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WCI, Inc
March 11, 2021

What Employees Expect in 2021

2020 is a year that will live in infamy. To better understand how employee perspectives shifted in 2020 as well as their motivations and aspirations for 2021, the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) surveyed more than 14,000 consumers across 9 countries in January. This is a summary of their findings.

Pandemic Response

Employees were generally satisfied with how their employers supported their well-being during the pandemic, giving them average or above-average marks for providing for their physical, mental, and financial well-being. But fewer than 1 in 5 workers gave excellent marks in any area. This should give employers pause. If executives want to retain top talent - particularly Gen Z and Millennials - they will need to understand employees' evolving expectations for 2021.

What Employees Want

The IBV survey found that, looking to the future, employee expectations extend well beyond compensation. When asked what employers should offer to engage employees, workers prioritized the following, which could be labeled as key engagement factors.

  • Work-life balance 51%
  • Career advancement opportunities 43%
  • Compensation and benefits 41%
  • Employer ethics and values 41%
  • Continuous learning opportunities 36%
  • Organizational stability 34%

How Employers Are Doing

When asked how well their employers were living up to these expectations, only about half of workers gave their employers high marks on what is most important to them. Some employers are demonstrating that they are committed to supporting employees by rolling out COVID relief programs aimed at boosting employee satisfaction, retention, and engagement. And, according to the 2021 IBM CEO Study, high performing companies reporting high revenue growth before and during 2020 said they support employee well-being even if it hurts profitability, at twice the rate of under-performing companies.

However, there is often a gap in reality. For example, while 80% of executives said their companies were supporting the physical and emotional health of employees, only 46% of employees agreed. Similarly, while 76% of executives said their organizations were providing adequate training on new ways to work during the pandemic, only 38% of employees said the same. This is despite the fact that more than one-third of respondents indicated they and their colleagues asked their employer for more flexible work arrangements, improved compensation and benefits, and more physical and financial safety and security in the past year.

The Search for Greener Pastures

Closing this gap is key to attracting, retaining, and engaging employees in 2021. This may require executives to rethink how supporting the workforce aligns with their other top priorities. For example, focusing on accelerating their digital strategies in the COVID era, executives may inadvertently be burning out those responsible for the progress made. This may start to explain why, in the midst of a massive global economic crisis, 1 in 5 employees voluntarily changed employers in 2020. Here are the main reasons these employees gave for changing jobs:

  • I needed more flexibility in my schedule or work location 32%
  • I wanted to find more purposeful, meaningful work 27%
  • I needed more benefits and support for my well-being 26%
  • I wanted to work for a company that better fits my values 25%
  • I was looking for a salary increase or promotion 25%
  • I was worried about my employer staying in business or remaining open 25%
  • I was burned out (lack of work-life balance) 19%
  • My manager was not supportive enough of me or my career 19%
  • I didn't have good career advancement prospects or job security 19%

Prognosis for 2021

This trend seems to be intensifying. More than 1 in 4 employees (27%) are looking to make a move in 2021, and more than 60% of that group already changed employers in January. Gen Z and Millennials make up the largest portion of this group. And, 87% of these workers claim they have the skills needed to meet their career goals in 2021. Those poised to leave their current jobs in 2021 cited many of the same reasons as the 2020 group. However, salary increases and promotion opportunities jumped to the top of the 2021 list for more than one-third, while one-fourth still identify support for well-being and a desire for more meaningful work as key motivators. Organizations should be concerned about how talent loss could impact their future performance.

Action Guide

  1. Proactively engage with employees to better understand what is really important to them and their careers. Workers have options, and they will gravitate toward employers who are listening and taking action.
  2. Foster a culture of perpetual learning that rewards continual skills growth. Most workers want to succeed and grow. You can create that kind of culture or wait for the exit interview to find out which of your labor competitors have.
  3. Don't take people for granted. Everyone has been through a lot in the past year. Employers must demonstrate that they care for their employees holistically, by considering their physical, mental, and financial well-being.

Summarized by David Snook of WCI. Download the full IBV report here.

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