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Has the Dynamic Between Employer and Employee Shifted Permanently?

An interview with
A man in business attire looks at his phone as the rest of his coworkers sit a table with laptops and talk with each other.

The pandemic, remote working and a tight labor market have all wrought surprising changes on the labor market and hiring. But do they add up to a long-term shift in the relationship between employees and companies? 

Mark Bolino of the University of Oklahoma studies the relationship between workers and their work. BRINK spoke to him about what he is seeing today. 

BOLINO: If you’re talking about how people feel about their jobs, I certainly think there has been some shift in the way people now think about their work and how central it is to their life. 

People have always questioned whether they have the right balance between work and family, work and life, work and leisure, and the pandemic has prompted us to more thoughtfully consider what that balance should be and whether we want work to be central to who we are. 

At first, I thought this shift would be temporary, but now, I’m not sure. A lot of people have talked about how this pandemic has just accelerated a trend of wanting more balance between work and life. On the other hand, there are economic realities that people have to deal with, for example, there are now reports of people postponing their retirement because of inflation, and stories about people who regret having resigned from their jobs during the pandemic. 

So we’ll have to see. As long as the labor market remains very tight, employees will have more ability to dictate the terms of their contract, but if the balance of power changes from labor back to employers, then things could change again.

Are People Coasting?

BRINK: What do you think of the idea that remote working makes it easier for some employees to coast in their jobs? 

BOLINO: I was recently asked by the BBC to specifically comment on the idea that employees are coasting; from the data that I’ve seen, my impression is that most people aren’t coasting, and if anything, they’re working more when working remotely, because they’re not commuting into work and have more time. And during a lot of that excess time, they’re spending more time on work and not having personal conversations at work and things like that. 

At the same time, remote work does give people more autonomy to dictate when and how they want to work. And it does decrease the transparency that managers have into the work of their employees. 

And so if you do have employees coasting, it’s harder to pick up on it, unless you’re micromanaging them or using some kind of draconian monitoring. So, managers have less visibility into what their employees are doing on a daily basis when they are working remotely, and I understand that this can make some managers anxious about what those employees are up to.

The Shift to Transactional Relationships

BRINK: What about the level of loyalty that employees feel for their companies — do you see any change in that?

BOLINO: In the past, there was what I would call a relational contract between employers and employees, where both sides were looking out for each other. That went away in the eighties, and it shifted from a relational contract to a more transactional contract, where each side is looking out for its own interests. 

Simply put, if you want employees to go the extra mile for the organization, then you’ve got to go the extra mile for the employee.

So, if the company has layoffs, employees would understand that this is part of the deal. And if employees left for a job that paid more money, the company would understand that, too. From the organization’s view, they have been seeing a decline in loyalty in general, and things have become more transactional. If you want employees to go the extra mile, then you have to pay for it. And if you want them to develop new skills, then you’re going to pay for it. 

What’s happening now is that there’s still a transactional relationship, but employees have the leverage, so employers have got to figure out a way to retain and keep their employees engaged.

Simply put, if you want employees to go the extra mile for the organization, then you’ve got to go the extra mile for the employee. In practice this means giving them satisfying work, inspirational leadership, a supportive work environment, good pay and benefits, fair treatment — all of those things are now essential for getting employees to go the extra mile and for retaining them. 

This transactional employment relationship has been with us for so long now, that it may be difficult for companies to reverse course back to a more relational transaction. And assuming the balance of power shifts back toward employers, they will probably feel that they have less incentive to do so. This is unfortunate because there are real advantages to having a workforce that feels like their interests are closely aligned with the company’s interests (and vice versa).

Making the Workplace More Appealing

BRINK: How does the increased level of support for unions fit into all of this?

BOLINO: I’m not sure yet what to make of it. There are some signs that a lot of the successful union organizing that we’ve seen lately has actually been driven more from the bottom up rather than top down by labor organizers. And in some cases, labor movements have inspired other labor movements and there’s information sharing going on between them. 

But I think what really lays the groundwork for the success of those movements is when companies recognize that they need to be doing more. When that happens, then employees start to think maybe we can push them to do more, maybe we can use our leverage to collectively organize and push our agenda forward.

In fact, some researchers have argued that employers who treat their employees well and keep them satisfied will naturally reduce employees’ interest in unionization. In other words, they suggest that unions aren’t as necessary when employers are already doing the kinds of things that unions typically call for, in terms of better pay and benefits, greater job security and so forth. 

But I still think that most employees see that there’s this opportunity to push for even better treatment now, and the reality is that many companies could be doing more to make their workplaces more fair and appealing to their employees.

Mark Bolino

Professor at University of Oklahoma

Mark Bolino is the David L. Boren Professor and Michael F. Price Chair in International Business at the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. His research seeks to understand why some employees are willing to go the extra mile for their organizations and the implications of such behavior for both employees and employers.

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