Three Long-term Workplace Trends Tied to Organizational Culture
Every year, business leaders scour the news to better understand and anticipate trends that will affect their companies. For example, after the pandemic began to recede, many worried about what a potential recession might do to their organizations. Some reacted to a series of headlines about economy-related layoffs and downsizing.
Despite the troubling statistics, many believed that at least the tight labor market that stymied them over the past few years would fade.
But experts at Indeed and Glassdoor disagree. They predict that hiring difficulties will persist regardless of what happens in the economy. And they note that the stark reports about companies thinning their ranks don’t reflect much of the business world.
In their first joint Hiring and Workplace Trends report, economists from both companies concluded that continuing demographic shifts and aging populations will create a prolonged talent war. And Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell calls baby boomers’ shrinking footprint in the work arena a “structural labor shortage” that won’t be resolved soon.
An ongoing narrow labor market will drive major workplace trends because employees and job candidates will retain leverage to demand changes. As a result, forecasters say three of the most influential workforce trends that gained momentum during the pandemic will continue indefinitely with long-term effects:
- Workers’ desire for flexibility
- Employers’ commitment to their staff’s wellbeing
- Offering opportunities for professional growth
How organizations handle these areas with their employees will influence their ability to withstand today’s challenges and those on the horizon. And the strength of their organizational culture will significantly impact their success.
Job models are becoming increasingly more complex, with workers requiring more flexibility than ever before. Some of the more prominent areas of change involve remote and hybrid teams, new options for frontline workers, and shrinking the work week.
Remote and Hybrid Jobs
Perhaps the most significant shift in the work arena has been the surge of remote and hybrid jobs. It began after the pandemic thrust millions of workers into telecommuting roles. But when the health crisis began to recede, people no longer viewed these non-standard work formats as temporary solutions. Instead, remote and hybrid jobs became entrenched because workers had grown accustomed to the flexibility they provide.
Once an occasional opportunity for employees, now most industries offer at least some remote or hybrid jobs. They have to—if they want to attract and hold onto the best staff members. McKinsey’s most recent American Opportunity Survey found that 58 percent of employed respondents now work remotely at least part time. And 87 percent of employees who have flexible options take advantage of the opportunity.
Most top job recruits avoid companies that don’t offer this latitude, and veteran employees seeking a better work-life balance are leaving rigid organizations. Companies that don’t adapt to this trend will be at a disadvantage in the marketplace.
Flexibility for Frontline Workers
Desk-based jobs translate easiest to remote or hybrid formats. But an article by Gartner asserts that the trend to offer employees more options about how they work should and will encompass more frontline staff as time goes on. This “equitable flexibility” would positively impact 2.7 billion frontline workers in many fields like manufacturing and healthcare.
Providing flexibility to workers whose jobs aren’t desk driven isn’t a pipe dream. The 2022 Gartner Frontline Workers Experience Reinvented Survey notes, “58 percent of organizations that employ frontline workers have invested in improving their employee experience in the past year. About a third of those who haven’t intend to do so in the next twelve months.”
Of course, working remotely isn’t feasible in many jobs. But there are other flexibility formats that frontline workers are now regularly requesting, including:
- Control over work schedule
- Paid leave
- Work schedule stability
The Gartner survey showed that frontline workers also seek more leeway in “what they work on, who they work with, and the amount they work.” And workers are becoming increasingly vocal about expressing their desire and need for flexibility. And companies that don’t take into account employees’ changing attitudes about their jobs will find it difficult to satisfy top performers.
The four-day workweek is a flexibility trend offshoot that is gaining momentum. In the not-too-distant past, the concept of working four days but getting paid for five would have been laughed out of the boardroom. But recent experiments and studies show that it is not only feasible; it appears to benefit organizations as well as their employees.
For example, a recent study of multiple companies that tested a four-day week reported increased sales, lower burnout, and improved absenteeism. And the study’s lead researcher, Boston College Professor Juliet Schor, noted another pertinent point: employees working a shorter week didn’t report increased work intensity.
“This suggests that the work reorganization strategy succeeded, and performance was not achieved via [speeding up], which is neither sustainable nor desirable.”
