The Only Real Challenge of The Great Resignation

The conversation on lessons learned and actions to be taken post-pandemic has been intense for a while now, with advocates from both sides -office lovers and remote enthusiasts – standing their ground. That was how the idea of hybrid workplaces was conceived in the first place. Intriguing, right? In one hot minute, a groundbreaking theory turned into an experiment with great potential and our perspective on the traditional workspace changed dramatically.

However, in the face of an impending exit from the pandemic, two major studies have tarnished the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation of getting our (work)life back, and these events set a completely different tone, a more alarming one. A tone that whispered what we already suspected: going back to life as we knew it before an epoch-making event cannot be easy. Re-inventing the wheel and developing a one-size-fits-all solution is probably an unrealistic expectation.

First came Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, a survey that created an echo chamber too loud to ignore. Even so, the results of one survey, no matter how large-scaled it might be, are rarely enough to start a movement but are usually enough to start a conversation. Without follow-up research, evaluating more parameters and enriching the sample, the initial results will always lack credibility. And that was when Personio and Opinium’s study on talent exodus was published, and it all started to make sense.

But I am not here to talk numbers. It has been a long time since I decided to be a people person rather than a data person and, quite honestly, these numbers are everywhere already; we all know them by heart. The only reason I will quote them is to let them sink in, put them aside and move on to the important stuff: what lies behind those numbers. The funny part.

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According to 2021 Work Trend Index, a worrisome 41% of the global workforce “considers leaving their current employer within the next year” with an even higher 46% “planning to make a major pivot or career change”. At the same time, more than 70% of the global workforce wants flexible working conditions to continue post-pandemic as opposed to over 65% longing for more in-person contact with their colleagues. Likewise, 38% of British and Irish employees are “looking to change jobs within the next 6-12 months or once the economy strengthens”, as per Personio and Opinium’s survey. What a confusion; do employees still want out despite all this flexibility foreseen in the future?

I don’t envy HR managers or organizational leaders. It is really hard to know whether it is hybrid, all remote, or all in-person, which is going to lead to the most resignations. People have adjusted to pandemic work-life. Now we are being asked to change, and that is going to be difficult no matter what.

Prof. Anthony Klotz

So, let’s take a deeper, more careful look at the wording here. We have “considering” versus “planning and looking to”. In other words, intention versus action. Huge distance in meaning but a negligible difference in percentage. To put it simply, a result that states that almost half of the global workforce is not only craving for a change but is also acting on it.

But this is only one way to interpret those results. The other way feels like a hushed voice over my shoulder, reminding me that people feel brave and free to express themselves when their anonymity is secured. In this case, “considering and acting” may actually mean “desiring and wishing”, which makes me wonder to which extent other conditions – emotional distress, digital burnout, financial and family security, etc. – were investigated.

Inevitably, and despite my take on this new evidence-based prophecy, this whole new movement got a name, and it was only a matter of time to add a hashtag in front of it and turn it into a global trend: #TheGreatResignation. All credits go to associate Professor Anthony Klotz of Management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, who totally hit the spot with his wise choice of words. The reason the term caught on so fast is fairly simple. In his own words, “people were feeling this way but didn’t have a name to put to it. Talking about resigning is a somewhat personal and taboo topic; it is like talking about pay”.

So many questions arise in the light of all these revelations and predictions. Who are those potential quitters, and what can we do to keep them? Why do they even want to leave in the first place? Most of these answers can be found in both studies: an exhausted, overworked workforce with digital burnout, unsupported mothers, unmotivated generation Z employees, utterly out-of-touch management and toxic work environments. These are the facts. Facts supported by numbers. But, again, I am not here to talk numbers.

So, let me stop you right here and rewind. Let’s start our thinking process from another ankle this time. Humanity has been through a lot of life-changing events in the last couple of years. People have re-evaluated their lives, their priorities, their goals. They want to change career paths, change jobs, stay at home with their family, invest in a start-up or buy a bio farm. People want to follow a dream and explore new opportunities. People feel empowered to take a risk.

We nearly have a doubling of job switching- intent. People are going to try and compress into one year what they might have ordinarily done in two.”

George Anders, Senior Editor-at-Large at LinkedIn

Why don’t we just let them? While this may sound provocative, the harsh truth is you cannot keep someone who is mentally elsewhere already. The physical part will follow soon. Speaking from personal experience, I once managed to get two salary raises within four months only by submitting my resignation papers twice. Back then, a shared joke around friends and colleagues was that the only way to get a raise is to quit, but what happened next was eye-opening. Six months later, I left anyway without even having a backup plan. Quite honestly, it was self-sabotage all the way. I spent months transferring the responsibility of my life decisions to others because I was too afraid to take a step out of my comfort zone. Not only did I end up leaving in a state of rush, but I also left myself unprepared for what comes next and my employers unprepared on how to replace me.

Don’t get me wrong. Under no circumstances am I suggesting that workplace cultures and policies don’t need to be urgently updated. On the contrary, they need to be written from scratch to put the employee at the centre. We need to change from the core to make the workplace a healthy environment that promotes personal and professional development, and many organisations are already working towards this direction.

Toxic work environments need to be cured regardless of the turnover rates, not because of them.

Your Workplace Guru

HR strategies and leadership practices need to be put under the microscope but not in this panic mode that only aims to minimise turnover rates. We can’t afford to miss the forest by focusing on the tree. Employees that have this deep desire to change career paths will do it eventually. And even if they fail, they will have acquired new skills and wisdom on the way. They will get the answer to their “what if”, and with that strength, they will bounce back.

For each resignation reason, I think there is a different level of control that organizations have. There is a backlog of people who would have quit last year and are now enacting their plans to leave. Those people, you probably can’t retain. They have already made up their mind.

Prof. Anthony Klotz

Filtering is the key approach. Intuition, empathy and solidarity are the skills that management and HR professionals must develop to filter and handle the talent exodus. Companies need to build systems to support those wanting to stay and grow within their current roles despite the challenges. At the same time, they need to prepare the ground of replacement for those wishing to move on. In the meantime, sorting out who belongs to which category can be the trickiest part. And as per usual, the most rewarding one in the long run.

The real challenge is not to keep turnover rates low whatsoever. The real challenge is to rearrange the players on the field in the most effective way for both the players to feel content and the game not to be disrupted.

Your Workplace Guru

Whether real or not, the Great Resignation does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. It might as well help the economy and society move forward and get out of this pandemic numbness that has left no one unaffected. Maybe it is a step towards getting us out of lethargy. Maybe we can turn it from part of the problem to part of the solution. In the end, who knows what will happen if we all decide to embrace it rather than fear it?

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