How Leaders Can Help Today’s Employees Create the Careers They Expect

By Erin Wilson Burns | August 30, 2023

Key Takeaways: 

  • What employees want and expect from leaders has shifted significantly in the last three years.
  • Leaders must play a proactive role in creating both structure and flexibility in the workplace.
  • Leaders must create more meaningful connections for workers.

COVID-19 accelerated workplace trends that have had a significant impact on the skills leaders need to help workers craft their careers. Facing massive disruptions, businesses introduced unprecedented innovations as they rushed to find ways to keep employees safe, customers interested, and their doors open. At the same time, workers everywhere re-examined how they defined success as well as their relationships with each other and their companies. Based on direct experience and indirect reports from companies wrestling with how to adapt, this article aims to examine how changes in what workers expect from organizations as they think about their careers demands changes from leaders who want to succeed.

What is changing in what people expect from organizations as they think about their careers.

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic weakened the ties between employees and organizations. While this trend had already begun before the pandemic and the social upheaval that followed, 2020 and 2021 saw a transformation of the social contract between employees and organizations. Seemingly overnight, there were rapid and significant shifts in where workers could do their work, what kind of work was needed from them, and what they were willing to give up for their careers.

While technology advances had been gradually blurring the lines between home and work, most workers did the majority of their work in-person prior to early 2020. With the onset of the pandemic, every job everywhere in the world that could be done remotely suddenly was. Apartments and homes became workplaces, schools, daycare centers, and even places of worship and performance venues at the same time. Technology was deployed to support this dispersed workforce and workers struggled to balance the sudden onslaught of competing demands and/or feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. Writing in early 2023, while the conditions that led to the massive shift to virtual work have all but disappeared, employers continue to struggle with how and whether to bring in-person work back. 

At the same time, jobs that had been routine and predictable suddenly became unpredictable. Almost nothing could be done the same way—even in critical infrastructure. Retailers struggled to keep shelves stocked, manufacturers tried to keep assembly lines running, restaurants adapted to pick up and delivery, healthcare shifted from a balance of preventative and routine care to overwhelming surges of demands for emergency and critical care. Everything had to be reimagined and then reimagined again as things continued to change.

Where workers had been more willing to sacrifice time, personal relationships, and often their interests or values in exchange for a promotion or a raise, as they looked death in the face or considered the education of their children, many found they were no longer willing to make these same tradeoffs. Many dropped out of the workforce completely while others shifted to careers that held more meaning or flexibility. Others stayed but stopped working as hard or are just biding their time until they move to another company.

These changes have all impacted what leaders need to be able to do to support employees in achieving their career goals. The significant shifts in the location of work, the skills needed for a successful career, and the erosion of the social contract between workers and employers all require new leadership skills to ensure individual satisfaction and organizational success.

What workers need leaders to do to support their careers.

From a steel manufacturer that struggles to find workers able and willing to work with the automated technologies to a global nonprofit whose best high potential employee would never have worked there without alternate work locations to a hard-driving medical devices manufacturer whose employees are demanding more empathy, workers around the world are demanding that leaders support their careers in different ways than the past.  Primarily, these changes revolve around two broad themes: (1) leaders must play a proactive role in creating both structure and flexibility in the workplace, and (2) leaders must create more and more meaningful connections for workers.

1. Workers expect leaders to provide both structure and flexibility

As the employment contract continues to erode (this morning’s CEO Daily newsletter by Alan Murray at Fortune boldly announces “The end of jobs”), workers no longer expect to spend their careers in one organization methodically working their way up a ladder. Many don’t even expect to spend more than a year in the same organization. As workers increasingly take full ownership for their careers, they want leaders who are flexible with how they exchange their skills for pay. The number and complexities of the working relationships workers are demanding are rapidly increasing and require leaders who can build networks that give them access to portfolios of skills and are effective at advocating internally for the ability to personalize the employee experience. It also requires clear distinctions and structure around benefits and responsibilities of each kind of working relationship and the ability to effectively articulate inside and outside their teams. 

