What do employees actually want in a post-COVID-19 world? Here’s how you can align your employee value proposition to employees’ shifting expectations and needs.
“Pandemics have this uncanny way of reshaping society in fundamental ways,” says Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner.
Speaking at AHRI’s Convention TRANSFORM 2021 last month, he spoke about the Black Plague of the 1500s and how it “essentially ended Feudalism”. A sudden lack of farmers meant there weren’t enough resources to farm the aristocracy’s land, so the concept of paying people for their labour was introduced.
“Then we look to the Spanish Flu pandemic of the 1918s,” he says. “Many historians would argue that this was where the first seeds of distrust in the government [were planted].” This was due to widespread censorship, skepticism and blame between the heads of the rival nations.
While we won’t know the full extent of the current pandemic for decades, one immediate change that’s clear is the shifting expectations of employees.
“We know there has been some rethinking of what’s important to employees. This is the thing that we find CEOs and many business leaders may be unprepared for,” says McEwan.
Many people have spent the last 18 months establishing new priorities and expectations around flexibility, autonomy and the workload they’re willing to take on, so employers need to be responsive to this.
“We need to think about our employees in a very different way if we’re to support the growth plans that our CEOs have for our organisations.”
For many, this will mean it’s time to overhaul their employee value proposition (EVP).
Only 31 per cent of HR professionals believe their employees are satisfied with their current EVP, Gartner found, and 65 per cent of job candidates reported pulling out of a hiring process due to an attractive EVP.
So what should employers be doing differently? McEwan has some ideas.
Employee Value Proposition versus the ‘human deal’
We need to stop thinking of EVPs as the bells and whistles of an employment deal. It’s not the cherry on top. It’s not a deal sweetener. It’s not an added bonus. An EVP is the promise you’re making to employees about how they will feel at work.
“This is about human beings – complex, messy, interesting, human beings.”
In a recent Gartner survey, eighty five per cent of respondents said it was important that their employer saw them as a person, not just as an employee, but only 45 per cent felt their employers saw them this way.
This tells us that we need to stop centering EVPs around things – i.e. we’ll give you an end-of-year bonus or we’ll pay for 40 per cent of your gym membership. Instead, we need to focus on how they make employees feel, says McEwan.
That’s why Gartner is encouraging businesses to think of EVPs as “the human deal”. This demonstrates that you understand employees’ unique needs, which have only become clearer amid the pandemic.
McEwan breaks it down into five categories:
- Radical flexibility: providing flexibility for all aspects of work, not just where and when employees work.
- Facilitating personal growth: This should extend beyond professional opportunities (e.g. helping employees pursue hobbies or interests).
- Holistic wellbeing: This should cover both physical and mental wellbeing and employers need to actively encourage uptake in wellbeing programs.
- Better connections: Help employees foster deep connections in and outside of work.
- Shared purpose: Take a stand on issues that matter to your people.
Let’s dive into these categories in more detail.
1. Embrace radical flexibility
Gartner’s research shows that flexibility is important to white-collar and blue-collar workers alike, yet there is a clear preference for offering flexible options to the former group (see graph below). Blue-collar employers need to be mindful of this.
It’s also clear that simply offering employees the chance to determine where and when they work isn’t enough. This concept of radical flexibility – where the entire notion of work is flexible – means employees take more control of who they work with, what they’re working on and how much they take on.
We know that when employees are given more autonomy, as does their mood.
“Flexibility leads to high performance. The data on this is pretty unequivocal from multiple studies.”
Gartner’s research shows an 18 per cent difference in the performance levels between those who have access to standard flexibility (i.e. you can work from home two days per week), sitting at 45 per cent, and those whose organisations practiced radical flexibility (63 per cent).
2. Include personal and professional growth opportunities
Offering employees professional growth options to upskill in their current roles, or in a bid to be more attractive to a prospective employer, was important to 86 and 68 per cent of respondents respectively.
Why would you want to make candidates more attractive to prospective employers, you ask? Interestingly, separate Gartner research shows that it actually works in an employer’s favour.
“If you make your employees more valuable to the external market they reward you by staying with your organisation,” he says.
“Prior to the pandemic, I think I spent more time in the Qantas lounge than I did with my children. I can’t imagine ever going back to that.” – Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory, Gartner.
Employees also showed significant interest in personal growth opportunities – things like resilience, time management or self-reflection training.
They wanted the opportunity to learn life skills (60 per cent), the ability to pursue personal interests at work (59 per cent) and the opportunity to pursue non-traditional career paths (53 per cent).
This not only acts as a great point of difference when attracting candidates, it also does wonders for retention. Companies that offer personal growth opportunities saw a 6.4 per cent higher rate of intent to stay with the company and a 6.2 per cent increase in performance.
