The future of work is a hot topic. In the last few years, millions of words have been written and countless hours of debate have taken place about the rapidly changing world of work and what our future experience of work is going to be like.
“ We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction”
The ubiquitous nature of this discussion, as well as its increasing urgency and velocity, is no surprise when you consider the unprecedented forces that are driving change. Advances in technology, challenges in workforce population demographics, shifts in the kinds of talent businesses are seeking, and changing attitudes to careers are just some of the factors that are influencing the myriad views on the future of work. Predictions into the future are impossible to regulate and are very often not retrospectively validated, meaning that the future of work debate can often descend into a headline-grabbing exercise. This is normally based around a battle between a dystopian view of the future where AI-powered robots have made all jobs obsolete and a more optimistic view where technology has created huge opportunities to bring more meaning, improved well-being, and greater personal fulfilment to our working lives
It is important to have this broad debate in order to ensure both employers and employees have a voice in shaping the future of work over the next two decades. However, it is also vital to look closely at the world of work as it is now and understand the trends, attitudes, and, behaviours that are currently driving change and that will continue to drive change over the next two years.
This is the objective of our research. Its purpose is to understand the reality of the way work is changing, uncover the issues that are affecting employees right now and identify what is most important for them in the immediate future. We are doing this to give employers an advantage in their recruitment and retention by helping them to cut through the myths and noise around the future of work and get insights into what their current and future employees find most important. We also want to give job seekers a broader insight into the changing work landscape.
The insights contained in our findings are derived from extensive quantitative research which captured the opinions and experiences of 14,000 job seekers across 10 European countries.
The responses painted a surprising consistent cross-border picture but there are some regional differences and preferences which have been flagged up where they are relevant.
The report itself is split into three sections, reflecting the key topics that were forthcoming from the research:
“The Human Workplace”
looks at the growing importance of employee experience and changing nature of employee engagement. We explore job seeker attitudes to culture, diversity and, well-being and look at work-life balance by investigating the sacrifices people are willing to make in terms of personal time or family commitments in exchange for career advancement.
considers the qualities employees think make a good leader and whether their leaders exhibit them. We look at the importance of vision and values and how these are lived by leaders as well as assessing how important the quality of leadership is in determining whether someone is engaged and likely to stay with their employer. We also explore employee expectations in terms of reward, development, and advancement. How high a priority are development and promotion opportunities? Do employees think advancement is impacted by how and where they work? And how well do leaders promote this?
”Alternative Ways of Working”
explores the reality of flexible and remote working and asks to what extent employees are looking for companies to offer this. Do people really want to work from home, and if so why? Do they feel supported if they work remotely? We also attempt to cut through the hype surrounding the “gig economy” and find out whether people really favour self-employment.
The future of work is something that affects all of us and we want to offer some evidence-based insights into how that future is shaping up in the short term to help employers and job seekers best prepare themselves for the changes that lie ahead.
It’s important to job seekers just what type of business they work for. Our research reveals that how a company treats their employees is the main factor influencing someone on whether to apply for a job, being identified by 55% of candidates, with the UK and Ireland registering the highest at 64%. This underlines how important reputation is. Job seekers have access to much more information - whether through career sites, social media, review sites or word of mouth from connections - that will help them to determine whether the working environment, culture, and employee experience is right for them.
This probably explains why working for an established business, with a clear ambition and mission, is important across all the areas in our research, although job seekers in the UK are more likely to try out a newer business. The employee experience - in other words, the way you hire, integrate, develop, reward and retain your employees - is clearly one of the key differentiators for people looking to change jobs. As author and speaker, Jacob Morgan writes in his book ‘The Employee Experience Advantage’.
“In an effort to attract and retain the best and brightest, organisations have to shift from creating places where they assume people need to be, to creating organisations where people truly want to be”.
The most important aspects of the employee experience that job applicants look for are the opportunities for training and development (key for 90% of respondents), promotion opportunities (86%), the impression they gain of the manager they will be working for (86%), and the opportunity to work flexible hours (62%).
One respondent - Nuno Anacleto, a Software Automation and Test Engineer - told us, “There are two main things I look for when joining a new business. The opportunity for personal development and the opportunity to learn new skills. I am always looking to improve my soft and technical skills.”
Many applicants take a fairly broad view of what makes up the employee experience, for example, 30% look for a relaxed dress code. This is a point often made by Peter Cheese, CEO of the UK’s Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development, when addressing Human Resource practitioners from the conference stage - asking them to consider if a formal dress code is always necessary.
Perceptions of the experience start early for most candidates. In our survey, 86% said that the way they are treated during the application process is an important consideration in deciding whether to join a business. This figure is fairly consistent across Europe, although is at its highest in Hungary and Poland, where it rises to 95%.
