Posted: 07 Sep. 2021 15 min. read

What's next for employer-employee relationships

Exploring the latest employee relations trends

Exploring four possible futures for the worker-employer relationship

A “thrive” mindset can help you face the uncertainty with confidence

The events of the past year and a half have given workers and organizations pause to reflect. Workers have been considering what’s most important to them, both inside and outside of work, and what they expect from their employer. Organizations have been considering their role in the lives of their workers, their communities, and society as a whole. With the worker-employer relationship evolving and in flux, we targeted our follow-on 2021 Global Human Capital Trends research to explore where it might be headed in a post–COVID-19 world and how organizations can be prepared no matter what the future ultimately reveals.

Where are we headed?

To inform this, our 11th year of Global Human Capital Trends research, we reached out to a broader audience using a mix of traditional and new techniques, including AI-enabled focus groups, social media polls, and one-on-one interviews. Along with engaging with HR and business executives across the globe, for the first time ever, we also gained perspectives from hundreds of workers.

What we found is that there is no right answer to this question of where the worker-employer relationship is headed. Most executives (86%) believe that workers will gain greater independence and influence relative to employers, a power dynamic favoring workers. A majority of workers (63%) think their relationship with their employers will either grow stronger or stay the same, a power dynamic of relative consistency or with employers continuing to have a strong say in the relationship.

With no clear future in sight, we turned our focus toward exploring multiple potential scenarios. This approach jibes with our earlier 2021 Trends research findings, which saw a tremendous postpandemic jump in the percentage of executives saying their organizations would prepare for future disruption differently. This included a nearly threefold increase in those who plan to focus on unlikely, high-impact events (up from 6% before the pandemic to 17% after) and a doubling of those planning to explore multiple potential futures rather than anchoring on one (23% prepandemic; 47% after).

Four potential futures, three potential responses to each 

Ultimately, we centered on four potential scenarios for the future of the worker-employer relationship: “Work as fashion,” “War between talent,” “Work is work,” and “Purpose unleashed.”

We also considered three potential organizational response strategies for each scenario:

  • Instinctive, which is more of a gut reaction than strategic and carries the most risk
  • Survive, a shorter-term strategy to do what’s necessary to succeed today
  • Thrive, the superior response based on a mindset of succeeding today and tomorrow, using disruption as a catalyst to drive the organization forward

Because these scenarios are influenced by internal and external forces, we asked research participants to weigh in with their views on them. Most respondents (80%) consider leadership readiness the biggest internal barrier to achieving their organizations’ strategies. And of the many external factors noted (such as economic growth, the use of technology, unexpected disasters, climate change, and social inequities), two stood out as most influential and uncertain: talent supply and government impact. Their varying impact on the four scenarios is represented here:

Let’s look at these scenarios in more detail.

Work as fashion

In this scenario, the worker-employer relationship is reactive. Employers are in constant motion as they chase worker sentiments, competitor actions, and marketplace dynamics, similar to how fashion brands introduce new clothing lines. There is little, if any, connection to a sustainable workforce strategy. Even the employer’s stance on societal issues (typically focused on the hot topic of the day) is used primarily as a way to attract, retain, and motivate workers. This scenario could be the dominant one for 2021 and 2022, especially in light of the hotly debated issue of the return to the workplace.

Three potential organizational responses:

  • Instinctive: Respond in the moment to workers’ expressed needs (often via the loudest or most recent voices).
  • Survive: Be thoughtful, action-oriented, and, most importantly, selective in responding based on understanding and addressing workers’ underlying needs, not only the loudest voices.
  • Thrive: Build a sustainable and differentiated relationship built around a core set of ideals that are important to both workers and the employer. A sustainable relationship is one that lasts through shifts in worker sentiment and marketplace conditions, evolving with the times, but always tying back to fundamentally constant values. Think “style setter,” not “fashion follower.”

War between talent

Here, the worker-employer relationship is impersonal. Workers compete for limited jobs due to an oversupply of talent, and employers view workers as commodities: almost interchangeable and easily replaceable. Workers are more concerned with competing with each other for jobs than with the quality of their relationship with their employer. Because employers are investing less in employee development and reskilling, those employees who can afford to invest in their own development will be in a better position to win jobs and command higher compensation, fueling a widening social divide as well.

