Toward a new Employee Value Proposition – Part 1

Photo: A cycling trail near my home where I’m often able to do some of my best thinking. “Be where you need to be”​ lets me both get and deliver value in ways I may not have been able to otherwise.

The scramble to recruit and retain top talent has long encouraged organizations of varying sizes, industries, and cultures to invest vast resources researching, formulating, and articulating their employer branding. Earning recognition as an employer of choice has increasingly meant a need to focus on the employee value proposition (EVP) as a unique contract or deal – a relationship, if you will – between an organization and its employees. 

An EVP is a relationship, to be sure, and to a certain extent it will always remain unique to a given organization. But what if in our post-Covid world, being unique with an EVP takes a backseat to being compelling? What if we are driving towards a new, more universal understanding of what underlies (or should underlie) a mutually beneficial relationship between an organization and its employees?

While it’s still early and my insights are still largely based on anecdotal evidence – in other words, rigorous qualitative and quantitative research would be welcome – it seems that two tenets, grounded first and foremost in trust, may eventually come to define the employer-employee relationship at a number of organizations in our new world. In this first of a two-part article, I’ll talk about the first of these tenets: 

“Be where you need to be”

The opportunity to work for Gagen MacDonald – a small but mighty strategic advisory firm focused on organizational communication, culture, leadership and employee engagement – is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career for a number of reasons. In hindsight, one of the most compelling was its dedication to maintaining a spirit of trust with and among employees, something I didn’t fully appreciate until the Covid-19 pandemic struck, well after I had left the firm. In a blog post shared last September (“Lessons in Leadership and Life”), Maril MacDonald, the firm’s founder and CEO, reflected on “be where you need to be”, among other aspects that had driven the firm’s success over the years.

On its face, “be where you need to be” was about flexibility for an employee to get work done in a way that satisfied the needs of the individual employee, his or her team of consultants, and the client. It was a balancing act and, on the whole, it worked. People understood the expectations. Sometimes it meant a 60-hour week onsite with a client far away from home, while at times it meant staying close to home and checking in a few times a day (or not at all) while tending to a sick parent or child. Most often it meant a rather full week with work done when and where employees were able to balance and align their own situations with those of clients and colleagues.

“Be where you need to be” is a tenet that goes both ways, incidentally. It applies to employees in the sense of enabling them to achieve a balance between work and personal lives, but it also applies to organizations. Covid-19 has laid bare the need for organizations to offer flexibility as employees deal with illness, a spouse’s job loss, or childcare interruption, to name but a few challenges. Organizations have realized quite quickly that they need to be where their employees need them to be, whether that’s having IT support available during non-traditional working hours (because the only time people can get work done at times is when the kids are asleep), offering career guidance sessions for employees’ family members who have been laid off from their own jobs, or relaxing rules on benefits like vacation time and flex spending accounts.

At the end of the day, “be where you need to be” is made possible by trusting employees to do the right thing as they balance their work and personal lives, and it’s about employees trusting their organizations to be where they are needed. As the Covid-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear, this is an employee value proposition tenet that works surprisingly well for organizations in a number of industries – certainly for those that employ vast swaths of knowledge workers who spend most of their workdays online. But with a degree of creativity and flexibility, it also works for those with employees who have roles that are more restricted to time and place. Taken a step further, “be where you need to be” could signify a relationship where employees embrace role flexibility to help out colleagues whose jobs don’t allow the same degree of flexibility, or it could mean organizations offering people the opportunity to slide into roles that align more with their personal situations. At its heart, it’s about flexibility…and trust.

In part two of this article, I’ll explore the second tenet of what may soon be the employee value proposition of the future: “We want to hear from you.” These are words we encounter all the time in invitations to take surveys or attend focus groups, or to introduce Q&A during an organization’s town hall, for example. I’ll also explore what role internal communication professionals, as dot connectors, can and should play as their organizations seek to develop, articulate, and embed this new employee value proposition in their cultures.

COMMENTS FROM IC BEYOND

MIKE – Great article. “Be where you need to be’ is a mutually accommodating policy and that gives it a lot of appeal. The challenge is that it arose in a “war for talent” environment where organizations competed on benefits. Now we are in a buyer’s market – a “war ON talent” scenario. What are the short and long term benefits of this type of approach and will they be compelling enough for companies to embrace?

