What Anxious Workers Want and Why it Matters

If you’ve ever felt a bit overwhelmed at work (or perhaps that’s even an understatement), if you’ve ever felt burned out on work or stressed out on the job, well, the good news is, you’re not alone. Workers are feeling more anxious than ever before, and perhaps, understandably so. Desperate times, as they say, call for desperation.

And if there’s one thing that’s certain about the business environment today for companies and employers across industries and markets, it’s the ubiquity of uncertainty. We live in a time where business models are evolving so rapidly, that it’s almost impossible to plan for tomorrow, much less 5 or 10 years down the line.

As the change of pace accelerates, driven largely by digital transformation and the increasingly integral role of knowledge workers in the new world order, the skills and experience that have been so in demand for so many years now, the industries that have long proved so lucrative, seem headed for what can only be viewed as unplanned obsolescence.
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Consider the taxi service. Just a few years ago, a taxi medallion in New York City had a market value of well over a million dollars; in San Francisco, that number was a cool $800,000, by 2012 estimates. This was because the amount of licensed taxis in any market was fixed and finite, and breaking in required buying one of these precious permits outright.

The upfront cash required was considerable, but the risk was minimal, compared to the reward of not only a lucrative income from driving a cab, but also, the medallion itself, which, historically, was one of those assets that continued to appreciate in value, no matter what the market. Kind of like real estate in 2007.

Then, rideshare apps came along, and completely upended the established model. No longer was supply fixed, and those medallions, an heirloom in so many families for so long, plummeted in value as quickly as the taxi receipts themselves.

Similarly, while coding remains one of the hottest skillsets out there, we too often look at programming as a monolith, forgetting that while finding programming talent for in demand languages like Angular, Python and Docker remains cutthroat and competitive, the same used to be true about tech talent with Adobe Flash, .NET or Dart – all of which, let’s face it, are fading into obsolescence faster than your average general job board.

In an uncertain future, business as usual is anything but; in the new world of work, even the most established business models and entrenched professional skill sets and career paths, come with no guarantees for success – for employers or employees. And, needless to say, uncertainty and anxiety are inevitably inextricable.

A new poll from the Allegis Group, however, found that the general sense of uncertainty felt by so many employers is not, in fact, reflected in the general attitudes of the general workforce.

In Allegis’ survey of workers from disparate functions, industries and experience levels, almost half of workers believe that the demand for skills in their field is growing, while almost 1 in 3 believe their chances of career advancement or increased earning potential will continue to grow in 2020.

The disparity in worker attitudes and employer sentiment can probably be traced to the increasing ambition and potential for upward career movement driven by what remains a paucity of skilled labor and a market more or less dominated by candidates. It’s been this way for a while, now, and it’s easy to forget that skills and talent deficits can just as quickly swing to a surplus, driving down wages and hiring demand almost overnight.

Not that most workers sense this is going to happen any time soon; 47% report to being ambitious about their future, and are proactively looking for either an increase in compensation or career advancement opportunities with their current or new employer in the year ahead.

34%, by contrast, are looking at 2020 with a growing sense of concern, and report that they’re keeping an eye out for new opportunities to mitigate the layoffs, downsizing and restructuring at their current employer almost 1 out of every 3 employees’ sense is not only imminent, but inevitable.

Whether they’re one of the 47% of employees whose faith in the job market is increasing their demands for mobility and economic opportunities, or one of the 34% looking to stay a step ahead of the axe, that represents over 8 in 10 employees who are looking for a new job, or planning to look for a new job, in 2020.

What Talent Wants

No matter their motivation, the message is clear: top talent is going to be turning to the job market in droves in the coming year, and whether driven by ambition or anxiety, employers need to be ready today for this critical challenge of tomorrow.

But how, exactly, can businesses hope to stem what seems to be an inevitable, imminent exodus of top talent? And how can they keep those experienced, skilled workers off the job market and away from the competition?

Well, this starts with companies having to do some serious introspection and understanding how to directly, and comprehensively, address what can only be called a crisis of engagement. Based on the Allegis survey results, moving the engagement needle is only possible when employers demonstrate their commitment to employees’ long term professional and personal development.

Employers want long term commitment from employees, but if the value exchange isn’t clear, and this professional partnership tangibly and meaningfully, mutually beneficial for employers and employees, then that’s often an impossible ask.

Building a long term partnership with your people requires understanding, transparency and empowering your workers to not only have the autonomy to do what’s best for the company, but also, for their careers and professional aspirations, too. It’s not about giveaways, perks or even comp; rather, it’s about demonstrating that employees know that no matter what happens in the future, their future careers can find full fruition at your company – and not the competition.

Here are some areas of focus that Allegis’ new survey suggests improve worker experience, boost engagement and improve retention, productivity and bottom line results. Click here to read the full report.

Get Real: Understanding What Real Workers Really Want

Top talent doesn’t turn away from challenges, real or perceived; as a rule, they’re actually embracing the uncertain business conditions endemic in business today as opportunities rather than threats.

31% of those surveyed believe that market conditions will require them to take on more responsibility and accountability in their current roles, and that they should be prepared to proactively pick up any slack, even without layoffs or RIFs – putting them in a better position, of course, should that eventuality eventually happen.

Another 43% of respondents report feeling the need to learn new skills and adapt to new technologies in order to compete in a tighter, constantly changing market. For employers, the lesson is to be honest and upfront: workers clearly have the desire to learn, grow and contribute – and it’s up to you to empower them with the right tools, technology and training to make it happen.

