Modern Training

What do today’s employees want in a job?

Posted on: September 27, 2023Updated on: April 17, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Attitudes about work and what employees need to succeed have drastically shifted in the last few years, primarily due to changing external pressures like rising inflation, rapidly evolving technologies and a renewed emphasis on employee mental health. 

People are asking big questions about what work should look like in 2023 and beyond—and its role in their lives. And perhaps the biggest question of all is, “What do today’s employees want in a job?”

SAP’s Chief Expert of Technology and Work, Dr. Steve Hunt, has answers. He recently joined JD Dillon, Axonify’s Chief Learning Architect, on an episode of ITK to share insights into what goes into creating a desirable workplace and how companies can increase their workforce’s agility and performance by improving employee experience, development, engagement, inclusion and well-being.

Retail associates and managers want to feel a sense of recognition, accomplishment, security, belonging and respect

Here are three essential takeaways from their conversation.

1. “What people want from work is a [reflection of] what people want from life”

The changing nature of work means how we manage people must also change. Jobs are becoming less routine and more cognitive, and employees need help acquiring or refreshing their skills and knowledge to perform at their best when they show up for their shifts.

Hunt says that if leaders are looking to tap into what people want from work today, they should pay attention to the one thing that has stayed constant throughout: fundamental human psychology. 

“What people want from work is a [reflection of] what people want from life. It’s pretty simple,” he says. “They want a sense of security, growth, stability and accomplishment. They want to feel respected.”

The results of our Deskless Report 2023 support this concept. Misalignment of priorities has left fundamental employee needs unmet for far too long. Employees suffer when success drivers like a livable wage, consistent scheduling, development opportunities and empathetic leadership are missing.

While there are innovative ways that organizations can meet the psychological needs of their people, it’s really about building an understanding from role to role of how the working experience can be improved—whether that’s how employees are being recognized and celebrated for their accomplishments or identifying other gaps in your company culture that might not be hitting the mark. 

“One of the big changes in the last 20 years is people realizing that separating work from life is unhealthy and unnatural,” Hunt continues. “You can’t do it. When we invited people into our homes [virtually in the pandemic], it broke down the mythological barrier: there’s the ‘work me,’ and there’s the ‘life me.’ People compartmentalize and separate the two, and there are differences. But the reality is what makes people happy at work is what makes them happy, period.”

2. What makes “a good job” differs by experience, not age

Are Gen Z employees looking for something different than Millennials? Hunt says not necessarily.

“The type of jobs people are in has a much bigger impact on what they want from work than their generation. We focus so much on generations when we really should focus on understanding employees and their jobs,” he says. “For example, what frontline workers want more of is quite different from people who identify heavily with their professional identity. And the amount of money they make at work has a big impact. If you’re working in a job that pays $40,000 a year versus a job that pays $400,000 a year, it makes a profound difference to what you care about at work.”

Organizations that focus too much on targeting generational differences could also unintentionally open the door to ageism, adversely affecting the workplace culture they’re trying to cultivate.

“We’d be a lot better off if we just focus on what employees want in their jobs, regardless of age. Are there generational differences? Yes, there are. But again, it’s a formula for ageism. You don’t need a Ph.D. in Psychology to know that slapping labels on people based on their demographic characteristics and generalizing about them is bad.”

“The life experiences—and that’s the way to phrase it, not the age but the life experiences you have—shape your attitudes about work. Your expectations about work and what it’ll provide are influenced by the life experiences that you’ve had.” 

Instead of generational divides, consider what might be important to employees at different career stages, suggests Hunt.

“Many of the shifts that we associate with generational differences are just differences in career stage. When starting a career, you have different attitudes about the desire for growth, feedback and development than when you’ve been working for 20 years. For example, somebody who stayed at home, raised children until they were 40 and entered the workforce at 45 has a lot more similarities to somebody who’s 22 and just graduating from college than maybe their spouse who’d been working all that time.” 

“The year you were born isn’t what matters. What matters is what’s happened since you were born and what you want to do with the years left. That’s what we should focus on.”

3. How managers—and employees—factor in

For managers: Hunt offers advice he got from his father—when you have people reporting to you, don’t do to them what frustrated you when you were being managed. Bad management practices tend to cycle downhill. So, don’t pass it on if your boss does something unfavorable.

Shift your mindset to look at things from the employee POV. Listen to them, establish rapport and partnership and try to step into their shoes. Realize that your relationship with your teams will change over time, and turnover isn’t innately bad—it’s a transition. 

For employees: Try to assume positive intent. Most managers are not intentionally trying to be insensitive or make your work day more difficult. They’re often unaware and overworked. Most of them didn’t get sufficient training on how to be a manager and should be met with empathy.

Watch the full episode on-demand for more insights and see how drilling down to the basics of what makes people happy—recognition, accomplishment, security, belonging—can impact your approach to creating a desirable workplace.

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.