There is no doubt that Australia has managed the COVID-19 pandemic better than most countries around the globe. This is enabling us to balance the needs of the health system in support of the most vulnerable members of society, with the ever-increasing urgency to reboot the economy. 

We’re starting to see how it will be possible to strike a balance between the two. And so what now for us as leaders of companies and businesses as we contemplate the “new normal” when it comes to managing and supporting our people.

The relationship between employees and employers has shifted through this crisis. We’ve let our colleagues into our homes through Zoom calls, we’ve gained insight into their family lives and while we’re distant, we have come closer together. Speaking with some business leaders through the pandemic, there is a strong sense that employees have developed a much stronger sense of appreciation for their jobs and their place of employment. If we apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here, you could argue that the needs hierarchy for the employee has shifted rapidly to the basics of simply having a job that pays money. With so much uncertainty in the job market, this is understandable. I’ve even heard some executives suggest that where there may have previously been a sense of entitlement amongst staff and difficulties for companies to compete for talent and establish loyalty, the pendulum has swung well and truly back to favour the employer.

My personal belief is that any shift in power towards the employer, real or perceived, will be short-lived as we emerge from the lockdown. Studies into the needs of the millennial workforce, now the most dominant cohort within the workplace, show that core to any value exchange with an employer is the need for employees to find meaning in their work and to perform at their peak. Maslow has that one (what he calls “self-actualisation”) at the very top of the pyramid but more and more it is becoming a core requirement of the modern worker. In a recent article in CEO Magazine, Dr Lindsay McMillan, Managing Director of Australian workplace research firm Reventure, noted that in a review conducted in 2016, they found that 72% of employees were looking for purpose and meaning in their work, with younger respondents, in particular, deeming it a top priority.  

We also know that a greater focus on individual wellbeing is a growing need for employees of this generation. I’m not talking here about gym memberships, bowls of fruit, office slides and endless supplies of Friday beers. Yes, they can all help, but the perks that staff tend to value more are not really perks. It is simply a work environment that affords them more flexibility, increased autonomy and one where they can balance other interests that allow them to live a better life. COVID-19 has served to heighten this core need amongst many employees for flexibility in the workplace. More and more, flexible scheduling and the ability to work from home will play an important role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job. Those organisations that embrace this and can offer this to their staff will be the ones that continue to attract and retain top talent and deliver great results.

Atlassian’s Scott Farquhar this week said that going forward “9 to 5 doesn’t work in a digital world”. Well guess what, that’s all of us, not just tech companies. We are all now part of a digital world. He goes on to say, “As leaders, we need to fight the idea that the world should go back to the way it was. What it was is a known state, but charting a path back to a known state isn’t leadership.” 

The opportunities as leaders in business is to understand that the world has changed. We were already heading down a path where flexibility in the workplace was on the rise. Now that we have seen that it can actually work, and work well, we need to embrace it and ensure it becomes the new normal.

Written by myprosperity Director Chris Ridd