Successful firms need to understand shifting worker motivations. New Bain & Company research drills down on what these are and how business leaders can adapt

Work will never be the same again. The Covid-19 pandemic catalyzed changes that had long been brewing, and according to a new Bain & Company survey, 58% of workers across 10 major economies feel the pandemic has forced them to rethink the balance between their work and their personal lives.

The new report by Bain & Company, The Working Future highlights five key themes that are reshaping the future of work and the steps firms need to take to get ahead in the shifting war for talent. The report is grounded in a survey of 20,000 workers, conducted by Bain & Company and Dynata, as well as more than 100 in-depth interviews. Bain’s research looked at 10 countries—the United States, China, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil—that represent around 65% of global GDP and offer a broad perspective from different cultures around the world.

“Much of the prevailing thinking about the relationship between workers and firms was forged in a very different world than the one we live in today, where options were more limited and relationships more transactional,” said Andrew Schwedel, partner at Bain & Company and co-chair of the firm’s think tank, Bain Futures. “Today’s environment requires a radical rethink of both the structure and the purpose of work, but to do that one needs to first understand the shifting motivations of individual workers.”

Bain’s research identifies five key themes that are reshaping work:

1. Motivations for work are changing.

Gains in living standards over the past 150 years are allowing us to spend less of our time working and raising expectations about what a job should provide. While compensation still ranks among the top priorities for most workers, only one in five now rank it as the number one factor in a job with interesting work, job security and flexibility also among the most important priorities.

This new research shows that as community organizations and religious observance have declined in prominence, new generations of workers may turn to their careers to provide social connection and a sense of higher purpose. Far from the idle leisure class of bygone eras, the upper echelons of today’s society now work the longest hours of all, as busyness is seen as a sign of status. Those at the bottom of the income hierarchy now work the least hours, as they are often unable to secure the stable full-time employment they desire.

2. Beliefs about what makes a “good job” are diverging.

As attitudes toward work fragment, the average worker is no longer a useful approximation. Bain has identified six worker archetypes, each with a different set of priorities: operators, givers, artisans, explorers, strivers and pioneers. For instance, 25% of US executives are “pioneers”—risk-tolerant workers who are on a mission to change the world and will make great personal sacrifices accordingly—compared with only 9% of the nation’s working population. This research shows the need for business leaders to recognize that their personal perspective of what a good job looks like won’t necessarily be shared by everyone in their organization, especially those on the front lines.

3. Automation is helping to rehumanize work.

Distinctly human advantages— problem solving skills, interpersonal connection and creativity—are growing in importance as automation eliminates routine work. Bain expects to see a shifting occupational mix in developed economies that will favor uniquely human skills in the workforce of the future. This will require a major reskilling of the workforce.

4. Technological change is blurring the boundaries of the firm.

The pandemic has profoundly shifted the way workers interact with their firms. The amount of time Americans spent working from home jumped from 5% to 60% in the spring of 2020. Together, the rise of work-from-home and the gig economy have loosened the boundaries of the firm, making the ideas of a workplace and a worker more fluid. While these changes decrease costs for companies, they offer a mixed bag for workers. The job satisfaction levels of contract workers are markedly below those of permanent employees. In the US, many knowledge and administrative workers are keen to continue working from home five days a week (36%). However, the number of people saying they want to come back to the office on a full-time basis has been rising steadily— from 16% in January 2021 to 22% in August 2021.

Bain’s survey shows that 47% of workers globally view many of their colleagues as friends. This level of connection and trust is a critical ingredient for effectively operating complex businesses. The big question is whether companies can maintain connection and trust without the physical connection provided by offices.

5. Younger generations are increasingly overwhelmed.

Young people, especially in advanced economies, are under mounting psychological strain that spills over into their work lives. In Western markets, 61% of respondents under 35 cited financial issues, job security or failing to meet their career goals as major concerns for the next decade. Only 40% of those over 35 cited the same concerns. Additionally, the odds of achieving upwards mobility—earning more than one’s parents—is now the lowest it has been in the US for any generation since World War II, with less than one half of millennial workers expected to earn more than their parents.

A path forward for business leaders

Taking these trends into account, Bain & Company identifies three actions for business leaders.

First, winning firms will pivot from being talent takers to talent makers. This requires scaling investments in learning, thinking laterally about career journeys and cultivating a growth mindset in their organization. While incumbents increasingly struggle against skills shortages, their insurgent rivals are finding creative ways to tap into the hidden potential of their people.

Second, leaders will stop managing workers like machines, instead supporting them to build personal capacity and create a career that matches their individual idea of a meaningful life. As part of this, leaders will reorganize workflows to help individuals best utilize their uniquely human advantages.

Finally, winning firms will build an organization that offers a sense of belonging and opportunity for its many unique workers while remaining united through a shared vision and communal values.

“Growing competition for talent has put the future of work squarely in the spotlight for business leaders,” said James Root, partner at Bain & Company and co-chair of Bain Futures. “Now is the time to focus the human side of work, which will allow leading firms to attract, develop and retain the workforce that is core to their future success.”