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“The Great Resignation” – opportunity or threat?

“The Great Resignation” – opportunity or threat?


It is no surprise that the last 18 months have made so many people question what is important to them. What are their values and what do they want out of life? The pandemic has altered all of our lives and thinking deeply about what we want from life is a natural reaction to this. It’s also a healthy discipline that can be a catalyst to something better, yet often overlooked, so I welcome it.

What is more surprising to me is the sheer number of people currently considering leaving their roles. In my previous blog I spoke about “The Great Resignation”, and why a reported 41 per cent of people are likely to consider leaving their job in the next year.

If those statistics are correct, the very idea that almost half of our workforces globally are looking for a new role just seems unfathomable, doesn’t it? Particularly when the world is still struggling against the uncertainty of Covid-19 and whatever is coming at us next. Yet that is what is being reported.

I’m sure many of us recognise that talking about or thinking about quitting and actually quitting are two very different things. It’s very easy to talk the talk, but to literally walk the walk out of your employer’s door is an entirely different thing. People rely on their work to provide for themselves and families, to give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning and, hugely importantly, a sense of purpose. Quitting a role is a big decision often with huge repercussions. In some instances, it’s undoubtedly the right thing to do, in others it isn’t.

Whatever eventually transpires with the “Great Resignation”, as leaders of businesses it would be dangerous to be complacent or bury our heads in the sand, convincing ourselves that this is just going to go away and the world go on as normal. The reality is that it won’t, but rather it does present a couple of significant opportunities for our businesses:

1.    Firstly, the opportunity to redefine our employee value proposition to stop our best people from leaving us in the first place, and retain them for the long-term.

2.    And secondly, the opportunity to attract those currently working for other employers who fully intend to be part of “The Great Resignation” and are about to be, or already are on the market for a new job.

The winners will turn “The Great Resignation” into “The Great Opportunity” and look back on having used the current sense of change in the global workforce to their advantage.  Here are a few of my thoughts on making this real for your own business..

Consider a hybrid, remote or even a ‘radical flexibility’ approach: As I’ve said before, I strongly believe that both our homes and our offices play a key role in enabling us all to be productive and feel engaged at work. I also think that forcing all your people back to the office full-time isn’t going to work in your favour. As reported by Fortune, an Ipsos survey of 2,700 office workers across nine countries found that more than a third of all office workers would quit if they were forced to go back into the office full time. It’s therefore far better to consider a hybrid working option – and that’s advice we are regularly giving our own clients now if they want the best talent.

However, it’s important for us to also appreciate that the ‘work from home’ experiment that has unfolded over the past 18 months has been most notably analysed only in advanced economies. Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey discusses this topic in his podcast and adds another interesting dimension for multi-layered international organisations to contend with. As Kevin pointed out: “Only about 25 percent of workers can do their jobs three days a week or more without being on-site. This is a group that takes a shower before they go to work. We cannot forget that most people take a shower after they have been at work, and there is a risk of a growing divide between those two groups. As somebody at an industrial company said to me the other day, ‘We work in the tower next to a manufacturing facility. I can’t tell the people in the tower it is okay for them to work from wherever they want and at the same time tell the manufacturing people I expect them to return to the plant.’” It’s a very good point and one we have to think about properly if we are to avoid creating ‘us and them’ cultures. Equally, if we remain largely remote, how long before the bonds that tie us together into a common culture become so weak we feel more like a team of freelancers coming together on a project as opposed to colleagues united around our company’s purpose? The ‘switching costs’ of moving to a new employer in that remote world can be very small, basically just logging into a different system from home, so we should beware ending up there too.

For those organisations for which it makes sense, you could even go one step further and adopt a policy of ‘radical flexibility’. Here the focus is still on giving your people flexibility in terms of where they work, but also on when they do that work and how much of it they do. Providing unlimited annual leave is a good example, which, according to The Guardian is offered by Sony, Hubspot and Grant Thornton, and allows people to feel more in control of their lives. My own experience in this area is that the mere act of granting such flexibility can engender such great trust within an organisation that, in reality, most people go nowhere near exercising their full flexibility. Just the fact it is available is enough it seems.