3. Actively encourage the uptake of wellbeing programs
A worrying finding to come out of Gartner’s research was that 57 per cent of respondents said they did not have access to mental wellbeing support during the pandemic, despite an equal amount feeling worried about the impacts of COVID-19.
During his presentation at AHRI’s Convention, McEwan shared a graph showing that of the 87 per cent of people who said their organisation provided mental health support, only 23 per cent actually used the service. There was a similar disparity in physical health benefits (80 per cent versus 32 per cent) and financial wellbeing offerings (67 per cent and 25 per cent).
Employers have a responsibility to reinforce the benefits offered and to create a culture in which it’s normalised to take advantage of such offerings. As McEwan has previously told HRM, “Work is killing us right now”. So dusting off your hands after you’ve told employees about the EAP isn’t doing enough to care for their wellbeing.
Effective businesses are holding employees accountable for their wellbeing progress, says McEwan. He shares an example from UAE bank Mashreq which utilises self-assessment reports and action plan templates to empower employees to look after their wellbeing.
“They help their employees work out where they need the most help. Is it financial? Is it about having fun? Is it about their community? Is it their family, their physical health or their professional health?
“Then employees put together an action plan, which is supported by their manager. So I might ask, ‘What do I want to achieve? Well, I want to go cycling four times a week’. In a world where we’re working from home, it’s easy to take another call or to extend our day and not do the activity that’s going to help us maintain our health. So the great thing that Mashreq does is follow up with their employees; they hold them to account.”
4. Provide better connections
As HRM has previously unpacked, long periods of remote work are having big impacts on our professional connections.
While our immediate team connections are strengthened, our distant networks (where a lot of opportunities for business and individual growth lie) have dwindled.
The pandemic has cemented the importance of personal connections, too. Sixty eight per cent of respondents want their employers to care about their family – this might look like support with childcare arrangements or offering mental health support to spouses and partners – and 62 per cent want their organisations to show care for the community. See more on that in the final point.
There was a big disparity between HR’s perception of employees’ connections with their co-workers, managers, family and the broader community, and the reality. (See graph below).
“The bottom line is that whilst we think we’re helping our employees connect with the parts of their lives that are important, the reality is that employees don’t feel that’s the case.”
Employees are too often making trade-offs to nurture the connections in their personal and professional lives, says McEwan.
“Prior to the pandemic, I think I spent more time in the Qantas lounge than I did with my children. I can’t imagine ever going back to that.”
Employers need to help provide a tailored response without being intrusive, he adds.
He points again to Mashreq, as it’s doing great work in bringing employees’ families into the fold without impinging on their private lives. The CEO sends letters to the families of high performers thanking them for the sacrifice they made in order to help the business achieve its goals.
You might wonder why having deep connections in your personal and professional life matters. Other than providing people with opportunities to share knowledge and expertise, and catering to our basic social needs, Gartner’s research shows that those with deeper connections were more likely to feel that their employer understood them.
This likely leads to stronger employee loyalty and an increase in discretionary efforts.
5. Create a shared sense of purpose
Previous Gartner research demonstrated that the majority of employees feel their companies need to take a stand on relevant social issues, with this driving positive behaviours from over half of employees.
Most importantly, employers need to be prepared to walk their talk. Organisations that only made a statement about an issue but failed to follow up with any action saw a two per cent decrease in engagement.
“They might have been better off doing nothing,” says McEwan.
However, when employers pair intent with action, they gain a 20 per cent increase in engagement.
McEwan suggests that employers take time to understand the social causes that matter to their people, rather than developing a social impact strategy in their Ivory Tower. This way it’s clear to employees that what matters to them, matters to their employer too.
Final food for thought
The average company spends around $3,400 per employee on improving the employment experience, says McEwan, and this number is only likely to rise.
While this might seem like a large amount, not investing in a strong employee value proposition is like driving a car around and never getting it serviced.
Sure, it will work out for a short period of time, but eventually it will break down and you’ll be forced to pay through the nose to get it back up and running – the cost of replacing talent, or operating without the right people in the right roles is much, much higher.
Focussing on the human deal will help to ensure that money is being put to good use and that you’re not forking out thousands for initiatives that employees don’t want or need.
And if you still need convincing, keep this final point from McEwan in mind: “If you can positively influence all five areas of ‘the human deal’, you can increase the number of high performers in your organisation by a third.”
The research quoted in this article was shared for delegates as part of AHRI Convention Transform 2021. It was based on a survey of nearly 5000 employees and 77 heads of HR, and in-depth interviews with 85 HR leaders. To access the full data, you need to have a Gartner client account. AHRI members can gain access to some of Gartner’s key research as part of their membership.