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The Great Resignation: It’s time to meet employees where they are

November 24, 2021 - 17 min read


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Pandemic-enforced rethinking

The disconnect between employees and employers

How employers can respond to the Great Resignation


It’s a word that could have the connotation of giving up — but in today’s job market, it’s a signal of a shift in the way that employers need to think about talent retention. “The Great Resignation” is a movement that has put the balance of power back in the hands of employees, who are saying that they want something different from the psychological contract of employment. How can organizations respond in a way that shows you’re an employer where people not only want to work, but give their best? 

Pandemic-enforced rethinking

“The Great Resignation” is a term first used by Texas A&M University professor Anthony Klotz in May 2021, when he identified the employment trend triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. First seen in the United States — and in particular among the retail, food service, and hospitality sectors hit hard during lockdown — the term has now spread to apply to other sectors and around the world.  

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported 4.4 million “quits” (a measure of the number of people who leave a job voluntarily, rather than through a layoff, redundancy, or discharge) in September 2021. As of mid-November, the total number of job openings in the US sits at 10.4 million.  

Cost of hiring is a real reason to focus on retaining your people, with a new hire in the US costing an average of $4,000, according to research by Bersin by Deloitte. The costs could be even greater when you take into account the lost productivity and time it takes to get a new employee fully up-to-speed in the role. A Centre for American Progress study showed that the cost could be between 20-213% of the employee’s salary, depending on the role and seniority. In the current climate, the result is increased workloads for existing employees as they attempt to absorb the extra work of the person leaving.


The disconnect between employees and employers

If you’re trying to retain your best people and keep your organization attractive in the face of a shifting paradigm of employee-employer relationships, what are some of the ways you can weather the Great Resignation? Here are several themes to consider and act on in terms of talent retention:

Understand the data

Understanding why employees leave is key — and that starts with looking at data. Keep in mind that 2020 will for many go down for most of us as one of the most remarkable moments in history. This is certainly true in terms of economics, employment, and the implications for the future of work. As time marches on, it can be easy to forget some of those earliest memories of the pandemic. Those days were marked by uncertainty. The entire world was plunged into a global lockdown, and things were decidedly not normal. 

As you keep an eye on resignations, comparing them to your pre-pandemic exit rates to give you a more standard baseline against which to measure. For many workers, their resignation letters don’t represent decisions made in the short term. They might have been considering leaving their current employer for some time — but coronavirus put their plans on hold. As lockdowns ease and we become used to the current phase of the pandemic, employees may now finally be acting on decisions that they had to put on hold in 2020 and much of 2021.  

People who are closer to retirement age are deciding to leave work earlier than planned, due to the feelings that the pandemic brought to many about the precarious nature of life and health. Employees who value freedom are taking advantage of no longer being tied to a single location in the form of an office. They may decide to pursue other priorities, better work-life balance, flexible childcare arrangements, or the ability to work remotely. 

Listen to employees and then act

Understanding how your employees are feeling about their work is vital to keeping your quit rate under control. It’s important to have channels open that give you information about your people. Ask yourself the following questions:

    • How well do you know what employees think and feel about your organization as a workplace? What do they appreciate? What do they find challenging? 
    • If you have systems in place to gauge this, how do you know that employees feel safe to share? 
    • How do you create psychological safety in teams so that people can be open and honest?  
    • What opportunities do your senior leaders get to hear from individual contributors — who often hold valuable information about the customer experience, and who have plenty of ideas about how things could be better? 

These are all questions that are important in terms of truly understanding your employee experience. Pulse surveys, employee forums, employee resource groups, town halls, or all hands meetings where you take questions keep the channels of communication open.  Make sure that you let people know when you act on their feedback so they feel it’s a valuable use of their time to give it. If you can’t, let them know why and that you’re still eager to hear their thoughts. 

Understand employees holistically

The pandemic has taught us that employees are people, first and foremost. What are the ways that you allow people to be themselves at work? Not their best selves, but their full selves — the ones that have doctor’s appointments to get to, aging parents who need care, increased stress and worry due to the global climate of uncertainty, ones going through divorces or mental health crises and trying to hold it together to get through the day.  Employees in today’s modern labor market want to be seen as people, with wellness, balance, and lives outside work as a core part of that.

Embrace flexibility 

For many, the experience of working remotely has been a lonely one. They learned that without the in-person, day-to-day social connections of seeing teammates and colleagues in person, they’ve lost the love for their actual job.  

Doing your work day after day through a 13-inch monitor is a challenge to those who thrive on the interaction of people and water-cooler conversations. It’s been enough of an incentive for employees to decide that they want something different to measure their days than the number of virtual meetings. 

On the other hand, so many people have appreciated the benefits of remote working in terms of savings. They’ve been able to conserve both time and money by not commuting, increased flexibility, and greater choice on where and when to do their best work.

As you consider talent retention, keep in mind that choice and flexibility are key for employees. For many who’ve proven that they can work successfully remotely, they will resist a forced move back to an office. Think through your approach carefully. In this case, one size definitely doesn’t fit all. 


Understand motivations, strengths, and career goals for job crafting

As a result of changes to pre-pandemic rhythms and routines, people are rethinking what they do in their work — that is, how they spend the hours in their days. 

“Before the pandemic,” shares Leo, a communications strategy manager, “I really loved the variety of my role and the amount of interactions I had with different teams. Unfortunately during the past year, the amount of activities I’ve worked on has turned out to be the hardest aspect of my job. I felt like I was being pulled in so many different directions and the context switching in my day proved to be exhausting. I realized that unless I focused on just a few things that I could be really good at, I felt like a light bulb that was just getting dimmer and dimmer.  

