Willing employee seeks friendly employer with good sense of purpose

We are sharing this article with you as we know that many employees want their leaders to explain the ultimate purpose of their organisations e.g. ‘the higher purpose as to why we exist; and the legacy we are trying to build.

If I think about what the workforce of the future looks like, I think it’s certain to be more fragmented than it is now.

This will likely manifest itself in a smaller core workforce, around which are wrapped a growing number of seasonal, contract, temporary and freelance workers, working on a project by project basis.

Employees of the future are going to want to exercise a far greater degree of choice in who they work for and to more proactively manage their own work-life balance. The idea of the “portfolio career” will have become a reality as employees move around organisations with great frequency, always looking to enhance the core skills which make them an employable prospect.

An added layer of fragmentation will be created by the massive generational stretch which will characterise most future workforces. It is not unreasonable to imagine a five generation span being in evidence in the not-too-distant future.

Falling employee engagement

All of which sounds very interesting – but what is the knock-on effect for the beleaguered employer trying to manage such a transient, disparate workforce?

Don’t forget as well that we’re already seeing a decrease in employee engagement and that, for whatever reason, the scale of their financial reward no longer seems as important to your typical employee as it was previously.

The net result is that the employer of the future is going to have to work much harder to attract employees (especially the most highly skilled ones who will want far more freedom in their work) and to retain them.

If the promise of personal reward can no longer deliver the ability to retain employees, which it once did, what will take its place in the future?

 What’s your purpose?

I think the answer is “purpose”. If employees are to be convinced of the merits of remaining with a particular employer, their decision making is likely to be heavily influenced by how worthy a purpose that employer espouses – and how well it is communicated.

By purpose, I mean something which rises above mere corporate strategy and values; something which clarifies why an organisation exists at all and what its legacy will be.

As such, that purpose should demonstrate integrity and sustainability and should be able to be personalised to a broad spectrum of people from different cultures and generations.

Increasingly, I predict that people will actively seek out employers whose beliefs match their own. For these people, more money will not equate to increased engagement. Morality, ethics, community impact – these are the factors which will prompt tomorrow’s employee to be proud of who they work for.

And if an employer’s purpose is insufficiently compelling, employees will likely vote with their feet.

Beyond corporate strategy

Herein lies the first challenge though; what does that purpose look like in practice? This takes us into murky waters because I feel that, currently, most businesses attempting to clarify their purpose end up with little more than a regurgitation of corporate strategy and values.

The problem here is that, typically, strategy boils down to little more than a story around projected growth – and that is highly unlikely to differentiate any organisation from the vast majority of its competitors.

You can understand why this happens. Businesses are trapped in the here-and-now, pressured by financial targets and shareholder oversight. Purpose – as I define it – is seen as something of an indulgence.

What this hard-nosed, strategy-led story is missing is emotion. Emotion is what appeals to the individual and convinces us to throw our heart and soul into our work. However, with no easily distinguishable purpose, there is no scope for emotion.

Game-changing Generation Y

Of course, none of this matters if you don’t agree that future employees will be so swayed by emotion; if you think that all that matters is financial reward.

That’s a dangerous view. I think that Generation Y (the oldest of whom are now 33 and so are well ensconced within the workforce) will be the key generation. They will have known recession – and felt it quite keenly. They will not believe in (or expect) the concept of a job for life. They are the game-changing employees who will proactively challenge employers about their purpose and who will expect to see evidence of the emotional ‘draw’.

Determining the purpose which will attract those workers – and those who follow them – is a hugely difficult task; hence why it is so readily placed on the back burner by so many organisations. Some recognise the importance of this but too many still think that a combination of their current strategy and future vision should be compelling enough.

Whatever businesses do come up with, I think that communication of that purpose will be key. Future workforces could potentially stretch across five generations so how do you communicate a purpose in a way that resonates with all those different demographics?

Effective communication

I believe that the trick will be in communicating the purpose as simply as possible and allowing individual employees to tell the story of that purpose in their own way.

Currently, a lot of internal communication which should be about empowering employees with relevant corporate messages actually just leaves them confused and unsure of what role they have to play within an organisation.

In a future workforce where emotion and feeling is given more of a free rein, declarations of purpose cannot fall into that trap. Employers cannot assume that employees will make all the connections (between purpose and strategy for example) that they have. Employees who feel unable to articulate to others what their employer’s purpose is will likely not remain employees for long.

Admittedly, this is a hugely challenging task and one that may not sit comfortably with hard-nosed corporate ideology. However, as I believe that purpose will come to be seen as the key differentiator which convinces employees – and customers – to engage with an organisation, it is a challenge which needs to be faced sooner rather than later.

Kate Holt is People Director at KPMG in the UK

Richard Fox was a partner in KPMG prior to setting up The Learning Corporation LLP in 1993.

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