The pandemic and its range of ancillary events and implications have forever altered the career landscape. But let’s be honest. Many of these changes were already in motion. Just as shutdowns accelerated digital transformation in many organizations, the past two-and-a-half years have accelerated employees’ growing discontent relative to their careers.

Last year, Julia Richardson, a professor of HR management at Australia’s Curtin University, coined the expression “career shock.” It captures the experience of employees reeling from uncontrollable external events, and the changes in thinking that resulted. To Dr. Richardson’s “shock,” I’d be inclined to add “aw.” (No, that’s not a typo!)

I don’t mean “awe” as in wonder or reverence. I mean “aw,” that sound we make when we’re disappointed. And that feeling that employees have been harboring when it comes to their relationship with work.

For some time, employees have felt that something was missing relative to their careers. They might not have been able to put their fingers on it beyond vague talk of needing greater balance. Perhaps they didn’t have the language or permission to bring voice to evolving, unmet needs. Or maybe a shift in the employee/employer power dynamic was required to safely allow them to confront their sense of “aw” and take action.

This rethinking and reprioritizing have resulted in a redefinition of what “career” means to employees — and the role it plays in their lives. People want more than the promotion, pay and perks. They want (and in today’s job market, can demand) their work to deliver other outcomes.

Flexibility

Employees craved the ability to work remotely long before pandemic-related shutdowns forced organizations to figure out how to make it happen. Now, with a taste of that flexibility (and the knowledge that their employers can support it), people are reluctant to return to the traditional arrangement. And this reluctance runs deep. Research shows that 71% of employees would prefer to work from anywhere, anytime, over getting a promotion, and one in three employees would trade higher pay for a fully flexible work schedule.

Clearly retaining employees and helping them develop the careers they want today demands the ability to deliver on their need for flexibility. And this means that leaders must ask themselves:

  • What role does in-person work play?
  • How can we balance the need for culture-building, connection and collaboration with the autonomy employees want?
  • If anywhere/anytime work isn’t operationally possible, what other choices might we offer employees?

Purpose

As with flexibility, purpose is not a new employee need. While we frequently attributed this to younger entrants to the workforce, conversations about the value of a pro-social agenda were well underway in most boardrooms. But the events of the past several years led many to reevaluate their priorities. The nonprofit sector has benefitted from a migration of purpose-driven talent; and those remaining in the profit-driven corporate world want to align with values and a mission that contribute to the greater good. This means that leaders must ask themselves:

  • What changes are required to our values and mission to ensure they offer the sense of purpose required to attract and retain talent?
  • How can we — as an organization and leadership team — model values in a way to inspire others?
  • What steps can we take to help employees align their personal values with ours?

Organizations are at an inflection point today — with the pandemic granting permission to raise and act upon deep-seated employee needs. The winners will be those who can turn career “shock and aw” into “shock and awe.”

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