Consequently, almost all the employers participating in the study will continue offering a shorter work week. This model has the potential to be a game-changer in the coming years. And unlike remote jobs, a four-day workweek is equally applicable to front-line and desk workers. As more organizations become receptive to offering four-day schedules, they will become more attractive to top employees.
When Flexibility Becomes Detrimental
The widespread adoption of remote and hybrid work and the proliferation of four-day workweek experiments made many leaders worry about losses in productivity. The sentiment was contagious, even though many studies, like one from Future Forum in 2022, show productivity levels stay level or even increase with these work formats.
Distrust sets in when managers who historically “led by walking around” can no longer see what their people are doing all day. And many have no faith in a short-week format. As a result, numerous companies started to track hours or invested in monitoring software to measure employee activity.
Other organizations resorted to meeting overkill—holding numerous, unnecessary, and often fruitless online gatherings to maintain a sense of activity. Both tactics put employees on the defensive and erode their trust. And these measures also increase the frequency of “productivity theater,” where people spend more time looking like they’re working than getting things done.
How A Strong Culture Reduces Flexibility Pitfalls
But if job flexibility is on the rise, companies can’t afford to allow adverse reactions to modern work formats to continue. Instead, leaders need to leverage their organizational culture to create win-win solutions.
Foremost, leaders need to establish an environment of trust. It’s vital for managers to trust their team members’ commitment to perform, and employees need to believe their supervisors trust them. CEOs can create this trust paradigm by anchoring their culture in positive accountability.
They can reach this goal by guiding managers to bring out the best in their team members and not just issue orders. Leaders should train them to clearly communicate expectations, be approachable for assistance, and then coach their people to take ownership of outcomes. This transparency builds trust, elevates employee engagement, and strengthens interpersonal relationships.
People are increasingly intent on working for organizations that focus on employee wellbeing. They want employers who treat them as individuals and see them as whole people, not cogs in the machine. Organizations can contribute to employee wellbeing in two primary areas: focusing on their mental health and improving their experience at work.
Prioritizing Mental Health
The pandemic spurred many employers to relate to their staff on a more human level as they weathered the storm together. The closer relationships not only revealed the emotional, physical, and psychological struggles many people faced during COVID. It also became clear that many of these stressors predated the health crisis, and employees had grappled with them for years.
Consequently, many organizations started or increased wellness benefits during the pandemic. These perks ranged from expanded insurance coverage that included mental health care to meditation software. And more openly acknowledging mental health issues in the workplace made them less stigmatizing.
In a silver-lining moment, COVID accelerated significant progress toward improving workers’ wellbeing and helping them thrive on the job. For example, 63 percent of benefit reviews on Glassdoor mentioned “mental health care” in 2022, up from 49 percent in 2019.
But the pandemic’s dissipation doesn’t erase the need for these wellness measures. As noted previously, conditions affecting wellbeing have always existed, and new pressures will continue to add hardships. For example, inflation weighs heavily on many workers whose paychecks don’t go as far as they once did. And we appear to be in for an extended period of economic uncertainty.
It will be continuously important for employers to prioritize supporting the mental well-being of their staff members—especially since burnout is one of the top reasons people leave their jobs or engage in “quiet quitting.” As Fast Company’s Robert Boersma wrote:
“The onus is on employers to recognize these potential barriers and provide employees with ongoing access to resources that can improve their mental wellbeing, and in turn work performance.”
Improving the Employee Experience
Broadening mental health initiatives is just one area in which organizations can improve the employee value proposition. Workers are increasingly prioritizing the need to feel appreciated in their jobs. And they want their employers to help them discern a clear sense of purpose in their professional lives.
The pandemic caused many people to reflect on the things that matter to them and to reject anything that detracts from those priorities. Not surprisingly, the Indeed/Glassdoor report shows that nearly half of those surveyed said their expectation around happiness at work increased in 2022.
But their researchers estimate that although 90 percent of people believe how they feel at work matters, only 49 percent think their companies are vested in improving their work experience. Jackie Wiles wrote for Gartner:
“This translates into soul searching over whether you feel valued in your work or whether you are merely creating outcomes and value to benefit others. Dissatisfaction with the answers increases intent to leave your job.”
