Employer branding: What do your people really want from their job?

Organisations have long had all the information and tools they need to prevent falling victim to “The Great Resignation”. But most are not using them.

Most organisations are familiar with and have responded to evolving concepts such as “market of one” and “mass customisation”. The consumer demands it and successful organisations deliver it. Yet those same organisations have, by and large failed to apply the same principles to arguably their most important market: their current and future workforce.

My first professional job was a gig, as in the "gig economy".

I wrote computer programmes for the WA State Education Department on contract. My boss (actually, my client) would give me a specification from which I quoted a price to write the programme. Much like any tradesman, but my colleagues were all desk-bound white-collar workers.

On one pivotal day, the response time of the over-worked mainframe computer ground down to "frustrating" on my mental scale as it tried to schedule and process the demands of all the developers around me.

So, I packed up my stuff and went to the beach.

I had never done that before. Until that day, I had complied with my own notion of what an office job should be: drive to work; work at a desk; drive home. When the computer started spinning its wheels, I questioned that assumption and realised that there was nothing in the arrangement between me and my boss that was keeping me there. In fact, I was contributing to the misery of my colleagues by placing my own load on the same computer they were using.

The change was liberating to say the least. I developed a new pattern: drive to work; drop off completed work or a quotation; pick up a new specification; drive to beach; read the specification; think; swim; lay in the sun; think. After the sea-breeze came in I would go back the office; catch a few snide remarks from my desk-bound colleagues; then work at a computer screen until well after they went home. The computer response time was amazing, my boss kept giving me new specifications and I loved every part of my day. I would have worked on weekends had the mainframe been running.

But this was the late 1970s, before online access. Before the gig economy was a thing.

Some people (definitely not my colleagues) felt sorry for me because it appeared that I could not get a permanent job. That pity just confused me: why would I want a permanent job? Permanence? No. I had seen my unwaveringly loyal father bundled out of a “permanent” General Manager's job in a large business that he had literally bled for, when that business changed hands.

There is no such thing as a permanent job.

At best, employing a person into a "permanent" job establishes a near 100% certainty of future disappointment. Or worse, bitterness or anger. How many permanent jobs have ended with bilateral happiness? A permanent job is an arrangement that lasts until one party becomes dissatisfied. That's not permanent.

One of the first things I learned in the only non-STEM unit I did at university, Educational Psychology, was that "any relationship lasts exactly as long as both parties continue to profit." How profit is calculated is up to each individual and includes the cost of termination, but I love the certainty of that statement. If you fully embrace that notion, you can see that if you want a relationship to last, you have to ensure that the other party continues to profit. Most people and organisations only focus on their own profit. (Note that the difference between “employee benefits” and profit is the same as the difference between revenue and profit for a business.)

Consider the performance evaluations you do for your staff. Certainly, it will evaluate the employee's contribution to your organisation. It may also include a discussion about the employee's remuneration but, more often than not, that discussion is from the point of view of what the person’s contribution is worth to the organisation. The review may also include a training and development plan. But again, most approach those plans from the perspective of helping the employee make a larger contribution to the organisation.

The performance evaluation and remuneration review is a holistic approach to looking at just one side of the "both parties continue to profit" equation. It usually ignores the question of how exactly the employee calculates "profit" from the relationship.

And yet, we do know most of the components of the employee’s profit calculation. There is plenty of current literature about what employees are looking for in a job. (Minahan; Chodyniecka et al) Self-determination factors like the flexibility to work from home have become more important. As have meaningful work, being listened to and sustainable practices. Many organisations have made significant improvements on these dimensions and then measured those improvements in employee satisfaction surveys.

So, why is it that so many people are contemplating quitting their job, right now?

Could it be that many of the factors that are important to the employee in calculating their “profit” from the job, are ignored during the performance evaluation and remuneration review process? They may well be mentioned in the employee satisfaction survey but if they are not addressed individually with the employee, the organisation will never know how that person calculates “profit”. Increasingly, it’s much more than the money. Indeed, by not addressing these factors individually, the organisation is already failing on employee satisfaction factors, like being listened to and being treated as an individual, rather than a cog in the machine.

Designing the employee experience based on employee survey results is like an employee ignoring the instructions of their supervisor and using industry surveys to design their work performance. That would be unacceptable but that is how employee surveys are often used to design the employee experience.

