The worker-employer relationship disrupted

“Shopify, like any other for-profit company, is not a family. The very idea is preposterous. You are born into a family. You never choose it, and they can’t un-family you. The dangers of ‘family thinking’ are that it becomes incredibly hard to let poor performers go. Shopify is a team, not a family.” — Tobias Lütke, CEO, Shopify
Shopify reminded workers that they’re a business, not a family.1 Basecamp banned societal and political discussions at work.2 Fujitsu took the first steps to end “solo work” practices.3 Goldman Sachs came under fire for workers’ 100 hour weeks.4 And Danone set its sights on becoming the world’s largest B-Corp. Whatever you thought the worker-employer relationship was before, there’s no doubt that it is under stress and evolving now.

What’s less clear is what form it will take moving forward. How will the worker-employer relationship shift as employers and workers push and pull each other in the pursuit of their various needs? Will organizations continue to embrace their role as social enterprises? Will workers’ trust in business remain steadfast, or will they look for leadership outside of organizational walls?

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This special report explores one set of possible answers to the central question: How might the worker-employer relationship evolve to meet the opportunities and challenges of the post–COVID-19 world?
In a world full of uncertainties, we’ve used scenario planning to explore the possible futures of the worker-employer relationship, seeking to challenge conventional wisdom, stretch our thinking and horizons, and chart a new course. The insights on the following pages leverage our scenario planning methodology and are fueled by research findings from a combination of social media polling, live survey polling, artificial intelligence (AI)–enabled focus groups, and interviews with business and HR executives across industries and workers all over the world.
COVID-19: Testing the limits of the worker-employer relationship
The pandemic strained and tested the worker-employer relationship. Employers were called upon to support workers’ health, livelihoods, and dignity to an unprecedented degree, and their success—or failure—to do so came under unprecedented scrutiny. The result was that developments that might have played out over a period of many years were compressed into a matter of months.

Sometimes, these pressures yielded great benefits. Workers showed remarkable resilience and adaptability as they rose to the pandemic’s challenges, and with their employers’ support and mandate, they achieved innovative results that could otherwise have taken years to materialize. But many questions also arose about whether organizations were doing enough to support and safeguard their workers. People quickly pointed to organizations’ shortcomings in protecting workforce segments that were disproportionately impacted by the health crisis and pursuant economic downturn—young workers, who were most likely to be unemployed or underemployed;5 minority groups, whose labor force participation steeply declined; and women, whose employment was found to be 19% more at risk than men.6 Organizations also faced backlash for their role in encouraging high-pressure working conditions. Eighty-nine percent of workers in a February 2021 global Harvard Business Review study said that their work life was getting worse, 85% said that their well-being declined, and 56% said that their job demands had increased.7

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that we find ourselves in a moment of reflection. Workers are reconsidering everything from who they want to work for—with 40% of the global workforce considering leaving their employer this year8—to the role they expect employers to play in supporting their purpose and values. Likewise, organizations are contemplating their role in society and their relationship with their workers—with some leaning in and others backing away.

And while the worker-employer relationship may be top of mind for both workers and executives, they may not be aligned on how it will evolve. Sixty-three percent of the workers we surveyed in our research for this special report felt that their relationship with their employer will stay the same or become a stronger partnership, while 86% of executives told us they believe workers will gain greater independence and influence relative to their employers in the future.

Talent supply and government impact: Key contexts for the worker-employer relationship
Understanding how the worker-employer relationship could evolve begins with identifying which factors will have the greatest influence on the relationship moving forward. We used focus groups to get executives’ perspectives on what those factors could be, discussing possibilities such as economic growth, the use of technology in business, unexpected disasters, climate change, and social divides in access to resources such as education, wealth, and health. But beyond the rest, the two factors that stood out as being the most influential on the future of the worker-employer relationship in our research were talent supply and government impact.

Talent supply: How talent availability will influence how workers seek employment and how organizations access and retain them. The most evident impact of talent supply is the different actions that organizations or workers might take depending on how easy or difficult it is to get a job or secure an appropriately skilled worker. For instance, talent supply could influence whether organizations are likely to invest in reskilling; to what extent workers will seek changes in their employers or careers; how organizations could use the alternative workforce to access the skills and capabilities they need; and how heavily an organization might lean on technology to replace, augment, or collaborate with their workforce.