Three potential organizational responses:

  • Instinctive: Commoditize the workforce to minimize costs and maximize output, focusing on “resources” rather than “human.” This approach may be based on stable marketplace conditions, business needs, and talent supply, which is not what the past has shown us and not what the future holds.
  • Survive: Selectively invest in the workforce in the areas important for your organization versus succumbing to the temptation to commoditize workers and compete on cost. While cost management is important, an employer can pull ahead of others through careful, strategic workforce investment.
  • Thrive: Recognize that workers deliver more value when they are respected and invested in. Even though this scenario is based on excess labor supply, investing in workers across the board produces disproportionately better results, particularly if that investment includes reskilling, which better prepares employers for the future as well.

Work is work

This worker-employer relationship is professional. Workers and employers depend on each other for work-related needs, while organizational responsibility and personal and social fulfillment are viewed as largely separate domains. People care about work because it gives them the means to pursue their “real” priorities and activities that give them purpose and meaning. Employers increasingly communicate guardrails about what is and is not acceptable work behavior.

Three potential organizational responses:

  • Instinctive: Assume the relationship doesn’t need attention because it’s purely professional; workers are there to work, so building connection or providing purpose and meaning in the work is not necessary.
  • Survive: Help workers separate work from their personal lives while still cultivating their sense of comfort (and thus belonging) by creating an inclusive environment where workers feel respected and treated fairly.
  • Thrive: Rearchitect work in ways that motivate and engage workers based on the merits of the work, encouraging workers to feel as invested in their work as they are in their personal lives.

Purpose unleashed

The worker-employer relationship is communal in this scenario. Purpose is the dominant force driving the relationship and is critical to the employment brand. This centrality of purpose pushes organizations from shareholder capitalism toward stakeholder capitalism, where social and business concerns, purpose, and profit are equally important. Organizations may take stances on issues they otherwise may have stayed silent about in response to growing demands from workers and customers.

Three potential organizational responses:

  • Instinctive: Take a vocal and visible stance on social issues, and communicate purpose as a top priority. Not following up this stance with action and visible accomplishments may risk stakeholders viewing it as lip service. Some workers may feel pushed to the fringes, depending on the stance.
  • Survive: Integrate purpose into business operations (operating model, governance structure, supply chains, marketing) and talent programs, making your commitment intentional and visible.
  • Thrive: Cocreate purpose with the workforce, giving workers influence over what the organization stands for, what outcomes you want to achieve collectively, and the actions you take to achieve them.

You can’t choose the future, but you can choose your response

Which of these four scenarios is most likely? We asked the more than 3,900 participants in our recent Dbriefs webcast which scenario they believe will be most dominant in their organization, industry, or geography based on the signals they are perceiving today. Forty-one percent indicated “Work is work” as the dominant future, with “War between talent” as the second-highest option at 28% of responses.

No matter where you think your organization is headed, or the internal and external factors that may position your organization in one future versus another, we believe you should plan for them all. Adopting a thrive mindset is key to effectively navigating the relationship and strategically positioning your organization for success however the future unfolds.


  • Kraig Eaton, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP
  • Maren Hauptman, German Human Capital leader, Organization Transformation offering leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP
  • Shannon Poynton, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP

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Kraig Eaton

Kraig Eaton

Principal | Deloitte Consulting LLP

Kraig is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP's US Human Capital service area and serves as the co-lead of the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends team. Kraig has more than 28 years of experience working with senior business and HR executives to transform their Human Capital strategies and capabilities to better support the business goals of the organization. Specifically supporting some of the world's leading organizations on efforts spanning the full spectrum of HR and workforce transformations; from upfront strategy development through large-scale operating model, organization, and technology implementations.

Maren Hauptmann

Maren Hauptmann

Partner | Portfolio Lead Human Capital

Maren Hauptmann is the Human Capital Lead for Germany and is a member of the Global Human Capital Executive. She specializes in organizational design, strategic change management, and large-scale organizational development. Hauptmann has more than 20 years of experience in strategy and human capital consulting. She has supported German, European, and global companies in large organizational and business transformations.