“People are motivated when they feel valued and create impact. It turns out that people want acknowledgment, and to feel valued, trusted, and empowered. Frontline workers in particular voice a desire to feel respected. Employees increasingly want to bring their authentic selves to work.”
Wiles points out that the era when workers simply provided services in exchange for monetary compensation is over. Employees now require stronger professional relationships, a sense of belonging and community, and purpose-driven work.
Additionally, they’re more intent on working for companies that exhibit an authentic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And they’re more likely to align with organizations with values that mirror their own. These influential incentives are projected to continue growing. Wiles explains:
“Psychology, neuroscience and biology are all domains with empirical data that demonstrate the foundational changes in human behavior the pandemic has caused. Work needs to catch up—and we honor our employees as people by changing with them.”
How Culture Aids Wellbeing
The pandemic laid bare many of employees’ intrinsic needs and cast a new light on how companies should view and tend to their most valuable asset—their staff. The crisis permanently changed people’s perspectives; now, they expect more from their jobs. As a result, employees’ preference for companies that prioritize their wellbeing will be a lasting workforce trend.
The most effective way leaders can enhance the work experience for their team members is to make it a focus of their organizational culture. For example, they can use their culture as a framework to:
- Build trusting and productive professional relationships
- Create a respect-based environment
- Value diverse perspectives
- Demonstrate meaningful acknowledgment of employees’ contributions
- Encourage transparency and teamwork
- Emphasize everyone’s vital role in organizational success
Creating a supportive, caring culture not only improves employees’ wellbeing. This environment also empowers them to be at their best on the job.
In the past, most employees just needed to master a skill set to stay in the same line of work throughout their careers, even as they were promoted to more senior positions. However, rapid technological and economic changes now force many workers to frequently reskill, upskill, and even change jobs to preserve career advancement opportunities.
And modern workers are hungry to learn. Continuous improvement became part of the priority inventory that many people conducted during the pandemic. Many determined that they are no longer content to operate in stagnancy—they want to work for companies where they can grow.
So one of the primary reasons upskilling continues to be a rising trend is that offering training is crucial to retain and attract employees in the tight labor market.
Companies must have motivated, highly competent teams to remain competitive. As a result, forward-thinking business leaders are establishing ways to broaden their employees’ expertise. They recognize that adding this rebar is essential as the work arena evolves increasingly faster.
The upskilling trend encompasses: formal and informal training, including:
- Educational programs
- Mentoring protocols
- Soft-skill building
Many companies with sufficient resources now provide or even require participation in internal and external education programs as part of their business strategy. These opportunities range from offering regular in-house seminars and workshops to setting up apprenticeship programs to subsidizing classes at local or online learning institutions.
Some of these programs are relatively inexpensive, while others are considered worthwhile investments. Any tactic to add professional development opportunities for staff will pay off. As Lisa Rabasca Roepe points out in an article for SHRM,
“Providing opportunities for employees to learn new skills will help recession-proof businesses.”
Establishing a culture prioritizing learning and improvement will attract the most talented job candidates looking for career paths. And it will satisfy internal staff who want to grow. Leaders who make educational opportunities part of their organizational framework will help position their companies succeed for years.
As noted above, a significant percentage of the workforce is aging and eyeing retirement. As a result, companies are starting to experience noticeable attrition of veteran staff members at every level who possess a critical understanding of their companies and fields. Employment experts refer to this wisdom as tribal or tacit knowledge.
Even before the current boomer exodus, a survey by Express Employment Professionals found younger employees weren’t asking for, and boomers weren’t sharing, this knowledge before they left. As Richard Eisenberg put it in Forbes: “They’re not passing the torch; they’re dropping it.”
Organizations usually fail to pass down knowledge because they haven’t formalized methods to make these learning experiences happen.
And the lack of mentoring extends far beyond employees poised to retire. Many companies don’t have an active mentoring program engaging experienced team members planning to stay on board. Companies are starting to recognize that transferring knowledge works best when training and development are normalized within a company’s culture.