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ADAM – Thank you, Mike. Excellent points and questions raised. Regarding the short- and long-term benefits of the approach, I think a lot of organizations, if they haven’t already, will find that “be where you need to be” is an inexpensive way to provide a significant benefit to employees who have long yearned for greater flexibility and opportunities to work more effectively and therefore deliver their best performance. I think the evidence is still coming in, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of any strong statements I’ve heard from company leaders regarding decreased employee productivity as a result of WFH arrangements necessitated by Covid-19.

From a long-term perspective, not only is the benefit inexpensive, it could prove money-saving for those organizations that choose to reduce their office footprints, for example. The challenge will be for these organizations to demonstrate that the money saved from such an approach is being invested back into employees – into higher salaries, more vacation time, initiatives to create and maintain a sense of community, and even technology to further improve the remote working experience. Without that, employees could easily view the increased performance expectations (i.e., as a result of longer working hours in many cases) not as a benefit but as yet another means of extracting without giving back.

As for whether the approach will be compelling long-term, that’s more complicated. As “be where you need to be” becomes more widespread and commoditized, it will be incumbent upon organizations to distinguish themselves not by focusing on the benefit per se, but rather on the stories about what it’s done for organizations, individual employees, and the communities these organizations call home. And IC professionals have a huge role to play here – both as dot connectors and storytellers. Stay tuned for Part 2!

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TRUDY – I love this Adam. Having worked on an EVP it is refreshing for it to be thought of as something that means something to people rather than lots of straplines and collateral. I agree EVP needs to evolve, I too wonder what it will take for companies to embrace a proposition that is less flashy and much more realistic to employees? Perhaps it’s how we demonstrate the impact on the bottom line more and as you mention it is a more cost-effective way to delivering what I’d call a ‘valued proposition’. I’d definitely welcome something more ‘compelling’ and ‘new’. Also, I thought about how IC’s involvement is critical for the success of this transition too. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what happens next.

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ADAM – Thank you, Trudy. I agree that showing the impact on the bottom line, if done the right way, could be really compelling. And this goes both ways – the company’s bottom line and the employee’s bottom line. For example, it’s no secret that a lot of companies are struggling, and even for those that haven’t had to lay off employees, financial pressures will probably keep bonuses and salary increases at bay for some time, especially if inflation remains low and the buyer’s market for talent remains. I’ve talked to a number of people over the past few months, and when they do the math, most estimate that they’ve saved anywhere from 2% to 5% of their take-home earnings by working from home versus commuting. Think about that: the cost of commuting – regardless of whether it’s spent on gasoline, road tolls, or parking for vehicles or various tickets for public transport – amounts to 2-5% of take-home pay. Eliminating that, or at least drastically reducing it, amounts to a significant pay increase for employees (provided there’s not an accompanying expectation of greater hours worked in return). Add to that the real possibility that employees might be able to enjoy drastically reduced child-care expenses as a result of more flexible arrangements, and you’ve got a real benefit. But again, it’ll be incumbent on organizations not to make the average week longer for employees via explicit or implicit pressure for greater output.

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KEVIN – I think this is a great, timely, piece that focuses on the need to reappraise what an ‘employee value proposition’ is and how a new understanding could incorporate more emphasis on internal communication. Some commentators have highlighted the way that Covid-19 has raised questions of who and what we – or rather, our economic systems – value, as well as questions around the nature of work, our collective humanity and the role of business in society. This thinking places more attention on the ‘S’ in ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria. Social criteria are often understood as relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where an organisation operates. It’s the relationship with employees that has come to the fore recently. This can be fundamentally changed through a greater understanding of how internal communication (informing and listening) is integral to treating employees well.

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ADAM – I agree, Kevin. This is something I’ll get into more in Part 2 of this article, but you’ve hit the nail on the head with that last sentence. Although it’s certainly not always the case, companies generally seem to be better about informing and listening during times of significant business transformation – a major investment, merger or acquisition, or a big leadership change, for example. I sense that we’re approaching a new era where the listening component will have to play a more central role all the time – even during the less exciting periods that tend to be thought of as “business as usual”.

