The People function is at the center of a post-pandemic maelstrom. On the one hand, many organizations are still working in an indeterminate limbo and have not yet fully transitioned to a post-pandemic normal, whether at the office or otherwise. On the other hand, what it takes to attract, hire and retain knowledge worker talent is being fundamentally re-negotiated on a massive and unprecedented scale. Recruiters and acquirers of talent are particularly beset with new challenges and unknowns.
Many companies that increased the number of “remote” reqs in order to broaden their talent acquisition horizons are still struggling to connect with and source geo-diverse candidates. Just as many organizations that implemented broader work location flexibility policies have continued to see valuable people walk out the door.
The imagined expansion of the talent pool from adding “remote” to job descriptions has not materialized for many companies. Neither has greater “work location flexibility” turned into the retention panacea that was hoped.
We are past realizing that the shift we’re experiencing goes much deeper than remote working. And thus the response from employers who want to win the contest for global talent in the 2020s must go much deeper as well.
What follows is a view into how we got here, the roots of the present “maelstrom,” and some provocative suggestions that may help your company standout as an employer among in-demand knowledge workers on the global stage in the next decade.
The talent game has changed because the construct of employment is in flux.
It’s only been 20 months, but we can well sense the long-term historical impact of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic on the world of work. And the effects (which continue to actively unfold) will surely be studied by labor historians in the future.
Because it dramatically interrupted our patterns of behavior at work (as they were in early 2020), the pandemic gave tens of millions of knowledge workers the space to reflect on their priorities. And the mass opportunity to reflect on what it means to have a job has become a catalyst for change that far exceeds work location flexibility. Against that backdrop, the Great Resignation is much more than a massive, one-time talent churn event. It is a clear signal that we are at the beginnings of a new post-Office Era labor movement that is going to transform the very nature of employment.
What it means to have a job continues to evolve along a historical arc that is already thousands of years old. The beginnings of organized employment, I think we can all agree, were not awesome for the “employee.” And in some ways what employment is like today is still plagued by baggage from its worst artefacts of the past.
The Office (writ large), which yet hangs about the neck of knowledge work like an iron yoke, was initially a boon for knowledge work and a clear upgrade to employee experience when it improved on the Factory. But the Office Era preserved (and thus more deeply ingrained in the definition of work we still have today) some Factory Era thinking (eg: hierarchical control, dictatorial leadership styles, and the historically imbalanced employee-employer power dynamic) that feel particularly obsolete at the moment.
A big swath of the workforce is suddenly asking deep, philosophical questions into the nature of what a “job” should be. And if the varied and disparate sources of data supporting the Great Resignation narrative are to be believed, workers have shown they are prepared to make, let’s call them, “dramatically orthogonal” decisions relating to life and employment going forward.
Consequently, the implications to companies that aspire to attract and retain knowledge worker talent in the next decade are profound. While many organizations are still “transitioning” at their own pace to a post-pandemic normal, the talent game has changed suddenly and with that change, long-standing assumptions about attracting and hiring have gone out the window.
In that sense, the more alarmist interpretation of the Great Resignation (which points an accusatory finger at employers for failing to modernize employment for modern workers) is totally spot-on. What if the evolution of employment had kept up with the evolution of knowledge work?
We have experienced similar testing and shifting of the assumed models of employment in the past, such as the rise of “gig work.” The ultimate learnings and conclusions that were drawn from that chapter by both gig workers and the companies that would “employ” them, shaped the greater concept of employment.
The Great Resignation (writ large) is comparable as a phase of transformation driven by the tension between employer and employee, though the balance of power is quite different in this case. It is also comparable to the labor union movement's assertion of influence over the employment experience of blue collar workers in the 20th century. Where employment goes from here is inescapably building on the collective negotiations and balance points of the past.
Although “negotiation” is perhaps too cordial a word to describe the historically formative tensions of employment. It’s useful to reflect upon the three things that make up employment: i) what the law says employment is, ii) what employers want it to be, and iii) what employees want it to be. If we were to look at the influence of those three elements on a pie chart, it’s quite interesting to observe how the pie slices sizes have shifted in relative size over the last hundred years, nevermind the last thousand.
