Motivating Talent in the Post-Pandemic World

Is America bidding farewell to the Puritan work ethic?

By Jim Jonassen, JJA Founder 

The latest statistics show a jaw-dropping seven job openings for every one American who “wants to work.” This is unprecedented and, to some of us, mind-boggling. The drive to put in endless hours without rest is practically programmed into our DNA. For generations, we’ve been brought up to define our very identities according to a job, profession or title.

And if you were unfortunate enough to find yourself “between assignments?” Everyone assumed you were actively on the hunt – that you wanted to be working. That was the American way. But that way has changed, and we don’t see it going back.

Clearly, there are some significant shifts taking place. And at some point, we’ll all need to embrace a different approach to caring for and feeding mission-critical talent.

So what’s driving all this transformation?

We’re all still suffering from the pandemic.

It’s impossible to ignore the impact of COVID-19. Paying workers to stay home while effectively shutting down the U.S. economy may have saved countless lives. It also exposed our long-held Puritan work ethic for precisely what it was: cherished dogma, a grand assumption, rather than one of the basic building blocks of the universe.

So even when bills are piling up, even with the unemployment rate at historic lows, many people are simply not choosing to sign on for full-time work. Our friends around the globe tend to regard this new perspective as less crazy, not more.

A new way to get stuff done.

The abrupt shift to remote work gave people newfound freedom to approach work differently. Working from home was radical enough, but now it’s also possible (or necessary) to shift your best efforts to other parts of the day. Collaboration is still essential, but it’s more acceptable to approach the job from a much more independent angle.

Work/life balance took on new meaning, becoming much more than a vague aspiration. Having to carve out space from kids, pets, or roommates daily will do that to you. 

Profound generational shifts.

Actually, this was happening even before COVID hit. We see all this fresh young talent, just brimming with ideas and energy, and wonder why they all seem so utterly lacking in motivation. They work odd hours from improbable locations and appear guided by some mysterious career compass that makes no sense to the rest of us. 

But broadly speaking, the problem isn’t with them. No, it’s with those who keep attempting to apply a familiar paradigm that simply no longer works for today’s workforce.

Boomers passing the torch (and their money).

Another critical driver of generational change is the unprecedented transfer of wealth from Baby Boomers to their Gen-X and Gen-Z heirs. Washington-based investment manager United Income reckons that roughly $36 trillion will be passed down by mid-century. It’s not as if everyone will fill their swimming pools with $100 bills. But it’s safe to say this younger crowd regards money differently than their parents and grandparents.  

At minimum, cold hard cash and generous stock options aren’t the cure-alls many have always considered them to be. 

“At minimum, cold hard cash and generous stock options aren’t the cure-alls many always considered them to be.”

Okay, so what motivators matter?

On the whole, this upcoming generation is highly engaged. But their secret to high performance isn’t biological drive. It’s not about chasing rewards or even the avoidance of perceived punishment.  

In his New York Times bestseller Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink offers what we agree is an effective solution: sparking engagement by openly catering to the psychology of intrinsic motivation. 

Here are the priorities that matter to your next game-changing hire: 

  • Autonomy – today’s rising talent is hard-wired to want much more control over the direction their lives take, both personally and professionally. Like it or not, the days of the one-size-fits-all career path are now behind us.   
  • Mastery – many find incredible motivation in the idea of getting better and better at something that really matters. Expertise and a sense of accomplishment are part of the equation, but it has to be something they consider truly meaningful.  
  • Purpose – another central driver is the yearning to serve some higher goal or purpose. Success for its own sake is no longer enough. This helps explain the strong emphasis on climate change and sustainability as just one example. Personal growth fits in here too. 

Another significant point is the emphasis on diversity and inclusion. A few quick stats to drive this home:

  • According to one Deloitte study, millennials at inclusive companies are 83% more likely to be engaged at work.
  • McKinsey says corporations identified as more diverse and inclusive are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors..
  • 75% of today’s job seekers and workers say they prefer diverse companies, per BuiltIn.

Leveraging the new ethos in pursuit of A+ talent.

So by now, hopefully, we can all agree that we’re witnessing a profound shift in thinking around priorities and goals. But how does this apply in the quest to attract and inspire exceptional performers up and down your org chart?

  • Intentionally seek out those more drawn to mastery and challenge than dollars and cents. These are not altruistic, free-spirited loonies, so you’ll still need to pay them competitively.  
  • Screen candidates for raw potential, not just pedigree and domain expertise. Yes, we know this is hard. If you’d like help, we’re always here. 
  • Embrace flexibility like never before. Team size and budget, seniority level, where and how individual team members work – these must all be seen as open questions.  
  • Find meaningful new ways for your organization to do the right thing. Get greener. Invest in the communities where you do business. Be more inclusive. Celebrate diversity. These should all be no-brainers anyway. But even those companies still guided purely by self-interest will come out ahead when they consciously adopt a more progressive stance.  

Change is scary. Not changing should scare you more.

Adaptation is never easy, and institutional inertia can be extremely tough to overcome. But the longer you wait, the harder it’ll be to set meaningful changes in motion. And while you dither, the superstars you need on your team will gravitate to those employers who’ve already chosen to embrace today’s prevailing attitudes toward work and life. 

You’ve still got time to align with these new realities. But the time to start is now. Of course, we’re always happy to help.

Hey – my name may be on the byline, but the ideas I share are always the product of a team effort. JJA is on a mission to raise the bar in high-stakes recruitment, from retained searches to corporate talent acquisition. We approach life like an open-source project, driven by the belief that there’s always a better way. If you have ideas you’d like to contribute, please email us. To download some of the free tools we’ve developed, visit the JJA website.