Closing the perception gap: What really matters to workers?

Debra Timmerman Debra Timmerman Vice President, MSP Solutions, Direct Sourcing, Career Transitions and Executive Coaching

Do you really understand talent experience in your business? Our 2023 Kelly Global Re:work Report revealed a worrying disconnect between workers and organizations – suggesting that the progress made on employee experience during the pandemic has slipped backward in 2023. The survey revealed a chasm between talent and leaders on work-life balance, workloads, development opportunities, and inclusivity. While only 47% of the executives we surveyed said they were doing more to support employee wellbeing than 12 months ago.

Many organizations put employee engagement high on their priority list, but it’s easy for communication to break down. It was a key talking point at the HRO Today Forum 2023 back in May. During that event, I shared my experience of an area where we thought we were doing great as a leadership team before a piece of feedback from an engagement survey completely flipped that perspective. Once I saw and understood that feedback, I could focus on this area and course-correct – but if you’d asked me 10 minutes before that information hit my desk, I would have given you a very different answer on how we were doing. Other delegates shared similar stories, and I believe many organizations struggle to build a clear view of their talent wants and needs.

It’s important to clarify that this perspective gap isn’t just impacting permanent workers – contingent workers face even bigger challenges. Many organizations simply don’t consider contingent talent experience or priorities, but as flexible workers become an increasingly sizable and important part of the work ecosystem, this is a mistake. According to a study conducted by the Everest Group in 2021/2022, 31% of workers across over 200 enterprise organizations were contingent, and over 70% of organizations expect the proportion of temporary workers to increase over the next 12-18 months. Leaders must do more to hear and prioritize contingent worker voices.

How can we close the perception gap? How can we ensure open and honest conversations between leaders and workers? There are no easy answers, but there are areas businesses can explore to enhance understanding of talent experience in every part of their workforce.

Engagement surveys are great – but how much further can you go?

To understand what’s going on with workers, leaders need to start conversations. But creating the right space for this dialogue can be challenging. Less than half of the talent in our Re:work survey (41%) said that their leaders were good at communicating with employees. Most large-scale organizations put out an engagement survey once or twice a year, which might generate some useful insights. However, factors like response rates, whether a survey is anonymous, and the types of workers targeted for feedback can all influence findings. Shorter, more frequent and more accessible engagement surveys may reveal a clearer picture, but can leaders think more innovatively? I recently connected with a senior executive who described an internal hotline initiative that empowered workers to report challenges anonymously and to access immediate support and guidance. This shift from punitive reporting to interactive learning experience seems like a great way to encourage open and productive discussions.

Taking a macro and a micro view of worker experiences

Large-scale surveys that reveal a broad picture of worker experiences can be incredibly useful in tracking big trends and challenges. Still, there is also huge value in digging into the experiences of distinct worker groups and demographics. Tapping into the knowledge of employee resource groups can be an impactful way to understand the experience of groups that have been traditionally marginalized or faced barriers to work. Worryingly, our global Re:work report found a slight decline in the number of organizations with employee resource groups since 2022 (from 30% to 29% in 2023). It’s also important to break down broad data sets. At KellyOCG, we explore the results of pulse surveys by demographic. This approach has revealed a picture of very different priorities and needs for younger and older workers. Building a truly engaged workforce means engaging all types of employees, regardless of age, demographics, or worker types – so understanding the nuances in different experiences is essential.

What are key points of friction between workers and leaders?

Our global Re:work survey revealed several significant areas where workers feel organizations are missing the mark. One of the most concerning was mental health – only 23% of the talent we surveyed believed their employers offered adequate resources to support good mental health, and just 38% said they worked in a psychologically safe environment. Flexibility was another sticking point and may indicate growing discord between employers on how and where they work. Just 11% of all workers planning to leave their current role within 12 months reported a satisfactory work-life balance, and only 1 in 10 of this group said they had a high degree of flexibility in how they perform their role. Another key chafing point from our Re:work results was training and development – 49% of leaders say their training and development is meeting the need of employees. In comparison, 25% of talent said they have never participated in any training with their current employer.

Why does this divide between workers and leaders matter? Not only does delivering better worker experience make for a happier, more engaged, more productive workforce, it can significantly impact retention. Almost a third of the talent we surveyed told us they were ‘very likely’ to leave their employer in the next 12 months – a real issue in a competitive skills market.

So, how do you bridge this talent/leadership divide? There isn’t a product you can buy or software you can roll out that will suddenly close the perception gap. Your organization is unique; your people are unique; the actions you need to take to build engagement, connections, and a sense of inclusion must also be unique. I’m not sure anyone has all the answers yet, and that’s ok – recognizing this disconnect and opening a positive dialogue is a great place to start.


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