Talent supply is already a key concern and growing in importance. The pandemic exacerbated growing digital, education, and skilling divides around the globe—putting further strain on talent supply considerations and trends. In 2020, 80% of job losses were among the lowest quarter of wage earners, many of whom work in hard-hit sectors such as leisure and hospitality, government, and education.9 And a new study estimates that 100 million global low-wage workers will need to find a different occupation by 2030.10 At the same time, the demand for skilled workers is growing, with seven in 10 employers globally saying they are struggling to find workers with the right mix of technical skills and human capabilities.11

Government impact: How government action will affect workers’ and employers’ roles in the new world of work. In our research for this special report, government regulation rose to the top as the most influential external factor behind an organization’s and its workforce’s ability to thrive. The type, consistency, speed, and effectiveness of government action could all influence the worker-employer relationship. For instance, government effectiveness in driving social change, such as policies around worker representation or protection, or actions to address concerns such as climate change or social injustice, could shift workers’ expectations of their employers to attend to such issues. Public policy and regulation protecting jobs and wages, enhancing social safety nets and benefits, improving access to education, or investing in reskilling could decrease workers’ reliance on their employers for these things. And public policies that restrict or create an additional burden on organizations seeking to create work in new geographies, access talent across borders, or leverage alternative workforce segments could influence workforce planning and talent strategies.

We use these two factors, talent supply and government impact, to explore four potential futures that illustrate how the world of work and the worker-employer relationship could evolve:

Work as fashion: In a “work as fashion” future, employers are in constant motion as they chase worker sentiments, competitor actions, and marketplace dynamics. The worker-employer relationship is REACTIVE: Employers feel compelled to respond in the moment to workers’ expressed preferences, and to competitor moves, without connecting those actions to a sustainable workforce strategy.
War between talent: In a “war between talent” future, workers compete for limited jobs due to an oversupply of talent. The worker-employer relationship is IMPERSONAL: Employers view workers as interchangeable and easily replaceable, and workers are more concerned with competing with each other for jobs than with the quality of their relationship with their employer.
Work is work: In a “work is work” future, workers and employers view organizational responsibility and personal and social fulfillment as largely separate domains. The worker-employer relationship is PROFESSIONAL: Each depends on the other to fulfill work-related needs, but both expect that workers will find meaning and purpose largely outside of work.
Purpose unleashed: In a “purpose unleashed” future, purpose is the dominant force driving the relationship between workers and employers. The worker-employer relationship is COMMUNAL: Both workers and employers see shared purpose as the foundation of their relationship, viewing it as the most important tie that binds them together.

These four futures are illustrative, not exhaustive. They can be either positive or negative, depending on the choices that workers and employers make. Organizations will likely find themselves in some combination of these futures depending on the needs and expectations of their workforce, their industry, their regions, and the communities in which they operate. The increased complexity of the world requires us to abandon “one-size-fits-all” views in lieu of a more nuanced approach and understanding.
Charting your course
The narrative that follows explores each possible future in detail and outlines the risks that succumbing to its pressures could raise. In each future we offer an instinctive response—the path we believe most organizations would take when faced with the dynamics and conditions of that world. But the instinctive response is just that—not a conscientious strategy.

The alternative to taking the instinctive route includes actions that can allow organizations to survive—the basic elements that must be in place for an employer to do well in each future. Organizations that embrace a survival mindset will be able to tread water—leveraging near-term strategies to navigate the future, with an expectation (or hope) that the world will revert to business as usual once external pressures cede. While survival strategies are important in the near term, they do not give an organization the tools they need to chart their own destiny for longer-term success.

Moving beyond a survive mindset to a thrive mindset requires a recognition that disruption is continuous rather than episodic, and a willingness to use disruption as a catalyst to drive the organization forward. The 15% of the 3,630 executives in our 2021 Global Human Capital Trends research who said their organization was very prepared for COVID-19 were already adopting a thrive mindset.12 This could be especially important as organizations consider the future of their relationship with workers, since those who adopted a thrive mindset were three times more likely than their peers to bring human strengths to the fore—leveraging worker adaptability and mobility to navigate disruption.

In these futures, you will read about how organizations can take a greater leap to ideas and practices that may seem unconventional or aspirational, but that can be essential to an organization’s ability to build purpose and meaning in work, unleash the potential of the workforce, and employ new perspectives.

As you read on, challenge yourself to avoid concluding that the coming years will accelerate the changes you already expected or believed were inevitable. Instead, imagine how the future might assume a different course—and how you might address the opportunities and challenges that future course might present. As Peter Drucker famously said: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.”

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Work as fashion
In a “work as fashion” future, employers are in constant motion as they chase worker sentiments, competitor actions, and marketplace dynamics. The worker-employer relationship is REACTIVE: Employers feel compelled to respond in the moment to workers’ expressed preferences, and to competitor moves, without connecting those actions to a sustainable workforce strategy.
The “work as fashion” future is transitory and constantly changing. It’s akin to how brands introduce new clothing collections seasonally and cyclically, moving them rapidly from runway to retail to capture consumers’ fleeting attention and desires. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle in which the latest trends substitute for a sustained strategy. Even an employer’s stance on societal issues is used primarily as a way to attract, retain, and motivate workers, adopting the purpose that’s currently hot in a bid to keep the workforce engaged.

