Following a conversation with a friend, I wrote a short LinkedIn status update this week. It was an update that has staggered me, both with the traction it has gained and – very unusually on LinkedIn! – the almost universal consensus from commenters.

This is the update that I wrote:

“Heard from another friend this morning that she’s quitting the corporate world to start up her own business. When I asked her why, it’s the same list of reasons that I’ve heard from almost every one of my friends and acquaintances that have resigned from their jobs to go it alone:

#1 She wants the flexibility to work where and when she needs to to do a great job and still meet her commitments away from the workplace.

#2 She wants to not be forced to make her family take second place to her employer.

#3 She wants to feel like she is making a meaningful difference, for a cause she really believes in.

Employers need to take heed. These are the same reasons I hear almost every single time when I talk to people who are setting up on their own. They believe that the only way to deliver on this set of criteria is to start their own business. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Employers can – and should – be enabling these three fundamental things for everyone who works for them.

Those who choose not to need to not close their eyes to what their choice means. So long as we ignore the drivers of our people, we will continue to see key talent leaving the corporate talent pool.”

At the time of writing, it has been liked almost 650 times.

Some uncomfortable truths

The reason I believe it has resonated so greatly with people is because it points to some uncomfortable truths. The world of work is, it’s true, changing – and not before time. We are starting to see a recognition of the fact that our workforce is made up of people – not robots – people who vary dramatically in their needs and expectations from an employer. Slowly, we are starting to see the very best organisations out there embracing this when it comes to tailoring their employee experiences. More employees than ever before are able take advantage of remote and flexible working opportunities. The 9 to 5 is starting to be consigned to where it belongs: in the history books.

But let’s not try and kid ourselves that we are really delivering what people actually want. Self-employment is rising dramatically. The latest set of figures show an increase from 3.3 million people in 2001 to 4.8 million people in 2017. That’s a 45% increase on the size of the self-employed population in just 6 years. It has continued to rise since.

True flexibility

And sure, there are all kinds of reasons why people go into self-employment. The primary reasons though, as evidenced by the traction my post has gained on LinkedIn, are as per the above. They want flexibility. And when I say flexibility, I mean proper flexibility. The ability to wake up on a sunny Monday morning and decide not to start work until the afternoon to make the most of the great weather. The knowledge that they’ll never have to miss another school assembly, Sports’ Day or nativity play at their kids’ school ever again – and that they won’t have to be apologising for doing so, either. The personal time they save not having to be stuck in a miserable two hour commute every weekday morning.

Equally, they want to make a difference. Despite my comments on flexibility above, most people I know do go into running their own business with their eyes open. They know it means long hours, unbelievably hard work, and a danger of never really switching off. But they accept those parameters, and go for it anyway. Because it is worth it in their eyes, to be able to do a job that they really believe in.

A strategic priority

It would be tempting to think that the above factors are only achievable if you do indeed make the leap to become self-employed. But that it is simply not true. At least: it doesn’t need to be true. Employers are more than capable of also delivering that for the people who work for them. They just need to make the choice that it is a strategic priority.

And I believe that it is a strategic priority, for organisations worldwide. Every single day, we see key talent leaving the corporate talent pool, choosing to go it alone. It is yet another factor in the barely moving gender pay gap; ever increasing numbers of women (who remain, in the majority of households, the primary carer) feeling they have no choice but to leave employment and try to create their own means of earning a living which means that their family responsibilities are not consistently forced to take second place to their employer.

The true future of work

If we are serious about retaining the best talent, then we need to stop playing at being employers of choice. Real employers of choice listen to what their people are telling them, and actually deliver. No, it will not be easy. Managing variable and changing working patterns and locations whilst ensuring consistency of delivery is far harder than monitoring a workforce chained to their desks, Monday to Friday. Clearly articulating the part that individual employees play in the delivery of the bigger picture, and the reasons why they should care about this, is harder still. It will require substantial management and HR time and commitment to deliver.

But if we continue to do nothing more than snip around the edges, with “flexibility” at work meaning the ability to adjust your working day by half an hour, with people still being treated as resources rather than those who have the power to make a genuine, transformative difference… then we are kidding ourselves if we think that this trend won’t continue.

It is time to make a change.

A real change.

It is time to open our eyes to the true future of work.