address maternity, paternity, adult and child-care needs, and other personal circumstances.
  • Enable career paths for people. Show them there is opportunity for growth, development and internal mobility within your organization.
  • Keep up with the impact of inflation on your business so you can stay competitive for talent.
  • Embrace the entire talent pool. For example, support women who are considering rejoining the workforce. And make sure workers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds feel welcomed and supported in your company.
  • Focus on reskilling and upskilling workers. Assess their current skills and develop them. Not only will it future-proof your business but it will give workers another reason to stay.
  • Don’t be afraid to publicly tackle social issues, such as sustainability and equity, and do so transparently.

Leaders who continue — or even begin — this journey will demonstrate to both job-seekers and workers that they have a vision, a plan, and a set of core principles. Thus prepared, they will indeed be able to declare where they see themselves in five years.