The Law wasn’t there at all in the beginning, and the wants of Employers determined almost entirely what employment was. The Law arrived into the mix only a few hundred years ago, and it was there mainly to protect employers at first. Employment “contracts” became a thing. Employers and employees both acquire rights under the Law. The Law also begins to shape the bounds of employment in multiple dimensions: compensation minimums, workday maximums, safety, etc. And by way of the Law, a new flavor of adversarialism enters into the employer-employee relationship as a result. Rules, “getting in trouble at work,” censure, termination, all the meta-anxieties that pervade our work life come from this legally-upheld tension that still exists between employers and employees.
The pressure building up inside the employee slice of the pie for a very long time was already tectonic well before 2020. The disruption from the pandemic (and the space to reflect it created for knowledge workers) has precipitated a massive shift that is going to change the size of the Employee slice.
In this millenium, the economic value of “labor” has reached a zenith in the form of modern knowledge work. Incredible clout is concentrated in this very new class of (digital) workers. That economic clout has been “activated” by the pandemic and has been transformed into political clout that is aimed at the institution of employment.
Though the most elite, in-demand knowledge workers have always enjoyed more power to shape their own employment, the real shift in power that’s giving this movement so much (political) momentum right now comes from the unprecedented numbers reached by including many more people into the “knowledge worker” class.
Those bigger numbers are a sign of the times and of the effects of the rise of cloud-based communications tools like Zoom and SaaS platforms that can now support many more business workflows. As a result, many more types of knowledge workers (rather than just software developers) were ready for their jobs to be fully remote-compatible when the pandemic hit.
At more than one billion strong, the collective bargaining power of the global knowledge workforce will prove an unstoppable force. And employment will change profoundly as a result.
Worth noting also in this light are the interesting experiments happening with new “decentralized” models that could bring people together to do knowledge work in ways that depart radically from conventional corporate employment. I don’t think this is where “core employment” is headed, but these outer-edge examples suggest fresh perspectives that we can bring to old assumptions about governance, control, and value distribution at the companies we will want to “work” for in the future.
Indeed, bringing a fresh perspective to old assumptions about what it means to “offer employment” is almost certainly a solid strategy in the contest for global talent in the 2020s.
Some of the largest, most ambitious employers can read the writing on the wall and are responding to the changes in employee expectations. Amazon created this video ad recently (titled “You’re Hired!”) that is clearly intended to speak to the heart of the post-pandemic knowledge worker. I love the frank terms in which these prospective Amazon job applicants (actors) describe what they now expect from a job. It’s not just the new demands, it’s the openness of the tit for tat. Now, this sounds more like a negotiation.
The net of this for any company that’s trying to hire and keep people right now is you had better have a clear articulation ready of the reasons talented people who could work “anywhere” should say yes to you.
The two pillars of this are your purpose (or mission) and what employment means (specifically) at your company.
It will be for each organization to review and re-affirm its purpose and to put that purpose at the center of their talent acquisition strategy. More on that topic below.
The most compelling employers will also create and articulate a unique definition of employment, from the principles to the details. This new transparency from employers will replace the undiscussed assumption among job seekers that employment is fundamentally identical from one company to the next. Of course, it isn’t, never was, and will now be a point of differentiation for the most forward-thinking employers.
When talking about the “evolution of employment” above, I meant the evolution of the employment of knowledge workers for the most part. But some of the ways in which companies will reinvent employment for knowledge workers in the coming years will absolutely have an impact on the employment experience of traditional (non-digital) workers as well. Though some dimensions of change, like work location flexibility, may be absurdly irrelevant for some types of jobs (like fast food), other dimensions will be more relevant. A more HR-driven approach to designing how the work happens and a re-invention of leadership are two of the more universally relevant dimensions for future evolution.
Taking a blank-sheet-of-paper approach to employment is not something that every company will be able to do, of course. And as noted above, not all dimensions of change will be equally available to all companies. But the same recommendation does apply to all companies (whether a seed-funded startup or a large enterprise), which is to i) purposefully design what it means to work at your company, and ii) tell the people you hope to employ about it. Much of the strategy for winning the contest for global talent reduces to doing those two things well.