In addition to structure and flexibility in the formal working relationship, increasing fluidity between work and life requires leaders to provide structure and flexibility in the performance of work. Organizations have been actively rethinking performance management systems for the last decade without significant changes to the process. More recently some organizations have experimented with technologically enabled oversight; these experiments have largely been seen as failures. Over and over organizations have found that it is the leader’s skill that makes or breaks performance management for both the organization and the worker. The virtual work environment has heightened the need for leaders to provide both structure and flexibility to the process of overseeing their team’s output. Leaders need to have the skills to clearly articulate/negotiate performance expectations on an ongoing basis, stay in regular communication with workers on their progress to create accountability and remove roadblocks, regularly discuss career goals and how their work will enable those goals, and provide ongoing feedback and consequences that are motivating and help workers balance competing personal and work demands.

Another way that workers are requiring leaders balance structure and flexibility differently is in the way work is bundled. Jobs are increasingly being disaggregated into tasks performed with specific skills. Workers who see themselves increasingly as “free agents” are actively trying to build a portfolio of skills and experiences that make them more marketable. Within the structure of the work that must be done, the best leaders provide flexibility that help workers build their skill portfolios. They do this by helping workers see how tasks they are being asked to do help them build their portfolios, by rotating tasks through their teams, and by creating space and time for workers to build the skills they want—sometimes even when it is extraneous to the team’s work.

Finally, as discussed in greater length in a paper published in early 2022, leaders who can create structure within the ambiguity and uncertainty of today’s business environment by envisioning the future, guiding choices, taming apprehension, regulating expectations, experimenting nimbly, and collaborating frequently create a winning organization that helps workers have meaningful and impactful career experiences. 

2. Create more and more meaningful connections for workers

In addition to the fluid balance of structure and flexibility, workers need leaders who can create connections to support them in creating meaningful and successful careers. 

Connect work with impact outside the organization. While leaders have always been expected to help workers connect the impact of individual work to both personal and organizational goals, the urgency of meaning-making and the need to extend that meaning beyond the goals of the organization to a greater good (gender/racial/socioeconomic equality, environmentalism, etc.) has intensified coming out of the pandemic. Broadly speaking, today’s workers care more about a career that creates impact than advancement or wealth. Retaining, engaging, and growing them requires leaders who understand and honor that, have the vision and creativity to connect work with the greater good, and consistently make the time to communicate and reinforce these connections.

Connect workers to each other and the organization. The work of connecting workers to each other and the organization is multi-faceted. The sudden shift to virtual and even hybrid work has created a need for leaders who can help workers feel connected to the organization and their team in ways that help them realize their needs for social interaction and belonging. Additionally, as we learn more about how location of work impacts career prospects, we are beginning to understand that where you work does have career implications.  Leaders must actively experiment with how to provide intentional social connection spaces to build new work relationships and strengthen existing ones (virtual water coolers, happy hours, repurposing office space for in-person classes, etc.) to create a work environment that helps fill basic human needs and increases worker career satisfaction. Leaders who actively pair virtual workers with mentors outside their organization, offer fully virtual development programs, and even track work location as a diversity statistic can help all workers have opportunities to grow their careers.

Create authentic connections with workers on their team. Finally, today’s leaders need to be comfortable and authentic in building much more personal relationships. Today’s workers expect to be able to talk openly about what they need to be able to balance their personal needs and/or maintain their mental health without career repercussions. They want to bring their whole self to the workplace and expect others (especially their leaders) to do the same. They expect their leaders and organizations to care about and proactively address the needs and experiences of workers with varied racial backgrounds, gender and sexuality preferences, and physical capacities. 

As leaders balance structure and flexibility and create more and more meaningful connections for workers, there are benefits for everyone. Workers are more likely to be able to build the careers they want, leaders can maintain access to the skills they need to get work done, and organizations are more likely to be able to deliver what customers and investors expect. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

When leadership capabilities reflect the expectations of customers, employees, and investors, those stakeholders gain confidence in your organization. The RBL Group uses an outside in approach–asking what your customers and investors want from your business and what your leaders can do to deliver it. Learn more about our approach to leadership transformation and alignment here

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 25 years of experience in leadership and strategic HR consulting.

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