“Nobody wants to work anymore.”

“Millennials are all entitled punks.”

“What do they expect? They call it work for a reason.”

Odds are you’ve heard one of these comments recently (or some similar sentiment) when business leaders talk about their attempts to re-staff after the pandemic. While complaining about the demands of employees isn’t anything new (the US Supreme court first upheld the right of workers to strike in 1814, so it’s not a new topic), there seems to be an increase in these kinds of complaints, and it’s worth asking these questions: Have employee expectations really changed all that much in the wake of the COVID shutdowns, and what does it mean for hiring new staff today?

The main things are still the main things…mostly

A scan of articles from several years ago created a pretty consistent list of things people wanted from an employer. Essentially it boiled down to these staples:

  • Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels
  • Trust between employees and senior management
  • Overall benefits
  • Overall compensation/pay
  • Job security

If that seems reasonable enough, it should. The list hasn’t changed dramatically in over 50 years. But what has changed as a result of the pandemic? Well, all the items on this list have remained, with one big addition. The need for more flexibility in work and ability to balance home and work life has crept high on the list for most people. (You can make an argument that demand falls under both trust and overall benefits but the demand is so high it qualifies as its own unit).

So what has changed?

So if expectations haven’t changed much, what is causing this stress? How about this: It’s one thing to say you expect these things. It’s another to actually ask for them.

The simple truth is that the pandemic created a situation that has allowed, for the first time in many years, employees to be choosier about the next job they take.  The most obvious change is that people have had almost 18 months to think about what they’ll do next, and with some financial assistance (and we’re not going to argue with anyone about the merits; they are a factor to be considered regardless of anyone’s opinion), people have been able to choose their next job more mindfully, having had lots of time to think about what’s important to them.

Expectations that are becoming more important

  • Overall cost of living—especially housing. The actual expected salary is a higher priority than it’s been for a while, which is what’s causing most of the complaints from prospective employers. Existing salaries haven’t kept up with inflation for years. Costs are going up, and given a choice, people expect their job to cover their basic costs. Add new child care, medical and education arrangements for families, and what is considered a livable wage has changed. Job seekers want to make enough to pay their bills, regardless of what they made at their prior job. Most people do not want to be on unemployment or some other assistance. They overwhelmingly want to work. But if they are doing better financially on assistance than working, or can afford not to leap at the first job offered because it’s not what they want, there’s a problem with the work. Working is great for the soul, but basic needs must be met first. In real estate terms, it’s a buyers’ market.
  • Flexibility matters. While some companies had generous telework arrangements before the pandemic, lots of companies had no plan or just refused to let people work from home. Now, many jobs that were thought to be office-only are clearly not, and many families have changed the assignment of duties between the parents, meaning that both partners are seeking more flexibility. This applies to so much more. The ability to avoid a commute puts money directly in people’s pockets.  The ability to work from anywhere means people can seek more desirable and affordable housing and live where it fits their lifestyle.
  • All the other stuff still applies.  Once people have a job, it doesn’t take long for them to settle into it. People stay or choose to leave jobs for the same reasons they always have—relationships with their boss being at the top of the list, followed by the items we’ve already listed.

Employers are having to adjust their expectations

Another part of the reason for the stress on the part of employers is simply that they are short of people, and many organizations are changing how they work. That makes for a complicated combination of being shorthanded while also being uncertain about the future. That’s a recipe for loud complaints.

It appears that while there are some post-pandemic specifics like the desire to work from home more often, people want what they’ve always wanted: to have meaningful, enjoyable work that pays their bills. Organizations have to decide if they want to be employers of preference or employers of last chance.

As you can see, it’s a pretty complicated puzzle that both employers and employees are trying to solve…and the pieces are constantly changing. We can help you keep track of all those parts with our free Future of Work newsletter.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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