Employee Expectations and the New Currency of Careers

It wasn’t that long ago that the currency of careers was clear. Employees had a fairly uniform set of expectations; and even though managers frequently found themselves unable to deliver the desired titles, promotions, compensation, and perks, at least they knew what their people wanted.

smiley-faceWelcome to 2022 and the dynamic new career landscape managers find themselves navigating. The past two years have made an indelible impression on the workforce. Shutdowns, health scares, and profound uncertainty inspired deep reflection and the outcome for many is a very different relationship with work. What was valued before holds less interest. Goals have shifted. And the very definition of career has morphed to encompass evolving and individual priorities that are confounding managers and organizations alike.

Today’s employees want more from their experience of work and from their careers. A recent study conducted by Mercer finds that those in white collar roles are looking for meaningful work and a greater sense of purpose. They are placing greater value on wellbeing – physical, mental and emotional – a vital concern given that 76% report experiencing at least one symptom of poor mental health over the last year. Employees are also prioritizing work/life balance and the control that’s required to achieve it.

The most remarkable part of it all is that (according to this same Mercer study) employees are willing to forego pay raises for the experience of contentment and control. One in three employees is willing to trade compensation for “fully flexible or compressed work schedules.” Many would also walk away from more money for work that’s better aligned to what’s most important to them as well as unlimited vacation and intangibles like being allowed time off for volunteering.

In many workplaces, the desire for contentment and control are overtaking previous employee priorities to become today’s currency of careers. Organizations and managers that discover ways to meet these evolving expectations will not only deliver what people want and need – they’ll also deliver tangible results. Because tapping contentment and control is good for the business as well as people.

Let’s start with contentment, a broad term that encompasses everything from well-being to happiness. The headline of a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article announces that “a large-scale study found that well-being predicts outstanding job performance.” The work of positive psychology pioneer, Martin Seligman, confirms that happiness and optimism actually predict how well employees will do. Dr. Seligman describes happiness as ‘contagious’ and goes so far as to say that it’s a “competitive advantage”.

As for control, it’s one of the three fundamental psychological needs we bring to the workplace according to classic research conducted by Deci and Ryan. Volition, autonomy, and choice are important to individuals; and meeting this need taps the intrinsic or internal motivation which inspires people to engage in work for the personal satisfaction it supplies. This is sustainable, self-generated motivation that doesn’t have to be fed by external forces and that inspires heightened levels of contribution.

Contentment and control are not just what employees want; they’re also what organizations need to thrive. So, what can you do to make a down payment on this new currency of careers? Consider these three actions available to managers at any level of the organization.

Cultivate Conversation

Dialogue is the only way to ensure that you have a full, complete, and up-to-date understanding of each individual employee’s unique needs, wants, issues, preferences, and priorities. Ongoing conversation combats our tendencies toward assumptions or applying old information about others to vastly new and fast-changing conditions. When it comes to facilitating greater contentment and control, one size can never fit all. So, make sure you’re talking to employees. Invest in conversation on an individual, one-on-one level using questions like:

  • How are you doing… really?
  • How satisfied are you with the level of meaning and purpose related to your work?
  • What might bring you greater contentment or ease within your current role?
  • What do you wish you could do more/less of?
  • How would you describe your current work/life balance?
  • What changes might create a better balance for you?
  • How satisfied are you with your current level of autonomy, choice, and flexibility?
  • What do you wish you had more control over?

Confront Old Ideas About Fairness and Equality

Meeting the unique contentment and control needs of employees demands that you reconsider old ideas about what fairness is and how equity operates. Gone are the days of slicing the pie and giving everyone an equal piece. If only it was that easy. Your evolving understanding of each employee’s unique situation demands greater thought and creativity than old formulaic approaches allow. One employee might get two pieces of pie while another hates pie but wants a cupcake and éclair instead. Finding what’s appetizing to each employee is vital; at the same time ensuring equity across the team is non-negotiable.

Challenge the Status Quo

Dealing with this new currency of contentment and control demands fresh thinking and new practices. Managers who want to work with employees to facilitate these priorities will likely find themselves pushing back on the organization, asking for policy adjustments and exceptions. They must unapologetically advocate for what’s required to meet their employees’ needs. As challenging as this sounds, the timing might be just right because organizations have had to pivot in so many different directions over the past two years, they might be a bit more predisposed toward new approaches.

The past two years have profoundly changed organizations and individuals. The old career contract no longer meets the evolving needs of today’s workplace. Traditional trappings of career success (promotions, compensation, etc.) are being replaced by more personal priorities associated with meaning, purpose, well-being, balance, and control over where, when, and how one works. And yet this new currency offers the opportunity for sustainable individual motivation, an enhanced connection between managers and employees, and an unbeatable workplace culture that will serve as an organization’s best defense in today’s war for talent.



Julie Winkle Giulioni

Julie Winkle Giulioni

Julie Winkle Giulioni is a speaker and consultant who helps organizations tap their only sustainable competitive advantage: talent. One of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 speakers, she’s the co-author of the international bestseller, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go and author of Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive. (Released by ATD Press March 2022.) For more information, please visit https://www.juliewinklegiulioni.com

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