Fortunately, when I shared these feelings with my manager, she could see a way forward that allowed me to focus on a fewer number of activities but which were the ones I did best.  We shifted some priorities and ranked the strands of our work into critical, important, and nice-to-do. I now feel more energy toward the work I’m doing as it feels like I’m not spread too thinly. I know that the work I am doing is what we’ve deemed the most critical for our team’s success.” 

When you have employees who are clear about how they apply their strengths to their work, and are aligning their motivators with the needs of the job, you’ll have a happier, more fulfilled workforce. 

Connect to purpose

Today’s employees want to know that their work has meaning, that they do make a difference, and that they can see how their contributions matter to the whole. Be clear on your organizational purpose, and consider activities that help each employee get clear on their own individual “why?” 

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why outlines a “golden circle” activity that can solidify your purpose. As you consider your organization’s goals, make sure each team or department sees clearly how what they do makes a difference to your overall success. Reinforce that everyone matters. You also might want to provide support to individuals who want to clarify their own individual purpose. Ask, “What’s the unique skill set, talent, and North Star that helps them succeed?”  

Provide clear expectations

When people are navigating uncertainty, there is often an unseen cognitive load on the brain. You can think of it like a computer that has to spend extra energy on the processing running behind the scenes. Over time, these extra demands on people’s mental loads create stress and strain.  

One thing that organizations can do to ease this strain is to give employees clear expectations whenever possible. This is particularly important for high achievers and star performers, who often set very high standards for themselves and are subject to burnout.  Help them with clear expectations, so that they don’t expend unnecessary extra energy to do things perfectly when “good enough” would do.  

Shenaye shared this as a challenge that she worked through with her coach: “Our workload skyrocketed in 2020 due to the pandemic, but I put enormous pressure on myself to keep up my usual quality of work. I felt I had to meet my 110% quality bar, even though I was consistently working longer hours to get everything done and my health was suffering.  

With the help of a coach, I was able to see that it wasn’t sustainable to keep this up, and I put in place some strategies to understand what a good deliverable would look like.  We also looked at ways to get clear in my team about our priorities, and what taking on new activities would mean to existing ones. We are able now to respond to customer demands in ways that are more open and honest about what we can achieve and by when.  Having clear expectations and safety to express when I’m uncertain has given me so much more confidence in my performance and in my response to our customers.”


How employers can respond to the Great Resignation

After over eighteen months of adjusting to new ways of working, increased workloads due to the changing nature of work, and struggles with switching off because of the availability of technology at our fingertips, many people are exhausted and nearing burnout. Here are some ways that employers can support their teams amidst the shifting work climate.

Give people a break

Consider giving employees some sort of time off, with an invitation for them to switch off for their mental and emotional health. These types of initiatives could range from whole days or even a week off for a break. If that's not possible, consider regular meeting and email-free days. This gives people a chance to step back and think more clearly without messages, Zoom meetings, and notifications. 

Check in to see that people are taking their paid time off (PTO)/vacation days and are getting a mental and physical rest from work. If people are suffering from COVID-19 trauma or anxiety, nearing burnout and exhaustion, and are unable to work, make sure they get the help they need through employee well-being and support programs.

Support middle managers

Middle managers are feeling the strain of the fluctuations in staffing perhaps more than anyone. Many have been tasked with providing emotional support to employees throughout the pandemic, and are now faced with getting their teams back to full capacity.  

Since recruiting is a time-intensive process, you might want to pull together a small group to look at your recruitment process before you move forward. Consider how it could be better for the people and recruiting team, line managers, and candidates. Keep in mind that recruitment is often an activity that many managers don’t have to do all that often, so they may need extra support in the process of hiring. 

As organizations focus on increasing diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging, your hiring processes should reflect different voices and viewpoints in expanding your talent pool.  

Examine your employee benefits

It is also a great time to evaluate your benefits and make sure they’re competitive for the modern talent marketplace. As Daniel Pink shares in his work Drive, money is not usually a key motivator for people’s satisfaction — as long as they have enough and pay is fair.  This aspect of fairness is especially important for areas of your workplace which might not currently have equal pay. That means it’s crucial to look closely at any existing pay gaps around gender and race and close them. 

Go beyond traditional health care benefits and relate to people’s desire to invest in themselves for their future. This can be done through increased personal and professional development programs, continuing education, coaching, or other opportunities for personal growth.  

End relationships well

When employees do choose to leave, be sure to close the relationships on a positive note. With many people leaving to explore freelance and self-employed routes, you might want to think about the expertise they could bring you as a freelancer and keep that door open. If they’ve been strong employees, they’ll have a wealth of knowledge about the way your organization works — which might be helpful to you in the future.  

Look to the future with optimism

Even though high turnover is expensive, ultimately you only want people working in companies who actually want to be there. It’s likely that many people were considering taking a new job before the pandemic. The last year and a half may have just firmed up their decision, giving them the reason they were waiting for to make a change. 

Allow yourself to consider the positive outcomes of people resigning and making way for new talent. Perhaps it’s a good time to rethink job descriptions and make sure to hire for the skills and talents that the current and future role needs. Encourage your hiring managers to think about their goals and objectives and what kind of person they need to fulfill those.  Hopefully, you’ll find that fresh thinking, new voices and perspectives, and new energy help you look to a positive future.

One thing is for certain — nobody can be entirely sure how the pandemic-imposed trends and movements will play out. Time will tell. In the meantime, these tips and considerations are ones that can help your organization adapt to the changes in the entire relationship of modern work.

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Published November 24, 2021

Meg Lyons, PCC

BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC

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