Consider an employee survey that found that half had been looking forward to coming back to the office after the pandemic and half had discovered that they enjoy the flexibility of working from home. So, wanting to please everybody, and score a bonus reduction in office space requirements, the organisation issues a new workplace mandate: everybody will work in the office at least 2 days/week and work from home at least 2 days/week. Please everybody? No. Upset everybody because nobody got what they wanted.

An organisation will generally have a clear understanding of whether they “profit” from having a particular employee on the payroll, but they almost always have a very hazy understanding of how profitable that employee regards the relationship. Which is why so many resignations come as a surprise to the organisation.

I believe in an alternative approach:

  1. Be courageous. Transform the performance evaluation into a balanced, bi-lateral evaluation by both parties of each other (the employee and the organisation)
  2. Be thorough. Any factors that got a vote in the employee survey should be added to the performance evaluation and canvassed individually with the employee
  3. Be open. Invite each employee to nominate the relative importance of each of those factors and allow them to nominate new factors
  4. Be authentic. Make the performance evaluation bi-lateral and allow the employee to evaluate the organisation on each of those factors
  5. Be personal. Design an employee experience and contribution expectation for each employee
  6. Be efficient. Stop doing the employee surveys. They’re not needed if you listen to each employee

Whilst this approach would be a substantial change for most organisations, it’s not really that revolutionary. It is but a few steps down the evolutionary trend that has been on foot for decades.

My boss at the Education Department had just two choices for engaging additional workers: a (permanent) employee or a contractor. The terms and conditions of employment were rigidly defined by a combination of industrial award, employment law and taxation law. From the employee’s point of view the arrangement was literally an ultimatum. Take it or leave it. Who really enjoys receiving an ultimatum?

Even back then, my day-to-day colleagues coveted the flexibility of my working arrangements, but I suspect they also valued their regular pay cheque. We will never know how much value they placed on that regular pay cheque. There wasn’t even a mechanism to have the conversation.

Fast forward to 2022 and much has changed. Millions of workers have had the opportunity to reassess aspects of the employee experience that were previously immutable. Things like attending the workplace five days/week, open plan offices, commuting etc. They were forced by “lock-downs” to work from home and for many, less work and less pay.

Shockingly for some employers, many of their staff really enjoyed this change and would prefer to continue to work on this basis. Even if it means less work and less pay. (Hoyt) This mode of work is particularly amenable to introverts, who make up slightly less that 50% of the workforce. The open plan office is and always has been a sub-optimal workplace for them.

Open plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure (Cain).

One consequence of this across-the-board reassessment by employees of their employment is that a very large proportion of the workforce is currently looking at alternatives. (Kelly; Cooban; Microsoft) Enlightened employers can see this happening and are actively redesigning the employee experience. Many large employers in technology-heavy industries have decided to adopt “work from home” as a permanent feature of their employment arrangements.

The trend to flexibility is well established. The irony is that laggards in workplace innovation are mandating a new set of workplace conditions and calling that flexible. Employees will see through that.

Effective Employer Branding requires nothing less than an integrated, holistic approach. The same principles and practices employed to develop the Brand vis-a-vis other stakeholders, such as customers, must be employed to develop the Employer Brand.

Employees seek an employee experience that is personalised to them. (Chodyniecka et al)

If the new workplace arrangements do not equate to a “profitable” experience by the employee, then they will seek a better match with another employer that designs bespoke employee experiences.

Works Cited

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. January 2012. Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc.

Cooban, Anna. 95% of workers are thinking about quitting their jobs, according to a new survey – and burnout is the number one reason.7 July 2021. 3 November 2021. <https://www.businessinsider.com.au/labor-shortage-workers-quitting-quit-job-pandemic-covid-survey-monster-2021-7>.

Chodyniecka, Ela; De Smet, Aaron; Dowling, Bonnie; Mugayar-Baldocchi, Marino.Money can’t buy your employees’ loyalty. March 2022 <https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-organization-blog/money-cant-buy-your-employees-loyalty>.

Hoyt, Bobby. Are Side Hustles Here To Stay In A Post-Pandemic World? February 2021

Kelly, Jack. Millions of workers plan to switch jobs in pursuit of life balance. 23 June 2021. 3 November 2021.<https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2021/06/23/millions-of-workers-plan-to-switch-jobs-in-pursuit-of-a-work-life-balance-growth-opportunities-remote-options-and-being-treated-with-respect/>.

Microsoft. The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready? 22 March 2021. 3 November 2021.<https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/hybrid-work>.

Minahan, Tim. What your future employees want. May 2021 <https://hbr.org/2021/05/what-your-future-employees-want-most>.

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