In Episode 3 of our Working Forward podcast, we were excited to talk with Jennifer LaRue and Emily Smith Cardineau from Cake & Arrow, a New York-based experience design, user research and innovation firm for the insurance and financial services industry. They’ve done some fascinating research into the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic shaped employees’ perspectives on where and how they work. We talked to them about their research and what employers should know about the new realities of postpandemic work for their employees. Here are some key takeaways.

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1. Employees want meaning and balance in their work

Today’s employees want their jobs to be more than just a means of survival, but not their entire identity either. Remote work has allowed many employees to spend more time with their families and doing things that add value to their lives, such as volunteering and hobbies. And perhaps not coincidentally, appreciation for work that matters and makes a difference has grown in importance. Employees today want their work to be an integrated, enriching part of their lives, balanced with their families, their creative impulses and their senses of self. In other words, they’re looking for a healthier relationship to work defined by clear boundaries and expectations about the role work plays in their lives. To be successful going forward, employers should identify ways to help employees see the value in what they do, but also establish and respect those boundaries for a healthy work/life balance.

2. Jobs are becoming more like gig work

The “gig economy” was growing even before the pandemic, with many people taking advantage of websites and apps that allow them to work when and where they choose. Employees who started working remotely during the pandemic soon realized the advantages of this flexibility when they experienced freedom from rigid schedules and commutes that previously dictated their lives. This flexibility gave employees more ownership of their time and empowered them to shape their work around their lives, rather than be shaped by it.

To embrace this flexibility and give employees the freedom they enjoy, employers may need to reexamine what constitutes a “workday.” If employees can work non-standard hours and still be productive, the “gig” model may be successful as a long-term practice. Which brings us to our next takeaway.

3. Employers need to focus more on outcomes than time spent

As discussed in our previous wrap-up, with remote work becoming so prevalent in today’s business world, many employees can now work from anywhere and can come from anywhere. This has advantages as far as expanding the labor pool and giving them the freedom we discussed above, but it does require a shift in thinking for employers who won’t always have consistent working hours and schedules. However, the pandemic proved that employers can be successful without centralized offices and workdays. By trusting their employees and focusing on their outcomes rather than the time they spend working, employers can provide the flexibility and freedom that makes them valuable in a tight labor market.

4. There are downsides to gig work, too

Beyond the logistical issues discussed above, employees navigating remote, gig-like work can also experience a sense of disconnect from both their employer and their colleagues. While they enjoy the freedom of their flexible schedules, many also miss the social and collaborative nature of shared workspaces. How employees and employers adapt to this new work environment will be an ongoing experiment for some time.

And for individuals who have truly taken the gig-work approach—working independently as freelancers or contractors—health insurance and other services typically offered by full-time employers become an expensive and complicated issue. The decades-old framework whereby employers are responsible for providing insurance coverage, explaining why it’s important, and making it available at cheaper group rates, is no longer available to workers once they become independent gig workers. Insurers and other benefits providers may have opportunities to cater to this important and growing market.

5. Burnout and mental health are real concerns

And finally, as discussed in our prior recap, our guests discussed how mental health remains a top concern for employees in this new era of work. But while many employers have implemented services such as online therapy to help treat mental health issues, they should also take a closer look at fixing problems that cause these issues in the first place. In Cake & Arrow’s research, 74% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “the way that we work is hurting our mental health.” Those results can be attributed to both the stress of their work, but also the rapid change of their environment, the lack of social contact with their coworkers and more. Employees who are navigating complicated times need to feel supported, respected and, most importantly, heard when it comes to these real issues.

Watch or listen to learn more

We learned a lot about employee needs and perspectives in this episode, and I hope you’ll watch or listen to learn more. You can access this and all other episodes on our Working Forward homepage, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.