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In Practice

Is There a New Spirit of Independence Among Employees?

People travelling across London Bridge.

A former colleague shared with me a Fast Company Magazine article about a supposed new “screw you” attitude of employees, particularly Millennials, toward their employers. The article suggests that a widespread embrace of a “you only live once” philosophy is motivating employees to “[buck] the broken corporate system in record numbers.” It warns employers not to dismiss this fundamental shift but instead seize the opportunity to adopt an employee-centric approach to people management and transform their organizational cultures accordingly. 

What did I make of this, my former colleague asked? Here is the essence of my response:

First, I always put more credence in signals drawn from employee behavior than from the results of survey responses. What employees say matters most to them often is not the same as what they act upon. I prefer to draw insights from the preferences revealed through their actual choices than from the stated preferences employees share in a survey, focus group or interview. Perhaps that’s just my bias as an economist. So, for instance, examining patterns and predictors of employee turnover — in effect, how employees vote with their feet — can offer better insight into what they actually value in the employment “deal” than results of general population polling or employer-sponsored engagement surveys. 

What Millennials’ Behavioral Data Tells Us

A couple of years ago, my colleagues and I undertook precisely such an analysis to assess what Millennials most value at work, comparing the results of turnover analysis to those commonly elicited from surveys of Millennials. We found that while survey data (and common stereotypes) pointed to mission, learning, mobility, and more entrepreneurial-style pay — e.g., incentives, equity, etc. — as key motivators for Millennials, it is actually higher base pay and the continuity and effectiveness of their supervisors that most predict the likelihood that they will actually stay with their current employer. Millennials may say they value an eclectic mix of rewards and opportunities at work, but it seems that what they act on is a bit more straightforward and traditional. Given the degree of economic uncertainty in recent years and the high levels of debt with which this generation is encumbered, the results of our study should not be surprising. Yes, qualitative data are useful, but hard behavioral data are even more reliable as the basis of decision-making. 

Current Turnover Trends

Voluntary turnover has definitely been rising among our clients’ workforces. But why? Does it reflect: 

  1. A fundamental change in attitudes regarding the place of work in life and fidelity to one’s employer, as per the theme of this article? 
  2. Pent-up demand to change employer due to a suppression of normal turnover during the height of COVID? Or simply, 
  3. The result of increased opportunity in the labor market due to tightened supply relative to strongly resurgent demand? 

I wish I had a fact-based answer, but it’s still too early to know. I suspect it is more numbers two and three at work here, though I don’t discount the possible influence of one. 

How COVID Has Changed the Rate of Retirement

Still, my take is that attitudinal changes are less stark and enduring than suggested in the Fast Company article and, if anything, they are more present among older workers. Indeed, we’re seeing a spike in retirement that is reversing the pre-COVID trend to delay retirement. This may reflect greater awareness among the boomers of their health vulnerabilities. Or, it could reflect the impact of the psychological break from the office that came with COVID. 

Labor market conditions fluctuate, and as they do, the relative power of employer and employee changes correspondingly. That part will never change.

Alternatively, it could indeed be a value shift, reflecting a realization during COVID that one needs less to be happy than previously thought. Of course, suddenly rising inflation could lead to a swift re-appraisal of that position, especially for newly retired employees on fixed incomes. Clearly, there is important research to be undertaken on the effect of COVID on the timing of retirement to better understand behavioral changes among older workers and whether they will persist.

Engagement and Productivity During the Pandemic

On the perceptual side, I have seen nothing so far in the employee sensing data of actual clients to suggest engagement is pervasively down. If anything, engagement rose during COVID as did workforce productivity, at least as reported by employers. Most employers of the kind we work with managed their workforces very well the past 17 months and went out of their way to accommodate employees. 

I may have a skewed view of the world given the type of organizations with which we work. But big, brand-name employers matter a lot to our economy and still drive management trends. I don’t see these firms falling back to less flexible, less employee-centric pre-COVID ways very soon — not because they are being forced by suddenly empowered employees, but because firms generally don’t mess with something that is working. 

The Narrative Versus Reality

My conclusion at this point is that this article is overstating the “screw you” message. Labor market conditions fluctuate, and as they do, the relative power of employer and employee changes correspondingly. That part will never change. Deeper shifts in attitudes toward work are something to look out for. Employers who miss the signals do so at their peril. But I see it as far too early to draw definitive conclusions that attitudes toward work and employment are dramatically shifting post COVID. If anything can cause a momentous value shift, it is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime “shock” event like the pandemic. 

What does history tell us? The expression, “the new normal” has been bandied about extensively in HR circles since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. That deeply unsettling experience was presumed by many in the field to have created conditions that would require fundamental changes in the nature of the employment deal. 

And yet, it’s still the “old normal” that more accurately characterizes the work environment of most of my clients. Social commentators love change. Those in charge of business operations, and in my experience, most employees as well, covet stability and predictability. Contradictory forces are always in play, which makes the issue of value change an empirical question. Let’s allow the data to speak and be circumspect about making or acting on grand pronouncements until those data start to tell us a clear and convincing story. 

Haig R. Nalbantian

Senior Partner, Co-Leader of Mercer’s Workforce Sciences Institute

Haig R. Nalbantian is a senior partner at Mercer and co-leader/co-founder of the company’s Workforce Sciences Institute. A labor and organizational economist, he has been a pioneer in the development and practice of evidence-based workforce strategy and management.

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