The first step to purposefully designing what it means to work at your company begins by acknowledging that this work must now be owned by HR. I would argue that “delivering” this should become the new Northstar for the People function. The challenge requires both holistic thinking and specific solving within the domains in which your company operates. A new vision for leading the HR function is needed as a result. This is similar to the new vision and leadership that was needed in the IT function 10 years ago to seize new benefits from data and the cloud.
Before one gets into the nitty-gritty of how people actually work, the purposeful design of an employment experience begins first with an understanding of the relationship between organization and individual one hopes to create. It might seem silly to try to describe things that are obvious to some people (or that appear immutable). But once you get past the very basic “You will do work, and we will pay you” you very quickly get into answering questions and making choices that absolutely shape the character of what it’s like to work somewhere.
The most basic description, with a legal framework attached, is something like “You will do work, we will pay you, we will own what you make, and we can fire you if [insert regional requirements for termination are met].” Notice that even the most basic description of the legal framework of employment already introduces a regionally-dependent variable. “At will” employment (i.e. you can be fired anytime for any reason) is the norm in some places. Other places impose other requirements. Clearly, these differences can impact the employment experience and must be actively acknowledged.
Most organizations won’t be able to entertain a significant departure from the conventional framework of corporate employment (unless they do it very deliberately from the start as a DAO, for example). But it’s important to treat these less flexible elements of the employment experience as building blocks on top of which the more company-specific elements are built. They should be a part of the picture and a part of the conversation with candidates, particularly as there can be meaningful differences that arise from their specific location.
It’s the next layer of “building blocks” in the employment experience that can make of two companies that look similar on paper one a nightmare to work for and the other a dream. This is the space in which culture should be “alive” and driving behavior and ritual, and is so at the best companies to work for.
But at the worst companies to work for, this is where culture is both an accidental effect and an unshepherded driver of behavior. This makes it possible for even the worst behaviors to become systematized in an organization. The root causes can be individual people (eg: toxic leadership, cult of personality) or runaway mantras (like “hustle culture”) that can dominate the effective culture and make people very unhappy.
Purposeful design in this layer of the employment experience is very hard, but will be a focus for the most progressive HR leaders and people teams in the coming decade. Let’s call this the Culture Layer, for simplicity. There are too many good answers already to the question what should culture be in an organization, but I would offer that it should include both i) principles that drive how we work in the space we are in and ii) principles that ensure we are creating the conditions of employment (eg: inclusivity, diversity, fairness, balance, etc.) to which we aspire. Only HR can undertake this special synthesis, and it will be their mandate at the most exciting companies to work for in the future.
It’s worth noting that it’s in the Culture Layer that the choice about being fully-distributed, or hybrid, or office-based should live. Only this way can the choice get the holistic leadership buy-in that’s needed. Only this way can the choice become fully integrated (under the orchestration of HR, of course) into the employment experience. Otherwise you can wind up with an adjunct “work location flexibility policy” that just gives people locative permission but has failed to design and provide them with a distributed way of working.
The third layer of the employment experience is that which sits closest to the doing of the work. The “tools and rules,” as Tony and I have called them, includes all of the digital platforms, collaboration and communication tools that the organization needs to be productive and happy. And a clear set of recommendations for their use. At many companies historically, IT has been in the driver’s seat with HR (possibly) consulted when it comes to software tool choice. This approach should now be retired and flipped, with HR in the driver’s seat and IT being consulted. HR’s ownership in this domain will bring better outcomes for teams because i) employment experience quality will be the guiding lens, and ii) HR will go farther than just selecting tools but will also design and prescribe their optimal use.
“Build it and they will come” is so hackneyed in business use, but I’ll invoke it here because I think it perfectly captures the essential strategy for successful talent acquisition in the 2020s.
The pandemic exposed the lack of holistic ownership over the employment experience. We can also see from this hindsight that many of the dysfunctions that have plagued corporate knowledge work were avoidable and the result of this unclear, incomplete ownership. Correcting for this by empowering the People Team to holistically design and enact the employment experience (from the ground up as much as possible) will create multiple competitive advantages for organizations. One of those advantages is that they will enjoy disproportionate access to the global talent pool.
Candidates will be drawn to these companies not only because they are prepared to let them live wherever they want, but because they can expect a higher quality of employment experience.
