The traditional push-pull experience of the employer-employee relationship has hit a brick wall in recent years. No longer can organizations rely on the old-school hierarchical workplace template of the past. We asked two HR executives to share their insights on the best strategies for reimagining how employers and employees can move together toward a common purpose.
To Strengthen the Employer-Employee Relationship, Focus on Mobility, Flexibility and Fulfillment
by Fred Delmhorst, executive vice president and chief talent officer at Chubb.
The last few years have been a dynamic period during which new generations have entered the workforce, the promise of artificial intelligence has rapidly accelerated and a global pandemic has reconfigured nearly every work routine. These shock waves, among others, have made significant impacts on the employer-employee relationship and what each side has come to expect from the other.
Over time, the employer-employee relationship has gradually shifted from one-size-fits-all to become more configurable, thereby providing greater opportunity to achieve balance. Better balance helps not only employees, but also employers, who can expect the upsides of a more engaged workforce. While this is a sprawling topic, there are three dimensions that are likely to have the biggest impact on shaping the employer-employee relationship: mobility, flexibility and fulfillment. These three dimensions each color the relationship—a social contract—between employer and employee.
1. MOBILITY. Measured simply by tenure, the duration of employer-employee relationships has somewhat decreased over time. However, average tenure is markedly lower for younger employees. As the next generations continue to move into the workforce, the frequency of moves across organizations is likely to continue to increase.
In addition to more frequent moves between employers, the frequency of moves within employers is also likely to increase. As organizations transform, the roles required to perform will continue to morph and provide opportunity for employees to move into new positions and challenging work assignments. Smart companies will facilitate this internal mobility and remain open-minded about employees crossing boundaries, whether geographical, functional or otherwise.
These companies will also provide employees ready access to resources (e.g., cost-effective learning) to develop in-demand skills. Smart employees will develop transferable skills to position themselves for new roles. The war for talent will become the war for skills as HR platforms and technology facilitate the identification, assessment and recruitment of essential skill sets. A healthy balance is achieved when employers enable employees to prepare for and match with the right role at the right time.
2. FLEXIBILITY. The second dimension centers on the flexibility of the employer-employee relationship. While flexible work schedules have been around for some time, the demand for flexibility has historically been greater than its supply. This all changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which swiftly introduced hybrid work schedules to countless employer-employee relationships. Many companies have since returned to the office to varying degrees. What has remained is a greater appreciation for flexibility along a broad set of dimensions.
There is and will continue to be greater flexibility around where, when and how we work. Nimble companies are empowering managers to lead their teams in ways that balance sustaining culture, learning, innovation, productivity and performance. They are flexible in allowing time for heads-up and heads-down work. Wise employees are showing up when it matters and reciprocating with their own flexibility. While the traditional boundaries of 9 to 5 are unlikely to return, the upside of flexibility is the ability to better balance professional and personal time where both employer and employee benefit.
3. FULFILLMENT. With regard to fulfillment, the employer-employee relationship offers many things—from basic needs to a sense of belonging and, in some cases, a greater sense of purpose. Achieving purpose at work is at the top of the hierarchy of needs for a reason. It is not easy for any employer to provide employees with a sense of achieving their full potential.
The pandemic led many people to think more about purpose and the extent to which there is alignment between personal and organizational goals. Proactive companies are responding by clearly articulating their purpose and how employees contribute to it. This goes beyond simply promoting a universal statement of purpose and requires the support of front-line managers to help employees connect the dots between their daily duties and the company mission.
Diligent job candidates will continue to seek out employers whose missions align with their personal goals, but also find ways to fulfill purpose beyond work. Balance is achieved when employees can find both professional and personal purpose. In that sense, a more flexible employer can enable an employee to find personal fulfillment outside work and thereby facilitate their commitment to their employer. The dimensions of the employer-employee relationship interact with one another.
While more complex and difficult to negotiate, the upside of more configurable employer-employee relationships is a greater likelihood of achieving, maintaining or re-establishing balance between each side. Employers must be clear about what is nonnegotiable, such as adhering to company culture or values. Similarly, employees should be clear about what is most important to them, such as the ability to arrive late or depart early to accommodate a family/personal commitment. This will ultimately lead to the best fit between the two. There should be an expectation of balance and reciprocity, just like any healthy relationship.
Some level of sacrifice is reasonable. For example, it may be easier to work remotely full time, but many employers expect some time in the office. Chubb is fundamentally a work-from-office company with flexibility. We value the collaboration and engagement that come from being together and set a clear expectation about in-person work, while being open to hybrid ways of working. For the employee, the sacrifice of a commute may be rewarded not only by basic pay and benefits, but also being part of a team, investment in their professional development, a variety of career paths and possibly even a greater sense of purpose.
The nature of the employer-employee relationship is dynamic, and many questions remain unresolved. At a macro level, how will the ebb and flow of economic cycles impact power dynamics between employer and employee? How will technology continue to disrupt the workforce and workplace? How will demographic trends shape the expectations from one generation to the next? Within organizations, how will the advantages of a more configurable job be offered? For example, will job flexibility be considered a fundamental benefit, or is it earned over time or based on performance?
Human resources is best positioned to facilitate ongoing dialogue between employers and employees to shape answers to these questions. A deeper understanding of what matters most will allow organizations to focus resources on ways that deliver the greatest return on that investment.
The bottom line is that employers and employees are indispensable to each other, and the healthiest relationship is well-balanced.
What Artists Can Teach Us About Rethinking the World of Work
by Deb Bubb, an experienced executive leader in talent and HR. She most recently was the chief people officer at Optum.