Some may have already opted out before there is a decision to be made, with almost 30% admitting to dropping out of an application process at the interview stage. Again, the availability of information about the business plays a key role, as for around 35% the reason was hearing or reading negative views on the business; this is most likely to happen in Russia, where 68% identified negative views as a major reason, whilst in Germany and Hungary this proportion is only around 10%. Similarly, almost 30% dropped out after conducting further research about the role and finding that it no longer appealed.
The most likely reason for leaving an interview process early though is receiving an offer from another company. This indicates a problem with lengthening interview processes, something which 2015 research from Glassdoor’s economists found was happening across Europe. Given the growing importance individuals attach to how they are treated during the application and selection part of the recruitment cycle, when deciding on which business to join, the way interview processes are structured needs to be addressed by organisations.
Increasingly, organisations can be looked at as networks rather than hierarchical structures. In his book, ‘The Human Workplace’, author and transition management consultant, Andy Swann, writes about organisations being “frameworks of human making” and needing to treat workers as end users in order to create people-first, human workplaces. He tells us:
“The workplace you design isn’t finished, because people’s needs shift, and the workplace needs to adapt”
Workplaces rely on connections, between individuals themselves and between each worker and their work. 56% of our survey said that work was important to them and that they work whatever hours are necessary. This feeling was strongest in Poland, Switzerland, France and Germany, and weaker in the UK & Ireland, and Portugal.
The key importance of strong internal connections and relationships is in helping employees to do their work well. Whilst there are several factors that workers believe would help them to be successful in their role, the key one is working in a collaborative environment, with 92% rating this as important. Workers in Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Germany, and France registered the highest level of importance, although this was fairly universal amongst all respondents.
Fisher & Paykel Healthcare GmbH, a Swiss healthcare organisation, told us that they appreciate “co-operation, a flat hierarchy, good communication, and trust. This leads to motivated employees who consistently want to get better”. They also talked about their “family” culture
“At F&P we encourage close personal contact. This makes it possible for everyone to work towards mutual goals and solutions. We show appreciation to all customers and colleagues and it helps to shape our family company atmosphere”.
Other significant contributing factors to success are having a good work-life balance and working for an organisation that exhibits clear vision and values. Workers in the UK & Ireland, France, and Portugal are most likely to want balance, whilst those in Hungary, Portugal, and Switzerland see the highest importance in vision and values.
External surveys often indicate low levels of engagement amongst the global workforce, however, in our research, we found almost 70% saying they felt committed or engaged to their current employer. This was strongest in Poland, Portugal, and France and weakest in Hungary, the UK, and Italy, with the latter having the largest proportion of those identifying themselves as uncommitted (26%).
It’s not all one-way though. Whilst workers need collaboration, a good work balance, and clear guidance, they are willing to make personal sacrifices to be successful. Around 20% (slightly higher in Germany) say they would give up family time for a successful career. Given the importance that individuals place on having a good work-life balance if they want to be successful, it is perhaps a bit disappointing that only around 60% think that they have this. Respondents in Italy, Hungary, and Germany are least likely to believe they have a good balance whilst those in France and Switzerland seem more satisfied with theirs.
Diversity is high on the agenda of all organisations at the moment, so it was surprising to find that only just over half (56%) see having a diverse mix of people as being attractive when deciding which business to join. This seems more important in Portugal, Switzerland, and Hungary. Only around half of those surveyed also see being a part of a diverse culture as important to success in their role. This was much higher in Poland (closer to 80%) and France, and relatively low in Russia.
Overall, it is the culture of the business that determines how much the business offers a ‘Human Workplace’ and some of our respondents’ comments showed that this is an area with little consistency.
For example, Kamilla M from Hamburg told us:
“I like our company culture very much. I am the youngest in my team but that never bothers me. There are many advantages to working with more experienced colleagues. We get together on a regular basis, sometimes after work, and once a month for a lunch. Colleagues talk about their private lives quite a lot which strengthens the team even more. Regarding the company as a whole, I wouldn’t change a thing in our company culture”.
However, this contrasted with a Marketing Manager, who remained anonymous, and said: “In my opinion, the company’s culture is a little bit intrusive. The company tries to position itself as a “family unit” but in reality, I would say that the company does not value the employees. There are ways this could improve - either by becoming a company with a more human face or be honest with employees that they are rather mechanical, and process driven”.
Much of the commentary about what makes a great place to work revolves around the topic of leadership. The narrative is usually that job seekers look to join a business that exhibits a set of values, vision, and purpose that they feel aligned to and engaged with, one that offers a greater meaning to their work and inspires them to perform well. Central to this are the business leaders.
The way leaders live their corporate values, and the behaviours they exhibit and nurture in their employees, sets the organisational culture and helps to create a place where people want to work. Crucial to this are the line managers who an individual reports to. In our research, 86% of job seekers said that the impression they gain of their manager will affect their decision to join. This feeling was strongest in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, and Russia, and weakest in Portugal.