Deliberate design and delivery of an employment experience that resonates with global talent is a formidable challenge for any company. But that alone is not the full answer to winning the contest.
Even as we have intellectually acknowledged that there are more jobs than qualified candidates for the most in-demand types of knowledge work, in many ways the experience of being a job seeker still gives more power to the prospective employer. It may be that this is an aspect of the “old baggage” from the earliest days of employment, when those who got jobs were meant to feel lucky more than anything else. It may just be that we still act like there’s job scarcity rather than talent scarcity because we’re on a kind of long-term civilizational auto-pilot on the subject. There’s something deep there that needs review in the modern light of day and it has created in companies an attitude towards “offering work” that feels increasingly outmoded.
The power balance and the implicit understandings between job seeker and job offerer are not quite right. As a result the historical attitude of talent acquisition (the function, if not necessarily the practitioners) has not been quite right. Compare the way companies invest in the pursuit and wooing of customers to the way they pursue the people they want to hire. How does the way a company cares about how its customers feel compare to the way it cares about how its employees feel?
There’s an incredible opportunity to let go of old assumptions and old attitudes about talent acquisition that could yield transformative talent outcomes for employers. Comparing talent acquisition to customer acquisition is an extremely useful thought exercise for companies that want to compete successfully for the best global talent in the post-pandemic talent contest.
First, there is a slight adjustment needed in the “attitude” of the talent acquisition user experience. “Talent Acquisition is Dead. Long Live Talent Attraction” is not a bad way to describe the tactical adjustment that follows from the necessary attitude adjustment. I’ll credit our Chief People Officer, Mark Frein, for the inspiration.
Customer acquisition marketing, particularly in B2B, takes a layered, multi-channel approach to creating, developing, and converting a funnel of prospects. If an organization is ready to think of its open roles as products and to transform the talent acquisition function into something more like a marketing function, it can radically raise its recruitment game. The biggest benefits of this change would be measured in the candidate quality dimension and in the mission/purpose alignment dimension.
It’s not exactly unheard of for “purpose and work-to-be-done” to come together and become a kind of “beacon” for anyone who cares about that purpose and is interested in that type of work. Opensource, because it demonstrates a model for i) synthesizing culture from purpose plus work-to-be-done, and for ii) successfully attracting people to the culture and the work, should be a source of creative inspiration for people teams.
“Employer branding” as a thing that marketing owns should go away and be replaced by the expanded scope of “talent attraction marketing.” Now owned by HR, this should include all things necessary to “market the employment experience” that HR has designed. Marketing can still manage the website of course. But HR takes the driver’s seat in strategy and in prescribing the content needed to show prospective candidates the deep and thoughtful design of the employment experience. This will be a differentiator.
Providing the prospective employee with a complete and well organized perspective of the employment experience, from the principles to the details, is not something that many companies have done well. Not surprisingly, some of the best examples of this are from the established and most-admired distributed companies, like recently-IPOed GitLab.
We admire GitLab’s open, transparent exposition of the employment experience. This is not something that companies have to do because they have no offices. Having an office never provided this kind of clarity for employees or to candidates looking in from the outside. This is something new that every company should produce as part of its talent attraction marketing strategy. Employment experience transparency is now a key theme in winning the contest for global talent.
I’m very proud of the transparent exposition of the Oyster employment experience that our People Team is building here.
The pandemic’s long-term impact to the world of work is carried in its particularly radical effects to the evolution of knowledge work. It has acted as a catalyst in two closely related spaces: i) in the ways organizations work, and ii) in the nature of employment.
While the most in-demand candidates have always commanded outsize compensation and other perks, their collective expectations have not meaningfully advanced the quality of employment experience for a majority of knowledge workers in the past. Even though “remote working” may have been a “perk” offered to the most desirable software developers before the pandemic, it still took the pandemic for a majority of employers to acknowledge that millions of other knowledge work roles are also remote work compatible.
These unprecedented events have created a sizable global knowledge worker talent pool that is primed to receive a fresh narrative about life and work from wouldbe employers. This creates the exciting opportunity for the most innovative companies to “skate to where the puck is headed” by designing and sharing a unique employment experience with the world.
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