It used to be obvious what your employees wanted out of work. Pre-pandemic, most of us accepted that almost every white-collar professional’s goal was to get promoted and move up the corporate ladder as quickly as possible.
Just as we all started to become “life-hack ninjas” during the pandemic who could effortlessly Zoom, Slack, and tweet from our bedrooms at the same time, for many professionals, our needs and priorities shifted.
The pandemic prompted a widespread re-evaluation of our lives. One study reported that 54% of Americans are currently re-examining their life priorities—including 20% who started doing so directly as a result of the pandemic. The situation is similar in the U.K. More than three-quarters of Britons said they were considering major life changes, from moving to quitting their jobs to ending relationships.
Increasingly, that re-evaluation means that work is taking a back seat. A 2021 Pew Research study showed that only 17% of adults now cite their job or career as a source of meaning—down 7 percentage points from four years earlier.
As a result of their Covid ruminations, many employees—even those in their prime working and earning years—may no longer share the same ambition and mentality around advancement that we took for granted pre-pandemic. And based on their different pandemic experiences (some overloaded with family responsibilities, while others spent way too much time alone), employees now have different social and emotional needs at work.
The pandemic prompted a widespread re-evaluation of our lives.
That shift can be discomfiting for leaders, who are already navigating massive upheaval in the job market and the threat that their employees might leave. To effectively manage a workforce with such disparate goals and desires, managers have to recognize that the workforce has fragmented—possibly forever—into multiple employee archetypes.
One kind isn’t inherently preferable, but it’s essential to understand where your employees are coming from, so you’ll know what to expect and how to work with them most effectively. Here are six of the most common types of modern employees that you may recognize in your own office.
If you’re a leader, you’ll likely know who your ambitious staffers are, because they have spent the pandemic doubling down. They’re focused on their jobs and want to advance. To retain them, show an interest in their career aspirations and development. Ask them specifically about their future goals, and help them develop a plan to cultivate the skills and experiences they’ll need. These employees are likely to be your future crop of leaders—because they’re the ones who want it, and actually care.
These employees—whether pre-pandemic or because of the reflections it sparked—have decided to prioritize aspects of their life outside work. Whether their focus is on family, community or hobbies, their goal is having a steady paycheck and a job that’s manageable and can be balanced with the areas they really care about.
Their goal is doing what needs to be done fast—so they can move on to the rest of their life. To retain them, recognize that you’re probably never going to turn them into go-getters, and accept them for the steadiness they can nonetheless bring. Make sure you understand their priorities and—if you want them to stay—take care not to impinge. If their chief value is attending their children’s sports matches, for instance, recognize that forcing them to work late unexpectedly on a regular basis means they’ll soon be headed out the door.
To retain talent amid job-market tumult, leaders have to understand what motivates their employees.
Caregiving has always been a reality for many professionals who have had to balance career aspirations with responsibilities at home. But the pandemic’s unique challenges—including home schooling and managing quarantine protocols—have accelerated the challenges, especially (though not exclusively) for female employees.
In one September study, 48% of women said Covid had negatively affected their career path. These days, success for them often means getting through the day and maintaining their sanity amid competing responsibilities. But it’s important for employers to recognize that this isn’t a permanent situation, and these workers should be treated differently than the “work to live” types. They are ambitious and want to advance, but are facing temporary challenges that will likely resolve over time. Indeed, 78% of women surveyed are seeking greater career progression opportunities at work. Supporting your employees now with flexibility, understanding and logistical support where possible will help build loyalty and trust, so they can step up as the motivated employees they are.
Many employees who live alone and have spent the pandemic in relative solitude may be looking to work these days to provide human interaction—especially young, single workers for whom the workplace offers much-needed community. Others may have overdosed on family over the past two years, but now that kids are back in school or they have caregiving needs worked out, they can’t wait to escape back into the realm of adult conversations. Either way, leaders need to recognize that a significant motivator for these “desperate to connect” employees—at least for right now—is social. Transactional Zoom calls just won’t cut it; managers need to take the time to converse and cultivate a deeper relationship. That’s always a good practice, but for those aggressively seeking human connection, it’s mandatory right now.
Whether it’s a retiree looking to stay engaged or a professional who’s consciously chosen to downshift their expenses (perhaps by leaving an expensive urban center), not everyone actually needs to work. Like the “work to live” crew, the “zest for life” professionals don’t necessarily prioritize their careers. But they’re not just putting up with work, either. They’re actively seeking it out as a way to connect with others and learn new things. Employers need to recognize their distinct motivations. Even if their goal isn’t to climb into the ranks of senior management, they shouldn’t be treated like clock punchers. They can be passionate and high-performing employees if leaders take care to recognize their central motivation—which isn’t a paycheck. For these employees, professional satisfaction means connecting with others, personal growth, and conquering interesting challenges.
Disoriented new hires
As the pandemic has dragged on, it isn’t just a few stragglers who have been onboarded without actually meeting anyone in person. For many companies, new hires—sometimes recruited entirely through virtual channels—may have become a substantial cohort. And they’re confused out of their minds. Of course, they have done their best to pick up company culture and mores through implicit clues (analyzing team communication patterns and vocabulary choices, and the power dynamics of who seems to get listened to the most). But it’s a lot harder to figure things out virtually, and to feel connected. Smart leaders have probably been making an effort to ensure these employees feel welcome and included. Now kick it up a notch, because whatever you’ve been doing probably isn’t enough. They’ve been thrown into a (truly) unprecedented situation of having to acclimate without context or information, so overindex on the care you take with them.
To retain talent amid job-market tumult, leaders have to understand what motivates their employees. Recognizing these types will help managers get the most out of their teams—and perhaps recognize new forces shaping their own career ambitions, too.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant and keynote speaker who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. Her newest book is “The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World.”