With regard to “be where you need to be”, simply communicating that as one part of the new value proposition isn’t enough. Organizations will have to be able to communicate it – and live it, for that matter – in a way that’s compelling for their cultures. Hence the importance of listening.

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JANET – First off I love the simplicity of this and how it feels balanced and like Trudy says, valued, but… I have a niggling feeling that as company finances are stretched there will start to be a swing to the bottom line, cutting costs and worse. 

We are already seeing redundancies across many sectors and a huge number of UK employees remain furloughed. Also I am hearing of IC and HR teams being asked to tighten their belts in spite of all the challenges Covid has thrown their way. 

I want to believe that money saved by supporting this approach will be given back to people but I’m with Mike in looking at the wider socio-economic context. And my spidey senses aren’t good. 

Bring on part 2 of your article!

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ADAM – Janet, the worry is certainly justified, and some of the early evidence from the great shift to work-from-from home is that employees are working longer hours. Part of that is surely on employees who simply aren’t used to drawing clear boundaries between home and work and therefore may not even realize the extra time they’re putting in, and surely some of it is due to a desire to appear more productive while working remotely, whether to increase their chances of surviving impending staff reductions or to prove their fitness for such an arrangement in the future when Covid-19 is behind us. But surely some of it is on organizations as well. After all, if an employee isn’t commuting early in the morning or in the evening, it’s not a stretch to see how a manager could treat that as “available time”.

I do think that as long as belt-tightening and a buyer’s market for talent remain the norm – likely the case for the foreseeable future – it’s going to fall on employees to demonstrate what they would add in a “be where you need to be” value proposition. There are downsides to that, for sure, but there could be lots of opportunities for employees to demonstrate leadership and value that weren’t always there in the traditional office environment.

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BELINDA – Adam, thanks again for forcing my brain into twists, knots and backflips with your thinking. In a good way. Your piece throws up several thoughts – some more formed than others. 

You suggest that to a certain extent the EVP will always remain unique to a given organization. I agree. If an EVP isn’t suggesting something unique that competitors don’t offer, I’m not sure it is a value proposition at all. But, I like your idea that there may be new universal norms that are explicit or implicit in every EVP simply because the world has moved on. 

A bit like when Brand A launches a consumer product with a certain value proposition that quickly gets copied and built on by competitors. What was once a new or unique feature, is now a hygiene factor baked into every product in the category. 

I would hope that trust is one such factor that any employee can take for granted – ie my employer trusts me and I trust them. In reality, we know that’s far from the case. 

So what about flexible working becoming something that any employee anywhere can expect? I think I would agree that while this may be the case in certain industries where there will continue to be competition for talent, in those where there is a surplus of people and a shortage of jobs, I’m not sure every organisation will back flexibility as a given. Not because it doesn’t pay. But because for many it’s too much of a culture and mindset shift and any change takes energy and conviction. 

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ADAM – Great points, Belinda. Yes, in a nutshell, I am arguing that universal norms should and likely will underly organizations’ EVPs much more so than they have in the recent past. This is not to say that employees will stop seeking a differentiated experience – they will continue to seek that, especially in industries where there is a tough competition for talent – but I do see a return to more basic, universal expectations about what organizations can and should offer. The opportunity to build an interesting career for many years and being rewarded with competitive wages and benefits are other universal elements I see taking a more central role alongside “be where you need to be” and the culture of listening that I’ll address more in Part 2.

As for the culture and mindset shift, I think it’s happening a lot more quickly than we realize. I know organizations that were once convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’d never be able to operate effectively with employees working remotely. Well, now that it’s a thing and may well have to be for many, many months as Covid-19 infections continue to spike in certain locations, the culture and mindset shifts are probably happening regardless how much they’re being welcomed or resisted. Add to that the normal changes in leadership and turnover of talent that’s happening, and a permanent shift seems inevitable.

As IC professionals who have (or should have) a good sense of our organizations’ pulses, it’s not hard to envision scenarios of untold disruption that would play out if leaders insist on too much of a return to the old ways of working. That disruption may just be too bitter of a pill to swallow.

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