Work? Not a Priority Anymore

Despite widespread efforts to engage them, only about 20% of workers think work is core to their identity. Is this the new normal—or can leaders make more adjustments?

Since the COVID-19 lockdowns lifted, employers have offered higher wages, increased opportunities for development, and devoted resources to strengthening corporate culture—all to attract and retain committed, productive employees. But the latest data suggests their efforts aren’t moving the needle much.

According to a new survey, just 17% of workers said their job or occupation was very important to their identity—down from 24% just seven years ago. It’s yet more proof that leaders are facing an uphill battle when it comes to motivating employees.

Experts say that workers are not only less motivated by work, but also more likely to candidly discuss their roles with their leaders. They’re setting boundaries—for instance, in terms of when they’ll answer emails outside of normal work hours, or how often they’re willing to work nights or weekends. All of it can come as a shock to managers and leaders who came of age in a generation in which work and employer were core to people’s sense of their own value. “Workers have become more vocal expressing what they want and need,” says Dennis Deans, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global human resources.

Some experts say that firms would do best to accept the shift in priorities—solidified during the pandemic—as part of today’s new normal. This appears to be particularly true for younger workers, who value work-life balance much more than their predecessors and have lost trust in corporate world’s ability to protect their welfare.

But other experts say the survey results may instead suggest that many companies have failed to rethink job roles and to match people with the right ones. Despite changes in performance reviews at some firms, for example, only about half of workers say they are satisfied with their jobs. “It’s on leaders to make people the most productive within the boundaries set,” says Maria Amato, global leader of Korn Ferry’s Employee Experience and EVP solutions

To be sure, none of that is easy. But experts say firms should work on creating more efficient work environments. They can do so by issuing assignments with a clear purpose, offering adequate resources, and providing a degree of autonomy. Indeed, making work easier to do might cancel out the decline in people’s work identity. “Long-term solutions to work-life balance issues need to focus on helping employees work smarter,” says Mark Royal, senior client partner at Korn Ferry Advisory.

Employers often try to motivate employees using pay or benefits, but experts say most of their attempts don’t affect an employee’s intrinsic motivation. According to Korn Ferry’s data, more than 40% of workers feel their firms aren’t doing enough—or in some cases, anything at all—to motivate them. “That’s a lot of time wasted for both those employees and their employers, who are not getting the full impact of their potential,” Royal says.


 Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Employee Experience capabilities.