One respondent, the Marketing Manager we quoted earlier, told us, “Management in general represents the real ‘face’ of the organisation.” Their personal experience, though, led them to draw a distinction between results-focused managers and people-oriented managers. “If you can do something well they are happy, but if you can’t then it becomes your problem. For me that isn’t the best approach to help with the development of individuals in the organisation. Although, this management approach might be right for delivering fast results in the short-term.”
This distinction is important. People-oriented managers are seen as more supportive by their teams and are more likely help them succeed. Over 90% of respondents said that an organisation’s approach to training and development was a key part in their decision making when choosing where to work. And when asked about their expectations from their employers over the next 2 years, 70% wanted the chance to learn and develop new skills, whilst 40% were also looking for promotion. The desire to learn new skills was strongest in Germany and Switzerland, though this expectation was ranked highly in all participating countries.
"Managers need to be able to support their teams in helping them to develop these skills. We spoke to Perry Timms, a TEDx speaker on the future of work and author of the book Transformational HR, who told us, “I recall a conversation with a manager who said to me ‘I don’t have any responsibility for developing people, performance is all I’m there for.’ To which I replied, “How do you suppose to hit performance levels with an ever-changing demand on your people without some form of development?” Leaders it appears, need to be our CLO (Chief Learning Officer). “If we’re not, our only relevance to our people is as a punisher If they fail to perform. We all know where this ends up - unnecessary loss and legal processes. So, I am really pleased this research has highlighted just how important growth is to people - in the work they do now and want to do in the future, showing why their leaders need to be seen as their very own Chief Learning Officers.”
Managers need to be seen as approachable and open to suggestions. Software Automation and Test Engineer Nuno Anacleto, who we quoted earlier, is one who looks to develop new skills. He said, “If the company can’t provide me with the development I am looking for, then I will talk to my manager, to see if there are other areas where I can move to.If not, I will try to suggest some tasks that can help with improvement. After all these approaches if nothing can be changed, I will start to have a look for new jobs opportunities outside.”
Job seekers know that the jobs market is changing. Digital change, and the advent of new technology applications such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and chatbots, render some roles - or aspects of roles - redundant whilst creating new opportunities. The need to embrace new skills and ways of working, in a spirit of lifelong learning, is keenly felt by all employees, who, in turn, increasingly look to their employers to help support and enable them. Leaders need to be seen to help create the environments and cultures in which this can happen, and to play an active role in its implementation.
The individual qualities that workers look for in their leaders varies between countries and regions, although honesty and accountability came out as the highest overall. Clearly, this helps to strengthen a culture that supports employees through building trust. Decisiveness and confidence are the next most important leadership traits. Accountability ranked highly in France, Italy, Poland, and Russia, although relatively low in the UK and Ireland. Inspiration was seen as important in Hungary, Russia, Poland, and the UK. Perhaps surprisingly, given the interest in creating human workplaces, empathy ranked below average in most areas, though was seen as relatively important in Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Germany.
Accountability is increasingly being seen as a key leadership trait. As best-selling US author and keynote speaker, Brene Brown said, “Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s about the courage to show up and be seen when you don’t know the outcome. If you set up a culture within your organization where there’s no tolerance for vulnerability, no tolerance for quofailure, then there’s no room for innovation, productivity, or creativity”.
Kamilla M from Germany summed up what was seen by many as the important skills of leadership:
“I think our leaders are very professional. If you have questions you can approach them individually or in weekly meetings. There’s a very open atmosphere. The leadership style is very direct but co-operative, responsible and tolerant at the same time. You always get the opportunity to address issues and you get support in case you don’t get ahead. Our bosses lead by example.”
This was corroborated by the research finding that 56% of employees feel that their managers exhibit good leadership most, or all, of the time. Only 16% felt their managers never, or only very rarely, exhibited it. The clear requirement for today’s leaders are to be open, and honest, to inspire their teams leading by example, and to help support them in meeting the growing challenges, complexities and uncertainties of the changing workplace.
Some of this can be addressed during the hiring process, provided companies hire for the qualities they need. Although when asked what qualities companies do look for in a manager when recruiting or promoting, Talent Acquisition Manager, Alexandra Khokhlova, told us, “They must be proactive, and focused on results. Also, they must be able to work independently and be able to respond quickly to changes.” It might be that companies need to find ways to recruit more people-focused and developmental managers.
Working from home, flexible working and the rise of self-employment in its various forms are all familiar themes these days. Attitudes to work have always evolved, but it does feel that a much more seismic shift is now taking place. However, it seems that while attitudes are changing, the reality of working life is taking a while to catch up with hype.