Shift your focus from employee experience to ‘employee life experience’: This is a topic I touched on in a previous blog. As an employer in this new world, you should be supporting your people inside and outside of work. You need to understand that they are human beings with families and communities to support, challenges to deal with and that, for them, their work helps them fulfil their obligations in all areas of their lives. I’ve seen interesting examples of this in practice, including opening learning and development opportunities up to family members, providing more tailored benefits to parents and carers, as well as marital therapy, additional days off for wellbeing support, offering midlife check-ups for employee health, wealth and career, and long-term financial planning support. In all of these examples, the employer is seeing the employee not just as a 9-5 worker, but as someone they care for in all aspects of life, presumably with the view that someone who gets more from their employer than just a payslip will put more back in, and stick around longer too. 
Appeal to your employees’ entrepreneurial side: According to the National Bureau of Economic Statistics, the pace of new business applications since mid-2020 has been the highest on record. Plus, Ernst & Young found that 65 per cent of Gen Z see themselves owning their own businesses in the next 10 years. These facts, combined with the fact the pandemic saw a rise in side hustles, helps makes the case that employers should be allowing their people to flex their entrepreneurial muscles within their businesses. In a past blog, I discussed why employers should be aware of the rise of the side hustle, and my colleague Dirk Hahn, CEO of Hays Germany has written at length about how to unlock the potential of your “intrapreneurs”. It’s also predicted, that freelancers are predicted to make up 50 per cent of workers as soon as 2027, so could you explore taking on some of your ‘flight risk’ employees as independent contractors rather than permanent employees? After all, if someone is going to go, wouldn’t it be better if they brought some of their vision and ambition into your own business first, even if it wasn’t on a full-time basis? If they learn new skills by doing their own thing on the side and become a more talented individual as a result, wouldn’t it be better to get a piece of that, even if just for a while? It’s certainly worth thinking about.

Adopt a listen-first approach: As explained by Klotz, “A more personalized, listen-first approach is needed. That means having one-on-one conversations with employees about their well-being and about how their jobs can be re-crafted to support their pursuit of happiness and purpose. During these sessions, managers and employees must truly listen to one another to build common ground and allow employees to flourish, thereby driving firm performance in the post-pandemic economy.” It might also be a good idea to look at conducting regular ‘stay interviews’ with your people to help understand why your people stay with you, and why they might consider leaving. Finally, it’s also important to gather, listen to and implement exit interview feedback. One tactic I’d definitely recommend you explore is regular employee listening surveys to help you take the pulse of your organisation. We do this regularly at Hays in the form of our own employee engagement survey, ‘Your Voice’ and I have to say, the results and insights we gain are invaluable and often unexpected. Remember, right now, your people are craving your full attention and they want to hear where things are headed. They want to feel heard, included and understood, and if they don’t, they will most likely walk out of the door.

Understand that for most of your people, work is an enabler: It’s no secret that as a result of the pandemic, many are searching for more meaning and purpose in their lives. People are experiencing a growing sense of duty to make a difference to society, whether that be inside of work, outside of work, or both. Of course, all organisations should be working to a social purpose, but sometimes that purpose won’t always resonate with all of your people…and that’s just reality. In these cases, it’s important to remember that for many, work is an enabler, not the end-game in itself. If the work they do every day doesn’t give them meaning, but something outside of work does, then as an employer you must give them the time to do that thing. That way, in their minds, work is a positive force in their lives that provides for them to reach their higher purpose.

Of course, there are many other things that as an employer you should be doing to protect your organisation from the impending “Great Resignation”, and indeed capitalise on it - no matter how great or small it turns out to be. Those include investing in the upskilling of your people, clear career pathing, addressing burnout, defining your employer brand and working on your company culture – all topics I’ve spoken about before in previous LinkedIn blogs. What’s important is that the actions you take are genuine, authentic and real, and aren’t perceived as a knee-jerk, insincere reaction to the situation.

There’s no one-size-fits-all, quick fix approach either. These things take time. These changes will require you to do things differently on a number of levels…but aren’t we used to that after the 18 months we’ve all experienced? After all, this is just another crisis that requires us to innovate and to change. We’ve been exposed to so much uncertainty in the last year and a half, now is the time to say enough of the objections and obstacles of the past and just sweep them out of the way because we’ve probably all got a much greater sense of what ‘important’ or ‘essential’ really mean now.

To really turn this threat into an opportunity, you must see your people – both potential and current - as the assets they are, not a cost. After all, without your people and their talent, you’d have no products or services, you wouldn’t sell anything, you’d have no customers and therefore no business. So, however much effort it takes, we must do what we can to turn “The Great Resignation” into “The Great Opportunity” and secure the future of our organisations at the same time.