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The swinging power pendulum between employers and employees

Adelle Harrington – Vice President, KellyOCG EMEA – takes a closer look at the shifting dynamic between workers and organisations and discovers that a group of high-performing resilience leaders may hold the answer to improving employee engagement in a post-pandemic world.

It’s an ‘employers’ market’. The power dynamic has shifted. The era of remote work is over. There is a lot of buzz in the news about a shifting relationship between employers and workers – particularly when it comes to where and how they work. Multinationals like BlackRock, Amazon, and JP Morgan have rolled back flexible working policies. BlackRock  recently announced it will require employees to go to the office for at least four days a week, while JP Morgan has mandated a full five-day office week for executives.

Isn’t it time we stopped framing the worker/employer dynamic as a battle for power  and instead as a meaningful conversation? The post-pandemic world of work continues to evolve, but it isn’t as binary as employers or employees leading the way. First, this shifting power dynamic may not be as clear-cut as it seems. Amazon’s return-to-office (requiring workers to come into the office three days every week) has received extreme pushback from workers, sparking a mass walkout of nearly 2,000 employees at the end of April. Unemployment rates also do not reflect a conclusive shift in control; rates have ticked up to 3.7% in the US and 3.8% in the UK, but remain close to historic lows – suggesting the work power shift may not be as comprehensive as some news headlines suggest.

This disconnect between leaders and workers goes beyond where employees are able to work. The 2023 Kelly Global Re:work Report found that workers are also concerned about issues like workload, mental health support, and flexibility; 28% of workers plan to leave their organisation in the next 12 months, and 45% say they have participated in ‘quiet quitting’ – only doing the minimum their role contractually requires. In addition, a quarter of executives report that their organisation’s ability to support employee wellbeing and morale has declined over the past year.

Resilience Leaders are changing the conversation
The Kelly global talent survey found that many employees are already looking for new opportunities and plan to leave their current employer within the year. This should be worrying news for leaders who are already feeling the impact of economic uncertainty. Willingness to look elsewhere could be driven by a lack of trust and belonging; just 38% of employees in our research said they work in a psychologically safe environment. When employees feel excluded, organisational culture suffers, and it becomes difficult for executives to spark innovation and engagement. One way Resilience Leaders are building trust is through listening – 62% say they are good at listening to workers at all levels of their organisation. An open dialogue could be instrumental in creating a more equitable dynamic between workers and leaders.

Flexibility and DEI
Flexibility is highly valued by nearly all employees and can make for a happier, more engaged workforce, but it can also have an unexpected impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Working parents may be unable to balance childcare with rigid in-office hours, while it can be impossible for some employees with disabilities to access work without the option for a flexible schedule or home working. Worryingly, only 35% of workers in our Re:work survey believe their leaders model inclusive behaviours, and 38% admit their organisation is only paying lip service to DEI. Resilience Leaders perform better on DEI – 63% are good at progressing workers from under-represented groups to senior roles – but all organisations have room for improvement. When leaders and experts are arguing the benefits of home vs. in-office working, it’s essential that DEI is part of the conversation.

Can HR lead the way?
Flexibility must be a two-way street – and it’s important to recognise that in-person collaboration can be essential; it’s often vital for younger workers starting out in their careers or for projects requiring high levels of creativity. However, there is no single superior way of getting work done, and a too rigid, ‘my way is the only way’ approach could roll back progress on work-life balance and accessibility that was made during the pandemic. We can’t go back to the way we worked in the past – even if a minority of leaders with expensive real-estate investments would prefer it that way.

Decisions on flexibility should ideally be driven by conversations rather than dictated, recognising that flexibility could look different for individual workers at different times in their careers. HR can play a critical part in this process – acting as an expert conduit between leaders and employees, gathering data about mood and engagement across a business, and designing policies that support the needs of everyone at every level. Resilience Leaders may shine a light on best practices around worker engagement and flexibility, but in reality, each organisation is unique, and its practices and policies must reflect this. Stilling the power pendulum and creating a way forward that recognises a wide variety of competing needs is a complex journey that’s individual to every business. But for leaders who want to continue to access and retain the skills they need to thrive – it’s a path they can’t afford not to take.

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