Creating this kind of coaching and learning environment is a trend with longevity because it offers many advantages throughout organizations. Newer and younger coworkers reap many benefits, including:
- Growth support
- Providing a go-to source of information
- Assistance in setting goals and being accountable
- Offering encouragement and constructive feedback
- Clarifying guidelines
In addition, setting up mentoring programs fosters relationships, strengthens a team’s community, and prevents silo thinking and behavior. And it can be as rewarding to the mentor as it is to the mentee. Mentors develop leadership skills, gain new perspectives, and feel more fulfilled in their roles.
Embedding mentorship into company culture is one of the most effective ways to form a closer-knit team while constantly elevating employees’ expertise.
Building Soft Skills
Most employees are hired because they possess the core technical ability to perform specific jobs. But many have never learned or mastered the soft skills that will certify success in their roles.
As Fast Company’s Robert Boersma explains:
“Soft skills are invaluable to an organization and possessing these skills often sets top leaders apart. Interpersonal communication, decision-making, time management and collaboration are all soft skills for employees and job seekers alike to focus on to increase their value in the workforce.”
CEOs acknowledged the problem over five years ago. PwC’s 2018 CEO Survey found that 77 percent of respondents viewed underdeveloped key soft skills as the biggest threat to business. As a result, many leaders pledged to address the problem and began initiatives to improve soft skills, but then COVID hit. The isolation workers experienced during the pandemic prevented soft-skill development, particularly for younger workers.
For example, Gartner reports that “Gen Z has missed out on developing soft skills such as negotiating, networking, speaking confidently in front of crowds, and developing the social stamina and attentiveness required to work long hours in an in-person environment.” And they note that young workers aren’t alone in this predicament—everyone’s social skills declined during the pandemic years.
Now more than ever before, employers are beginning to feel the negative effects of the soft-skill deficit. And LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report found that nearly half of learning and development leaders say that skills gaps in their organizations are widening.
Often, managers lack adequate systems to teach such soft skills to their people, but they’re still frustrated when employees fail to exhibit them. Consequently, they feel compelled to intervene in their work to ensure things go well. And their micromanaging usually prevents progress instead of promoting it.
How Culture Can Help Close Skill Gaps
Many organizations are introducing methods to help people increase their soft skill proficiency. And they’re making these measures permanent, so the problem doesn’t recur. One of the most effective ways leaders can incorporate soft-skill development is by making it an intrinsic part of their organizational culture.
A culture built on performance-based behaviors helps workers accumulate critical skill sets that empower them to flourish with less supervision. To achieve this kind of culture, leaders must first identify and coach the behaviors that can help employees thrive without excessive oversight.
Over time, with effective reinforcement and practice, these behaviors become habits that propel employees to excel independently. They are like an internalized operation manual and become part of the fabric of the workplace.
Examples of high-performing culture behaviors that build soft skills include:
- Making quality personal
- Honoring commitments
- Taking ownership
- Being highly responsive
- Delivering results
- Sharing information
- Being proactive
- Detail orientation
- Taking intelligent risks
- Having a bias for action
- Being innovative
Using Organizational Culture to Make the Most of Long-term Trends
As noted above, the tight labor market may temporarily ease up if the economy slides. But the World Bank population estimates and projections show that multiple countries, including the US, will see a decline in working-age people over the next decade.
The New York Times reports why the workforce remained populous in past years:
“76 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964. By comparison, just 47 million people were born into the so-called silent generation that preceded the boomers, and 55 million into Generation X. By working just a few years longer than anticipated, the boomers helped reshape the entire labor market for a decade.”
But today, nearly all boomers are in their sixties and seventies. And while some plan to continue working, many are beginning to retire. As Ben Casselman notes in the Times: “The economic tailwind that the boomers have generated for decades is now blowing in the other direction.”
Fewer eligible workers mean employers must do everything possible to attract and retain a strong staff to stay competitive. Attractive pay and comprehensive benefits packages will remain in employers’ arsenals as they compete for talent. But to outpace their marketplace rivals, employers must also build strategies around the three long-term trends outlined above.
The most effective way for companies to address these conditions and make them work in their favor is to harness the power of their organizational culture.