The technology and communications revolution which we have seen happening over the last couple of decades means that it has never been easier to work away from the traditional office environment. However, it would seem that home working is quite a divisive issue.
From an employee perspective, only 27% of respondents to our survey considered the opportunity to work from home or remotely an important factor in their job search. This wasn’t consistent everywhere as 52% of Hungarian and 52% of Polish job seekers did actually consider it an important factor.
From an employer perspective, it was clear that in most countries working from home is not considered the norm with 61% of respondents reporting that they weren’t given the option to work from home in their current roles. There was, however, a considerably different picture in Poland, where 86% of respondents had been given the option to work from home.
It also appears that technology isn’t the only factor at play here. 70% of respondents indicated that they had the technology to work from home but 60% felt they still couldn’t do their current jobs at home.
So, what benefits do employees see to working in an office? Are they worried that working remotely may affect their chances for development and promotion? This clearly isn’t the case as only 32% of survey respondents felt that physically being present in the office gave them more visibility or recognition in the company. The work-life balance factor is interesting here as well, while 58% of respondents felt that the most persuasive reason to work from home would be an improved work-life balance, 48% felt that one of the advantages of being office based was the ability to keep work and home life separate!
Perhaps the real answer of the continued draw to the office for employees is the human factor. 66% of respondents felt that it was easier for them to interact face to face with colleagues and 45% liked being in the office for the social elements of being with other people, this was also perhaps why 34% of people who were working at home reported feeling isolated.
Overall it seems that people prefer flexibility with the opportunity to mix home and office working. Only 13% of respondents were keen on working from home or remotely all the time while 55% want a combination of both office and home working. This preference was even stronger in Hungary where 75% of people were looking for this flexible approach and Russia were 70% wanted this option.
Flexibility was a strong theme throughout our survey with 61% of job seekers also considering flexible hours to be an important or very important factor in their job search. In Germany and Hungary, this was as high as 76% and 78% respectively. Interestingly though, a flexible approach to work itself, via self-employment, was not as popular. Although 53% of respondents had considered self-employment, only 18% had plans to become self-employed. That said, a significant 27% of respondents reported that they might consider it in the future while only 20% ruled it out entirely, so there is a potentially a shifting landscape here.
It would seem that the consumer-facing business sectors’ obsession with gaining a commercial advantage by creating personalised ‘experiences’ for their customers is beginning to have a major impact on how people move jobs. The way they are treated during the application and hiring process, and the impressions they gain of what it will be like to work for the business they are applying to, both play an influential role in the decision over whether or not to join an organisation and whether to stay once they are there. Reviews and insights, from trusted connections and strangers posting on review sites, are sought out to validate these decisions.
The ‘employee experience’ is more than a differentiator, it has become the key to finding and retaining the talent that businesses need. Job seekers do not necessarily seem heavily motivated by financial rewards, but more by the opportunity to grow, develop and learn new skills. This is what they are looking for above all else and companies must have a clear idea of how they can support these aspirations.
Structured development plans alone might not be enough though, as respondents identify that supportive, collaborative, and diverse cultures make for more desirable working environments and help them to progress. Whilst a good work-life balance, and flexible approaches to working hours, are also desirable, current job seekers realise that this can’t be a one-sided arrangement and seem ready to sacrifice personal time when needed.
There is a message for business leaders though. Whilst the majority of workers feel they can’t do their jobs from home (and there are a significant number that like being in an office to keep work and personal life separate). A high proportion do feel that they have the technology to be able to work from home should they want to. But most are not offered this option. Commuting times are still important to employees and can contribute to the decision on whether to join, so employers need to keep an open mind to more flexible arrangements.
Leaders themselves need to be people oriented rather than purely results focused. Employees want to work for leaders who will genuinely support them and help with their development, so look for those who are honest and inspirational. Business success is also seen as important, reflected in a desire to see leaders who are accountable, decisive, and confident. Whilst the majority see their managers as exhibiting these traits most of the time, around 1 in 6 feel that they rarely, if ever, experience it. There is a clear message here for senior leaders to recruit and promote managers based on core strengths and qualities over tenure.
The narratives around the future of work are often too obsessed with the business opportunities that technological development offers, particularly those around process streamlining and efficiency. For employment, too much commentary is about working structures and the potential for individuals to forge their own individual career paths through self-employment. We have found that whilst attitudes toward this are slowly shifting, only around 1 in 5 currently have any intentions in this direction.
What our research does find is that for employees and job seekers, the reality is more about how they do their day to day job and the ways technology may make their daily routines easier and more engaging, whilst offering greater choice over how and where they work. The way they are treated and supported is much more important than working for businesses who embrace the latest fads and trends.
They put faith in leaders who are inspirational, and can demonstrate an understanding of how to bring the best out of them, whilst safeguarding the future viability of the business.