The coronavirus pandemic has radically altered the nature of the workplace. The most obvious change has been the widespread adoption of remote technology, accelerating an ongoing trend toward remote work across many industries and becoming the primary focus of many employers’ “post-COVID” plans. Some have already announced that they will allow employees to work from home permanently, regardless of the state of the pandemic. Others have developed rotation systems that are largely remote, but which also allow employees to work safely from the office part of the time.
While these approaches address some key questions about how COVID has changed the workplace, they overlook a more fundamental reality: COVID has changed workers themselves. The pandemic, along with the many political and social upheavals of 2020, have affected us in ways large and small, visible and invisible. Even if you do manage to get your employees back to their desks, they’re not going to be the same employees. Personal and professional priorities have changed alongside everything else. While many employers expect that remote flexibility will be the main employee experience differentiator post-COVID, many employees already expect even more.
When employee expectations shift, even a previously excellent employee experience can start to fall short. Along with the employment contract that spells out responsibilities, compensation, and benefits, employers and employees also engage in a social and psychological contract, which often matters just as much when it comes to the employee experience. After one of the most disruptive years in recent memory, it matters even more. In order to attract and retain top talent in the post-COVID era, you must revisit, refine and re-articulate your talent value proposition (TVP).
Your TVP defines the personal, professional, social, and financial value you provide for your employees. It tells prospective employees why they should want to work for you, and current employees why they should continue to. Every employer provides a slightly different TVP: Some compensate for difficult and consuming work by paying extremely well, others emphasize opportunities for education and advancement, and still others promise their employees the feeling of working alongside teammates on an important mission.
Due to COVID, the role of the TVP in recruitment and retention is more significant than ever. With a workforce that’s increasingly distributed and mobile, many of the traditional perks and rituals that employers saw as TVP-enhancers are becoming relics of the past. The proliferation of remote work also makes it much easier for candidates to cast a wider net during their job search. In order to compete for top talent, businesses will have to articulate their TVP more clearly than ever before. But your TVP doesn’t only determine the type of workers drawn to your company—it also shapes their experience once they’re employees.
Employee experience (EX) is closely tied to TVP and is in many ways a product of it. The strength of your EX depends on how well employees feel you are fulfilling the contract they’ve entered into with you. In other words, EX is shaped by how well your TVP shows up in your culture, which consists of the practices and messages employees encounter and expect in their workplace—what people do and don’t do, what they say and don’t say.
Most companies with a distinctive EX and high levels of engagement have managed to closely align their day-to-day culture with the core elements of their TVP. Creating that connection may seem straightforward, but it’s harder than it sounds, especially if your TVP has fallen out of sync with what your employees truly care about.
Case Study: The importance of having a clear and compelling TVP was made apparent during a recent engagement with a client whose workforce was largely distributed and remote even prior to the pandemic. They asked us to help reimagine their EX in order to address their high turnover. At the outset, they believed employees were leaving due to weak connections with colleagues—a reasonable assumption given their remote workforce. However, after conducting research through the TVP framework, we discovered that social connection at work was of secondary importance to their employees. In reality, they valued the career growth opportunities enabled by the company above all else. Once the client recognized that their primary TVP was accelerating career growth, they were able to address the turnover problem by providing experiences that helped employees get closer to their ambitions.
A successful TVP clearly communicates the value employees derive from working for you, and to do that it must speak to their needs. In our EX work with clients, we have identified the six needs that are most commonly expressed by employees.
Need: to make progress and develop personally
Emotion: I feel motivated
Need: to know I’m treated fairly
Emotion: I feel considered
Need: to receive individual acknowledgment
Emotion: I feel valued
Need: to work under the right conditions
Emotion: I feel supported
Nature of work
Need: to see the contribution I’m making
Emotion: I feel engaged
Need: to be part of something bigger than myself
Emotion: I feel inspired
While all of these needs are important, different people prioritize them in different ways. By understanding which needs matter most to your employees in their work experience, you can tailor your TVP around one or two core needs instead of trying to be everything to everyone.
Deciding to better understand your employees’ core needs is a significant first step toward enabling your desired EX. Even before you act on your learnings, the process—which is similar to a typical engagement survey, but with some crucial adjustments—will help them feel heard and understood. When done correctly, it will help you refine your message to prospective hires, so you can attract the talent you want in the future. But it’s still only the first step.
Most organizations say they’re committed to their employees, but words alone do not enable EX. More than anything else, your EX depends on the extent to which your culture delivers on your TVP. We have identified distinct cultural enablers that correspond to these six core needs. By focusing your time, effort, and resources on the specific cultural enablers that align with your TVP, you can more confidently and reliably shape your EX.
To deliver on the core need for growth, employers can focus on…
Learning: Invest in experiences that demonstrably expand and improve employees’ skills and abilities.
Career opportunities: Make sure opportunities are prevalent and attainable.
Mentorship: Facilitate relationships that help bring out the best in your employees.
To deliver on the need for equity, employers can focus on…
Expectations: Ensure that expectations are clearly communicated and consistent between employees of similar skills and roles.
Evaluation: Provide fair and frequent feedback on performance, tailored to employees’ individual goals.
Equal access: Build structures and processes that give peers the same information and consideration for opportunities.
To deliver on the need for recognition, employers can focus on…
Pay: Explicitly align compensation with each employee’s skills, experience, and contribution.
Benefits and perks: Offer a variety of resources to support the wide range of employees’ life situations.
Celebration: Recognize effort and accomplishments in the moments and ways that are meaningful to each individual.
To deliver on the need for environment, employers can focus on…
Spaces and tools: Equip employees with resources that enhance their ability to do their work well (physically and virtually).
Autonomy: Empower employees with the freedom to do their work as they see fit, providing guidance only when they need it.
Work-life fluidity: Encourage employees to exercise agency over their work-life rhythm, and create enough flexibility to honor their needs.
To deliver on the need for nature of work, employers can focus on…
Impact: Articulate the connection between day-to-day work and the larger purpose of the organization’s offerings.
Challenge: Push employees to improve and take on new responsibilities, then help them rise to the occasion.
Variety: Provide opportunities for employees to use multiple skills, day-to-day as well as long-term.
To deliver on the need for team, employers can focus on…
Trust: Cultivate psychological safety among employees so that they’re comfortable being vulnerable and taking risks.
Belonging: Build a diverse and inclusive community that fosters connection between employees with varied perspectives.
Leadership: Practice active, transparent leadership that shows employees the organization is headed in the right direction.
It’s common wisdom that consumers are increasingly seeking brands that align with their own values and culture, and many business leaders have recognized that the same is true for talent. But competing for talent beyond mere compensation can be perilous: If your TVP promises things that your EX doesn’t actually deliver, your company might come to be seen as insincere and misaligned with the very people you want to attract. Even organizations with a clear TVP and historically positive EX must take the time to reassess and redefine them for the post-COVID era, or else run the risk of getting left behind in today’s competitive labor market.
So, do you know what do your employees need right now?