Conditions that could lead to the “work as fashion” future
A “work as fashion” future could arise from the convergence of low talent supply and low government impact.

A low talent supply creates a seller’s market for workers, especially for skilled workers. Workers can base their choice of employer on what each is offering and how well those offerings meet their immediate desires. Employers, meanwhile, become acutely attuned to their workforce’s preferences, as well as what their competitors are doing, to compete for workers’ attention and approval. It’s a mirror image of the “war between talent” future, in which workers compete for employers’ attention and approval.
Low talent supply is already a reality in many industries and geographies today. A Korn Ferry analysis estimated a global talent deficit of 85.2 million workers by 2030, predicting a skills shortage that could result in US$8.452 trillion in unrealized annual revenue.13 Many companies large and small are struggling to find enough workers amid the economy’s rapid recovery from the pandemic-spawned recession.14 A recent study in Japan revealed that 79% of Japanese companies are concerned about the shortage of talent.15 In the United States, there were 8.1 million vacant job openings in March 2021—a record high. Further exacerbating the problem, the study showed that there were approximately half as many available workers per open job when compared to a historical 20-year average.16

Low government impact can also help create the conditions for this future. When government does not offer support that workers feel they need, such as access to health care, workplace protections, and reskilling opportunities, workers will expect employers to provide what they’re not getting elsewhere—and because they have the upper hand, they are in a position to demand it.

We see Work as Fashion as possibly 2021’s and 2022’s dominant future, especially in light of the hotly debated issue of the return to the workplace. A case in point: After initially planning to mandate an “office-first” environment as the pandemic subsides, Amazon now says that it will allow most office workers to work remotely two days a week. It’s likely that this move reflects the fact that flexibility has become “table stakes in tech, where competition for talent is always fierce.”17 These types of situations led a recent New York Times article to observe, “For the first time in a generation, workers are gaining the upper hand.”18

Signals that the future could be headed toward “work as fashion”
Increased employer reliance on worker surveys and other listening tools.
Increased employer activity in measuring themselves against competitor and industry benchmarks, and of adjusting practices to align to benchmarks.
Continuous changing and rollout of worker programs and policies.
Increased external marketing of worker incentives.
New levels of social activism from employers.
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Navigating the “work as fashion” future

The instinctive response
The instinctive response in a “work as fashion” future is to be highly responsive—constantly listening to workers and reacting at speed. But this approach can mislead employers into substituting responsiveness for a relationship. A productive long-term relationship between workers and employers must have a deeper basis than responding to the loudest and most recent voice. Transitory solutions can create several risks, including:

• What matters first may trump what matters most. Moving too quickly to address worker sentiment doesn’t allow employers time to explore deeper root causes behind workers’ expressed feelings and needs. For instance, if employers treat meaning and purpose mainly as an attraction and retention tool, they may overlook that what workers are actually looking for is consistency and a more sustained commitment. They may also miss the opportunity to use purpose to cultivate belonging among the workforce and thereby improve their performance.

Case in point: Ping-pong tables
Despite the popularity over the past decade of bringing ping pong tables into the workplace as a means to build a fun workplace culture, less than a quarter of millennials surveyed at the height of this trend said that an informal work environment is extremely important to them when looking for a job. Instead, the group favored other factors such as the opportunity to learn and grow, the quality of their manager or management, and their interest in the type of work.19

Diverse voices are drowned out. Employers who prioritize speed of response may not take the time to examine whether the way they collect and interpret their data promotes an equitable environment. Many people hold unconscious biases that reinforce prevailing but discriminatory social values, and this may affect the way they develop and execute organizational workforce strategies. In many organizations, diverse individuals are underrepresented to begin with. Listening efforts may not be designed to adequately capture their views. And even if employers manage to avoid this difficulty, diverse populations’ views may be ignored as outliers if they systematically diverge from those of the majority.
Listening becomes surveillance. Using technology to understand the workforce may cross the line into worker surveillance, raising potential risks around data privacy. The pandemic may have increased this risk by accelerating employers’ adoption of listening and monitoring tools. More than one out of four companies purchased new technology during the pandemic to passively track and monitor their workers,20 and 95% of IT leaders increased the frequency of worker listening since COVID-19 began.21
Differentiation gets lost in competition. Trying to match or one-up competitors’ actions can devolve into a copycat strategy that results in a race to the middle or, even worse, the bottom. And when every employer is matching what competitors are doing to “make the sale” to workers, their offerings lack differentiation. Worker loyalty may last only until someone else offers them incrementally more compensation, training, or other incentives that have come to be commodities.
The survive strategy
Employers in a “work as fashion” future will need to go beyond simple responsiveness to gain a competitive edge. Survival in this future entails being thoughtful, action-oriented, and selective. Ways to accomplish this include:

