6 ways leaders need to address changing employee expectations

Written by Dan Hughes, Director of International R&D

The world of work is continually evolving, and this means that the role and attributes of leaders also need to change and adapt, too. At its very heart, leadership is a process of influencing a group of people to achieve a desired goal. Relying on status is not enough; leaders need to be able to engage and inspire others to work together to achieve key organizational objectives. Employee expectations about leadership therefore play a critical role – it is only possible to engage and influence people if you genuinely understand what they need to perform at their best and what they want from work.

The impact of the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the work context. Organizations, leaders, and employees had to adapt rapidly to a volatile and uncertain situation, which put extreme pressure on many people. It is going to leave some lasting changes, such as a desire from many employees to move to a hybrid working arrangement on a permanent basis. In the Work Trend Index survey administered by Microsoft earlier this year, 73% of workers surveyed indicated they wanted flexible remote work options to carry on.

Beyond that, the experience has also left many people reevaluating what they want from their work and careers. While there is debate about exactly how ’great’ the ‘great resignation’ might be, there is certainly evidence that more people are leaving their jobs than before, with reported rates of voluntary resignations in the US reaching an all-time high of 2.9% in August 2021.

Changes around expectations of good leadership have also been accelerated by the pandemic. In our own research, we found that this challenging context brought the impact that leaders have on the employee experience into sharp focus. Some leaders came to the forefront and stood out in how they dealt with the pandemic, by showing human-centered leadership and recognizing the needs and concerns of their teams. In comparison, other leaders struggled, and this had a ripple effect on their employees’ experience and well-being. How leaders behaved and performed made a key difference in how employees coped with the pandemic and the many obstacles they faced.

All of this means that it is now an important time to take stock and reflect on what employees’ expectations are for their leaders in the reshaped world of work.

What do employees want from leaders moving forward?

As we move into a new era of work following the pandemic, what are the expectations that employees now have for their leaders? What might have more of a priority than before? Here are six key needs to address changing employee expectations in the workplace.

  1. Purpose and meaning
  2. More than anything at work, employees want to feel motivated and engaged with what they are doing. This is nothing new – motivating people has always been a cornerstone of leadership. However, what tends to motivate people is evolving. As employees reevaluate their career goals, they are increasingly looking for organizations that have an inspiring purpose and a social conscience with clear ESG (environmental, social, and governance) strategies. Leaders need to strive to create this meaning and purpose for employees and help to generate an emotional attachment to their work. Those that don’t could struggle to retain high performers as more employees look for organizations that align to their own values.

  3. Autonomy
  4. In remote and hybrid working settings, empowerment and autonomy are more important than ever. People and teams need to feel trusted to achieve objectives and work without close supervision. Leaders need to be open-minded and provide a positive climate where employees feel safe to make decisions and approach tasks in the way they judge best, knowing they have support and trust from their leader. Furthermore, the complex and fast-moving nature of work today means that leaders must acknowledge that they can’t have all the answers themselves – they need to embrace diverse ideas and perspectives to overcome challenges and innovate.

  5. Connectedness and belonging
  6. Many employees and leaders may now be adjusting permanently to remote and hybrid work. From our research on leadership in the pandemic, we saw that less effective leaders did not keep sufficiently connected with individuals. Leaders managing remote or hybrid workers need to make the time to connect regularly on a one-to-one basis with team members. Together, they need to work more actively to foster team spirit, belonging, and collaboration for remote workers. They also need to be careful to avoid proximity bias in the workplace, where more attention is unconsciously given to employees who are in closer proximity to the leader. Leaders need to ensure they are being truly inclusive and creating a sense of belonging for everyone.

  7. A leader they can trust
  8. Employees are more and more focused on a leader’s character and values – who they are and what they stand for. Trust was a critical factor during the pandemic as employees were faced with uncertainty and confusion. Employees want leaders who demonstrate humility and honesty and who prioritize the people they lead over themselves. If a leader acts in their own self-interest ahead of others, then trust quickly breaks down and leaders will lose their influence. Employees are more attuned to this than ever following the pandemic. Leaders need to be mindful of the climate they create and put their team’s needs first to build a strong foundation of trust, psychological safety, and collaboration.

  9. Feedback and coaching
  10. In general, people are intrinsically motivated to gain mastery of their role, learn different skills, and take on increasing responsibility. They want to be given the opportunity to develop and experience new challenges. With more employees considering leaving their jobs in the near future, it is critical that leaders actively provide employees with opportunities for growth along with clear, regular, and constructive feedback. Leaders who provide coaching and development that aligns to individual career goals and helps people to progress will be more effective at retaining key talent in their organization.

  11. Concern for well-being
  12. Well-being was already an area of increasing attention for some organizations, but this jumped up the agenda during the pandemic as the link between performance and well-being was very clearly visible. Employees felt anxious about the virus, their work, their job security, and their families. One report by the CIPD found that 45% of employees reported that their mental health worsened during the pandemic. In our own research into leadership in the pandemic, we found that employees valued leaders who showed empathy and compassion toward the challenges of the situation and their individual circumstances. Employees therefore want leaders who demonstrate genuine care for their mental and physical well-being; we anticipate this expectation will continue for the foreseeable future.

    While all these elements were present before the pandemic, the impact of the pandemic has put them at the top of the list in terms of changing employee expectations in the workplace. Leaders who pay attention to these six areas will be well equipped to retain talent and get the best out of people at work.

    Learn more by reading our research report ‘Leading in the future world of work’ where we share insights from our extensive research into how perspectives on leadership are shifting, and how leadership needs to evolve to drive organizational success and a positive employee experience.

Leading in the future world of work

As the world of work continues to change, the role and attributes of leaders continues to be debated and reviewed.

What are the most important changes and opportunities brought on by Covid-19, resulting in the biggest global leadership challenge in decades?

Download our research report now and explore our insights into four critical leadership themes:

  • The impact of leadership on organizational performance
  • The impact of leadership on the employee experience
  • Lessons learned from leadership in the pandemic
  • Future of leadership – critical challenges and responses
Download Now