Expert Opinion

There’s Nothing Quiet About It: The Shifting Employee-Employer Relationship 

By Dieter Veldsman
There’s Nothing Quiet About It: The Shifting Employee-Employer Relationship 
Expert Opinion

In brief

Recently, there has been a plethora of articles headlining one of these buzzwords. Comically, these trends are often described as unprecedented or life-changing concepts that are entirely new to HR.

They’re not. 

Quiet Quitting has been well-studied. It is called employee disengagement
Quiet Hiring is nothing new. It’s called having a good internal mobility strategy.  
Quiet Firing is synonymous with bad management and a lack of managing non-performance.

As HR professionals, we should be wary of ignoring sound science in favor of clickbait terms. Using these buzzwords only serves to further perpetuate a view that HR is incompetent and does little to boost our reputation or credibility. We don’t need another article stating the obvious; instead, we need to dig a little deeper to understand what lies at the root of all this noise. 

We need to begin by examining the changing employee-employer relationship.

The employee-employer / employee-work relationships are changing

It’s undisputed that the changes we have witnessed in the workplace over the past few years have contributed to a change in the psychological contract. Because of this new psychological contract, the employee-employer relationship is changing in three ways that HR must take notice of now.

And no, I am not calling this “Quiet HR-ing”.

Change #1: Employees have higher expectations of work

Since the first industrial revolution, work has been evolving at an increasingly rapid pace blurring the boundaries between work and life. Yet, the pandemic was the first time the world came to a surprising halt, and billions of people were confronted with the question:  

Why do I work?

For some, this answer is easy – to earn a living. To live out a passion. To contribute towards something greater. Or for the challenge. For others, though, the question seemed to unearth an existential crisis culminating in more questions such as “Should I work?” and if so, “How can my priorities in life and work co-exist?”

Given this shift in perspective, employees have started to evaluate employers more critically, and in a talent-scarce market, this has raised the stakes for employers – particularly when it comes to attracting candidates with good skills.

Employers are competing, now more so than ever, to have the first pick of top talent, and new benefits and flashy EVPs have been seen as key differentiators.

It’s inevitable that the pendulum will swing back. This is already a reality for many employees due to the looming recession and current layoffs.  Especially recently, the impersonal nature of letting employees go after many years of service through mass communication leaves a bad taste in the mouth.  

These decisions are hard, and if they need to be made, they must still be approached in a humane, fair, and transparent manner.

Change #2: New types of working relationships are emerging

As our definition of work has changed, so too has the ability to enter into new work relationships. I like to think about the employer and employee relationship as different degrees of “membership”.

Some employees have a close degree of “membership”. They spend all of their time with one employer, and the employer is their primary source of income. In the old world, this was called a full-time employee.

Other individuals have a degree of “membership” that is more distant and requires selective degrees of participation. These are gig relationships or temporary contracts where the employer is one of many that the employee works for.

As work changes, so too must the way in which people and organizations barter skills. Not too long ago, we defined work as bricks and mortar and a set timeframe where everyone was available.

Work is now fluid, and so should the way we manage talent.

Change #3: The concept of a ‘job’ and ‘work’ is not the same

The past few years have seen the emergence of prioritizing skills instead of jobs. This movement, sometimes referred to as “deconstructing work” or skills-based work design, has questioned traditional roles and job descriptions in favor of a more practical and targeted skills approach.

Despite organizations still struggling with implementing this approach across all HR practices, there are already signs of steady progress in the domains of learning, agile ways of working, and assessments.

This is a tall order to get right across all practices, yet, these conversations have already promulgated a shift in mindset. We have started to let go of the rigid perspective of what “my job” is. The focus is instead on what is the “work” and what needs to be done.

It has opened up the opportunity for talent mobility in new ways, and the growing trend of internal marketplaces demonstrates this shift. Moving people around internally within the organization for assignments, new responsibilities, and additional exposure has become more commonplace.

Not only is this more cost-effective, but it is also beneficial to employees who no longer have to formally move into a new role if they want to stretch and develop.

There is also the opportunity to better manage productivity and move capacity in the organization in alignment with the business rhythm. For example, moving more employees into the production teams during annual maintenance projects, shifting employees to assist with year-end reporting to the finance function, or rotating administrative employees to help with customer onboarding during peak sales periods.

Changing Dynamics in the Employee-Employer Relationship

Where to from here?

As HR, we must help organizations navigate this changing relationship responsibly and sustainably. I believe this starts with understanding who our employees are. I am not referring to flashy people dashboards highlighting demographics.

We need to connect with our employees as human beings. What are their lived experiences? What do they want from work? Even though it has its limitations, using persona-based approaches to understand internal employee groupings provide valuable insight that will change our decisions regarding how and where we invest in people practices.

Next, we should be open to these new types of employee-work relationships. As organizations, there are many benefits to be gained by broadening how we manage internal and external talent. This will mean several changes to your talent practices, and we might need to push the envelope on some legislation to better enable our new relationships.

Lastly, we need to become more adept at articulating the work. Or even better, what problem are we solving and for whom? The organization that is able to better understand the work to be done, the skills required to do the work, and where to leverage those skills will have already gained an advantage over the monoliths of the past.

In summary

Fluidity in work design; fluidity in structures; and fluidity in when, where, and how people work should become core to your organizational DNA. These changes will not be easy, but they will be worth it. They won’t happen quietly. Nor will they happen by hiding behind trendy words that get many likes. They will happen by addressing the root cause of how our relationship with work is changing.

If we don’t, the next trend will not be a “Quiet” one. Extinction rarely is.

About the Author

Dieter VeldsmanChief HR Scientist
Dr. Dieter Veldsman is an organizational psychologist with 15+ years of experience across the HR value chain and lifecycle, having worked for and consulted with various organizations in EMEA, APAC, and LATAM. He has held the positions of Group Chief People Officer, Organizational Effectiveness Executive, Director of Consulting Solutions, and Chief Research Scientist. He is a regular speaker on the topics of Strategic HR, Future of Work, Employee Experience and Organisational Development.
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