Popular media depictions of the modern workplace range from cutthroat and greedy to incompetent and boring. Watching the HBO series "Succession" is like driving past a car accident—horrifying and riveting in its exploration of naked ambition, arrogance, betrayal and loss. Meanwhile, the FX/Hulu show "The Bear" brilliantly captures the brutality of transformation, whether it's a small restaurant business, a dysfunctional work environment or a traumatic family background. There's even an entire genre dedicated to workplace comedy, where fans cringe and delight in the antics of obtuse leaders and their inept co-workers.
Maybe that's telling us something. In the past several years, millions of people resigned, relocated or quietly quit, rejecting their working conditions. People are burned out, exhausted, and dealing with constant loneliness, disruption, surveillance and vitriol. They're disappointed in institutions and looking to their workplaces for something different. Something more.
At the same time, many employers see themselves as having bent over backward to create better working environments. But despite increased wages, flexible arrangements and countless initiatives aimed at addressing employee survey feedback, many organizations are still struggling to find the magic combination that makes people willing to join, stay and thrive. The result is a kind of stalemate, exacerbated by pressure for growth, efficiency and profitability, the scarcity of skills, and a rising tide of unionization.
If we are experiencing a kind of collective disillusionment with the workplace, perhaps we need a new perspective to help us think about it. What can we learn from artists about the world of work we are creating?
A NEW AMERICAN CENTURY
Since the beginning of human history, artists have challenged our assumptions, revealed our flaws, inspired our hopes and helped us imagine possibilities we may not even have words for yet. And what part of our lives needs reimagination more than our work?
At the Whitney Museum in New York City, Josh Kline's "Project for a New American Century" installation presents a powerful lens on modern work: how it's valued, the dignity of the people who do it and the conditions we are creating as we automate, streamline and invent our future. He weaves together themes of isolation and the dehumanization of people whose lives can be boxed up and thrown away in a contagion of layoffs.
The installation includes provocative metaphors, including unemployed workers bagged for garbage collection and antiseptic IV drips filled with prescriptions for work and for rest, pointing to our 21st-century obsession with pharmacological solutions for health, fitness and performance, almost in defiance of our bodies, much less our souls. There are interviews with today's workers, exploring their longings, dreams and struggles. In another room, repurposed FEMA tents house stories from future climate refugees, shining a painful light on the consequences of decisions we are making, and not making, now.
The world of work that Kline reveals is at once noisy, cluttered and barren.
As a person who's spent the better part of her life trying to make workplaces healthier and high-performing, I left that exhibit moved to tears, inspired to think and work differently. Artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and other forms of technology-driven transformation are accelerating, affording us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink who, what, where and why we work. In this context, Kline's art is challenging us to re-examine our American narrative for work, to reconsider the realities we've created, and to imagine a way forward that is more humane, creative and ultimately better for both people and the planet.
Live to work or work to live? It's tempting to think about the modern workplace as a container for diametrically opposed interests: employer versus employee, or productivity, efficiency and profit pitted against safety, fair pay, belonging and purpose. But perhaps that polarized narrative is no longer serving us.
Instead of incrementally renegotiating the balance of power and profit, maybe we should be asking the following:
What if the world of work were designed to enable all people to unleash their full creativity? What conditions would need to be in place? What beliefs would need to change? What would become possible as a result?
Considering the significant challenges facing our people and our planet, these seem like worthwhile questions. We already know companies are starving for creativity and innovation. For example, a 2019 PwC study found that 77 percent of CEOs already believe creativity is the most important leadership skill, and that importance will only grow as AI continues to automate or eliminate routine tasks.
Since creative self-expression is the domain of artists, maybe we have more to learn from them about how to rethink the modern world of work. Some organizations are already experimenting with these creative directions—infusing their learning environments and leadership programs with music and art, reshaping their physical spaces and job roles with creative self-expression in mind, and investing in building design skills and creative capacity—all with incredible results. Art and creative self-expression have delivered significant positive outcomes in the education, health care and mental health arenas.
Science is on their side. In their brilliant exploration of the neuroscience of aesthetics, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us (Random House, 2023), Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross illuminate the power of art to heal, connect, inspire and teach us. And here's the thing: You may not think of yourself as an artist, but creative expression—the ability to witness, make and be changed by art—is an innate human capacity. Advances in neuroscience and evolutionary biology reveal the many ways our brains and bodies are structured to experience and make meaning of the world through art and creative self-expression. It's how we're built. It's what makes us human. In other words, we are all artists, because every life is a creative act.
After years of searching for new solutions to employee engagement, perhaps it's time to return to a more ancient approach to healing the disconnection and disillusionment that ails us—a capacity that already lives in every person, just waiting to be unleashed. A modern world of work designed for the artist in everyone? Does it feel like too much of a stretch?
When my husband and I were newly dating, I asked him, a serial entrepreneur and technology company CEO, if there were a financial exit he was shooting for that would be "enough" for him to retire. Deeply insulted, he said, "If I were a painter, would you ask me how big of a commission it would take for me to put down my paintbrush? I am an artist. My art is building great teams who, in turn, make great companies." I think he's not alone. There are many people who see their work as a form of creative self-expression, who love their work but struggle with their working conditions.
Joshua Roman, a world-renowned cellist and founder of the Immunity project, describes his own transformation as an artist, a collaborator and a leader through his experience with long COVID-19. "You can hire a cellist to perform, and they might play beautifully. But that cellist might still be disengaged, removed, holding back," he says. "It's not only about technical skill or perfect execution. Art is about standing in our vulnerability, connecting to one another through our strength and our imperfection. Art is about our fullest expression of our humanity. And once I began to experience the depth of that connection, I realized that not only did the audience need the cello, I did."
What does the artist in you need to thrive? Maybe that's the right place to start.