If you can’t provide employees with growth and learning opportunities at your company, chances are, they’ll find a company who can. And it’s a lot cheaper to retrain and retain talent than it is to find it on the open market, even if that market suddenly shifts.

The Ladders: Helping Workers Develop Their Careers

With half of all professionals reporting they recognize the need to acquire new skills, enhance existing ones and gain new exposure and experience in order to advance their careers, companies can intentionally reinforce the message that their employees aren’t in just another job, but rather, in a career destination with growth opportunities and professional development initiatives worth sticking around for.

According to survey respondents, the #1 change that employers can make for retaining and engaging existing employees is a relatively simple one: providing easier and more accessible internal job opportunities, even if those moves might be lateral. Employees don’t mind giving up the ladder for a lattice if it means gaining broader experience and increasing and expanding their skill sets.

Similarly, respondents felt largely that companies could do a better job of demonstrating that their commitment to workers is reciprocated when asking for workers to commit to them, too.

Organizations that are perceived as hiring more internal employees, increasing internal mobility and providing more services around training and development have a much more positive worker perception than those who don’t provide visibility and transparency into the companies’ future – or their future with the company.

In both cases, whether providing opportunities directly or demonstrating growth, companies can alleviate a lot of uncertainties about the future, send a positive message to employees and position themselves as a career destination, rather than simply a stepping stone to something else.

Transparency: Set a Clear Path for Advancement

Communication and transparency are two sides of the same coin. Even though there are more tools than ever before to engage and communicate with employees – and facilitate conversation and interaction between workers, managers and leaders – the risks of increasing isolation remain rife.

Workers who don’t know what’s going on in the organization, who remain detached or out of contact with their peers and have limited non-job related interactions with their immediate teammates, managers and colleagues risk falling behind, either in career opportunities or simply internal visibility.

It’s important that workers know what impact their work is having on the bigger business and bottom line – if they don’t feel that their output is recognized, or if they don’t feel that the work they’re doing today will meaningfully impact their professional possibilities tomorrow, they’re going to likely look for work elsewhere sooner, rather than later.

According to the Allegis survey, there are some key actions companies can take to alleviate these issues. It all starts with transparency; it’s incumbent on companies to create full visibility to employees around where they sit in the organization, what career paths look like, how they can get there and what resources exist to facilitate this growth. Be direct about future compensation, raises or any sort of bonus or merit based increases that they can expect, and help address any concerns around compensation directly – before the competition can make them an offer they can’t refuse, that is.

Finally, people leave companies, not people – so make sure your employees, managers and colleagues across your organization can easily communicate, collaborate and build a sense of coworker comradery. This feeling of belonging is an essential driver to engagement and retention, and the easier cross functional interaction and interpersonal conversations can be, the more employees will feel like they’re part of a team – and that the work they’re doing is meaningful, and that individual employees like them matter when it comes to collective business outcomes.

Why It Matters

Organizations have spent untold billions of dollars and several decades furtively, and futilely, trying to increase employee engagement and enhance the employee experience. The limited impact these efforts have made, however, suggest that they’re missing a big part of the process – and that’s understanding why engagement matters in the first place, and knowing clearly what business objectives these efforts actually align with.

The business case for employee experience isn’t about on the job satisfaction, nor even worker happiness; it’s not about making them feel overly optimistic about their future or even their current performance. Those are good reasons to improve, certainly, but they don’t really provide any sort of reliable way for companies to prioritize their investments in new technologies, their enhancements in policies and processes or simply, their future evolution and sustained viability.

When it comes to recruiting, retaining and engaging workers, the most urgent business case companies can make is the direct correlation between bottom line results and engaged employees.

Another recent Allegis Group survey demonstrates that highly correlated, statistically significant impact. According to the HR leaders and talent decision makers surveyed, fully 94% report that navigating talent trends has become more complex and more challenging in the last five years.

Of those who cite increased difficulty in anticipating and navigating the changing world of work, the most common manifestations of this trend are longer time to fill (cited by 50% of survey respondents); higher costs (49%), lower productivity (38), lower workforce engagement (38%), limited ability to achieve business goals (33%), and loss of potential revenue (27%).

This proves that the growing sense of anxiety permeating today’s workforce is not simply a talent problem, but rather, a business problem. And the key to surviving – and thriving – in the world of work tomorrow requires companies effectively addressing these problems today. The future will always be uncertain. But it doesn’t always have to be scary, either.

For companies who can get employee engagement and retention right, the future, in fact, looks bright.

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    Mark Condon
    Written by Mark Condon
    Mark Condon is a pioneer in the evolution of Talent Services including HRO, RPO and MSP. As our Managing Director of Global Client Solutions, Mark leads a dynamic team responsible for consulting, solutions design and strategy for new client contracts globally ensuring solutions meet client needs and are differentiated and compelling. With 20 years of experience in the recruitment industry and 15 years of that time dedicated to the design, sale and execution of Managed Services in the US and APAC. Mark’s experience covers all aspects of RPO from consulting to solution design, sales, commercial management, implementation and operations. Mark earned an MBA at the Melbourne Business School in 2010 receiving the Dean’s commendation for Execution of Strategy. Mark’s other qualifications include a Bachelor of Arts (Literature and Psychology) and Bachelor of Business (HR).