What employees want is changing, so workplaces need to keep up

Living in an age of permacrisis has fundamentally altered what workers need from their employer, says Mavis Boniface

It’s difficult to get people excited about culture and employee empowerment when many are struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. Especially when, at the same time, the US surgeon general has warned of an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness and isolation

We can make assumptions about what we think employees need, but the reality is often very different. Maslow’s triangle might assume the ‘summit’ needs of self fulfilment and self actualisation will be the core priority for everyone. However, the macroeconomic landscape we currently find ourselves in makes for a more nuanced conversation. The reality is there is no single, standard answer. So, how can employers step up and provide their people with the space and conditions they need to thrive?

What people actually want

We recently carried out a study into office workers in the UK and US, Work Remastered, which looked at how employee needs have shifted. It found that a huge 93 per cent of workers believe leaders’ priorities have to change in an age of permacrisis, with 43 per cent looking for a greater emphasis on wellbeing.

Many also want clearer boundaries between their work and home communities: suggesting that employers need to be realistic about employees’ priorities, rather than issuing mandates on how, when and where they can work. ‘Work-life balance’ is the most valued thing people need from work – 58 per cent look for this. ‘Security’ came in third place overall, but it was the top consideration among younger workers at the start of their careers.

Managing wellbeing – both physical and mental – is becoming an increasing priority but personal fulfilment is taking a back seat. Reaching the peak of Maslow’s triangle simply isn’t as important as striking basecamp in the foothills of safety, job security and belonging.

Organisations therefore need to put their efforts into helping and supporting their people’s short-term needs, while also maintaining a longer-term commitment to professional development. 

The harsh reality is that employees will walk away if their most basic needs aren’t being met. On a pragmatic basis, this means enabling them to bring their best selves to work by freeing them from their other worries as far as possible. But it also means driving connection and community in the face of adversity. This isn’t to suggest that focusing on big strategic goals is unachievable or inadvisable – far from it – as all organisations still need future-facing, long-term objectives to operate with a growth mindset. It’s not an either/or situation but a ‘both’, and senior leaders have to be able and willing to drive that dual focus from the top.

Purpose isn’t going away

Interestingly, one of the other insights revealed in the research is that even permacrisis and cost of living concerns aren’t enough to draw employees’ attention away from the values and purpose of their employers. A focus on personal wellbeing doesn’t come at the expense of principles. Business purpose still holds the key to driving loyalty, as a whopping 92 per cent of workers said they’re more likely to join/stay with an organisation that holds clear values.

Even when money is tight and rents are rising, purpose has to drive the company. People want to actively see businesses living up to their purpose, not just paying lip service, and they want to see purpose in motion in their own working days – from driving decision making to how they show up. This attitude has been largely driven by the lockdowns that afforded people the time for self reflection, as many (re)discovered their own personal purpose. One outcome of course was the Great Resignation, as individuals sought to work with organisations better able to meet and match their own values. 

In some ways, it may even be that, as living standards have risen, purpose has become a fundamental psychological need that connects the dots between the top and bottom of Maslow’s triangle. In a workplace setting it certainly helps people forge connections and create a sense of community – both internally and with customers – as they work together in pursuit of something greater.

Where do we go from here?

Without a clear purpose, it will be even harder to create the sense of belonging that underpins employee wellbeing. It will become practically impossible to create fulfilment in the workplace over the longer term. The onus is therefore on many senior leaders, as well as HR and comms teams, to re-evaluate – and in many cases to recontract – the entire approach with their people. This starts with defining the key business and customer needs, and then reconfiguring the workplace to deliver on those needs.

Mavis Boniface is global operations director at United Culture