Dig deeper. Ask nuanced questions that get at more basic issues of concern to the workforce than their desires in the moment. In our 2020 Global Human Capital Trends research, we discussed the importance of asking better questions that guide organizations to better results. Examples of those questions include why workers leave, not just who might leave; whether diverse populations wield organizational influence, not just whether the population is diverse; and how workers across the entire workforce ecosystem are treated, not just how full-time employees are treated.22
Walk the talk. In a “work as fashion” future, workers want to see that their employer is actually doing what it has promised them, not just talking about it. A June 2021 survey of US workers found that 55% felt that leadership only addressed racial justice by writing or speaking about it, not by taking action.23 Leaders should be prepared to highlight the organization’s actions in areas that have been identified for changes, clearly communicating what the priorities are and how the organization is addressing them now. This could be a significant challenge for organizations, with 80% of respondents in our executive focus groups saying that leadership readiness will be the biggest internal barrier to their ability to achieve their future strategies.
Focus empowerment where it matters most. Most workers want to be empowered where it matters most, which is in the work they do and how to advance their careers. By providing internal mobility via opportunity marketplaces, employers may be able to satisfy workers’ desire for empowerment by putting them in control of their careers. As the 2020 Deloitte-MIT Future of the workforce study noted, “One of the most significant research takeaways for top management is that opportunity marketplaces both demand and elicit agency—the perceived ability to influence one’s future—and fundamentally flip a perennial top talent and workforce management question.”24
Case in point: Giving workers agency through an opportunity marketplace
Schneider Electric decided to implement an internal opportunity marketplace when it found that almost half the employees who left the organization did so because they felt it was difficult for them to find future growth opportunities within the company. The marketplace is used not to dictate career paths but to enable employees to take the initiative and own their careers. According to Andrew Saidy, Schneider’s vice president of Talent Digitization, Employer Branding and University Relations: “We’ve always told our employees that they own their careers, that they are in the driver’s seat.”25 Besides surfacing reskilling and upskilling opportunities, the company’s AI-based platform can guide workers to projects that align with their own purpose and goals.26

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The thrive differentiator
Being thoughtful and selective in responding to worker needs is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to thrive in this future. For that, employers need to build a sustainable and differentiated worker-employer relationship built around a core set of ideals that are important to both the worker and the employer. A sustainable relationship is one that lasts through shifts in worker sentiment and marketplace conditions, evolving with the times but always tying back to fundamentally constant values. And a differentiated relationship is one that is uniquely tailored to appeal to the workers the organization most needs to engage, regardless of what competitors are doing.

Waste Management is an example of an organization that is successfully considering its workers’ broader needs. Most recently, the company has demonstrated this by focusing on a perennially important issue: the ability to pay for a college education. After hearing from their employees how much of a burden this was, Waste Management launched “Your Tomorrow,” an education and upskilling program in partnership with Guild Education, in April 2021. Not only does the program offer the company’s nearly 36,000 US employees access to more than 170 fully funded programs—including undergraduate and graduate degrees, short-term technology and business certificates, and high school completion27—but the company is planning to expand it to cover its employees’ nearly 34,000 benefits-eligible dependents, including children and spouses, as well. As Tamla Oates-Forney, chief people officer for Waste Management, said, “It didn’t take long for us as a company to realize that [extending “Your Tomorrow” to families as well as employees] would be a key differentiator for us”: a commitment to workers that is an enduring part of the organization’s style.28

A sustainable, differentiated relationship is only partly about benefits, policies, and programs. Rather, it extends the consideration of worker needs to the broader workforce experience. Everything from well-being, personal and professional growth, and meaningful work is on the table. The relationship also can’t be one-sided. For an employer to be able to address the entire workforce experience, it needs to have an ongoing conversation with workers about what is important to them and why it matters. The point is to engage workers in a dialogue that gives the employer insight into what truly drives them, and that gives workers a meaningful voice about these deeper values.

In a “work as fashion” future, the pressures to respond and keep up with the pack can lead to an organization chasing its own tail as it instinctively responds to workers’ immediate requests and desires. Going past that entails being deliberate about where to invest in the employer brand, and creating a sustainable, differentiated relationship that grounds the worker-employer relationship in consistent and mutually valued ideals. Doing this makes an employer a trend setter in a world of fashion followers. As actress Lauren Hutton observed: “Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. Style is what you choose.”


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