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Combating the Great Resignation — How to Retain Talent in a Tumultuous Market

If you’ve been fielding more resignation letters than usual, you’re not alone. Resignation rates have been climbing across countries and industries. 

It seems the pandemic created somewhat of a perfect storm with various compounding issues leading to the spike in employees jumping ship. 

During the peak of lockdowns, workers stayed in jobs longer than they may have wanted to so they could maintain some sense of security and normalcy during an unsettling time. Others had more time to rethink their priorities, interests, and overall sense of purpose. And some have come out of multiple lock-downs burnt out from juggling homeschooling, working from home and the emotional toll of living through a pandemic. Altogether compounding into a mass exit of sorts, with what experts are dubbing, “The Great Resignation.”

“There just wasn’t the mental or physical capacity oftentimes to even do a job search in the height of a pandemic,” says Senior Research Associate for employee experience agency WerkLabs, Abby Haynes.

“Now, as things start to reopen a bit, there’s a bit more time and ability to start doing those job searches and I think that’s why you’re seeing this play out right now.”

But this isn’t just sentiment. Recent studies consistently found employees post-pandemic have new ideas about work and are looking elsewhere to find them. 

A study by Microsoft found that 41% of the global workforce would consider leaving their current employer within the next year.

Prudential’s latest Pulse of the American Worker Survey, conducted by Morning Consult in March, found 1 in 4 workers (26%) plan to look for a job at a different company once the pandemic has subsided.

Of those planning to leave their current job, “80% are concerned about career growth, and nearly 75% say the pandemic made them rethink their skill sets.

They found that high-performing workers are the most concerned about career advancement in their current jobs, and due to the increase of remote work opportunities, “they no longer feel geographically tied to local employers.”

But it’s not just career progression enticing employees to leave their current positions. The pandemic has left people exhausted, carrying the mental and emotional toll of lockdowns, sickness, homeschooling and the unknown. 

In response, workers are looking for companies who offer better flexibility, work-life balance and wellbeing perks.

But this trend doesn’t have to spell disaster. Of course, if it’s no longer the right fit, no amount of perks will make them stay. But it is possible to re-engage employees who are looking for more modern solutions to the current state of work.

How much of these resignations hinges on remote work? 

“Companies that dictate that all employees must return to the office are at the greatest risk of losing them,” Cassie Whitlock, Head of Human Resources for the talent management software platform BambooHR shared in a Fact Company article.

“They’ve just done it for a year, and it worked. They’ll want to know why it can’t work going forward. If you do require employees to return, you’d better have a compelling case.”

It’s one of those cases of what’s been seen cannot be unseen. 

And yet we all know full well that embracing flexibility around location isn’t as simple as sending your team home armed with laptops.  

To roll out flexibility long term, organizations need plans, systems, and open communication. They need answers to questions like how are we going to collaborate? Can we work in other cities or countries? And, how much Zoom is too much Zoom? 

With 81 percent of employees saying they’ll be more loyal to their employers if they have flexible work options, and 42% saying if their current company doesn’t continue to offer remote work options long term, they’ll look for one that does — finding these answers seems critical for retaining current talent (and attracting them in the future). 

Flexibility can be defined in a few different ways. How you embrace it should be contingent on the specific needs of your company and likely evolving over time. 

68% of US workers say their ideal working model would include a mix of remote and on site work. The breakdown of those days could shift and change over time, depending on the shifting needs of the team. 

Other research shows that of the US employees who worked remotely during the pandemic, 85% would prefer to work either remotely or in hybrid arrangements permanently. Most of them want the ability to choose. 

Another study found nine in ten employees want flexibility in where and when they work. But if they had to choose —  54% would choose flexibility in when they work over where

“A lot of it is just transparency and being upfront,” Abby says. “If you don’t know what your plan is for returning to the office, there’s really no harm in saying that. Perhaps you’re doing some more research because you want to make sure that you get it right as an organization, that you don’t want to force people back to the office too soon. So, being upfront and transparent with what’s happening from leadership, kind of the back end side of things, that engenders a lot more loyalty as it’s more of an open door policy.”

How do you know what your employees actually want?

While these studies, statistics and trends are clearly something worth considering, it’s important to not blindly apply them to your own situation. 

Knowing 42% of US workers will leave a company that doesn’t offer remote work options is powerful, but ultimately meaningless if your company is made up of the remaining 58%. 

That’s where communicating with your team comes in.

Understanding what your employees are looking for can be difficult to determine. Many wouldn’t answer honestly even if you asked them out right, and others aren’t really sure what they want — they’ll just know it when they see it. 

Behavioural scientist and President of Werk Labs, Dr. Pamela Cohen says anonymity helps. 

“We do a lot of one-to-ones with our client’s employees so that they can speak freely, and kind of go wherever they want with a topic without being worried that somebody in the office is going to hear that, and then we make that feedback confidential,” she says. 

“But if you can’t use an outside vendor to collect that data, then, you know, just promising that names won’t be linked to that feedback is really helpful.”

Feedback software, such as Spot, can guarantee requests or concerns remain anonymous which may help employees feel safer to share. 

Dr. Cohen adds that offering options makes providing feedback easier. 

“I generally recommend trying not to ask people to invent the wheel,” she says. “In other words, it’s really hard for people to be the one to put together the passage, but if you can give them several offerings — a book club or have two hours quiet time anytime during the day or, you know, a gym membership. If you can give them the option, people can generally speak to them.”

Coupling a few suggestions with open forums for employees to share their hopes or desires for their work experience could capture a picture more specific to your company. 

This way, when designing strategies for the future or implementing changes for the current world, you’re more likely to meet the actual needs of your team.

The importance of developing company values

“I think the really interesting thing that we heard from getting on the ground, doing those interviews with professionals from across the across the US across the industry,” Abby says, “is that people are looking to work for a more mission-based organization or an organization where you really align with their values, and what they stand for.”

She argues this shift is directly informed by the global events of the last year and a half.

“With a pandemic, and social unrest, and heightened racial tensions, it has really shifted the lens of like, ‘Why do I want to work? And for whom do I want to devote all this time and energy to?’”

As we see company values becoming more important to employees, organizations are putting a lot more time and energy into advertising the kind of workplace they are. But Dr. Cohen cautions against going over the top or entering into a virtue signalling contest. 

“The people are very good now at sensing whether things are real, versus just put out there,” she says. “So if you really want to be genuine, then part of it is weaving that into the fabric that that is the corporation. How are you living the values? And really go back and forth with employees until they feel like it is very genuine.”

While values have to come from the top, it’s easier to get employee buy-in when you’re promoting values the group already share rather than forcing them into something entirely foreign. In that way, setting up a value system is more an act of discovery and articulation than prescription.

Don’t be afraid to step outside the box

As employees question the type of work they want to do, they’re also questioning how they want to work. For some, flexibility around location or hours is enough to feel a sense of freedom and autonomy over their work. For others who crave variation or have desires beyond the scope of a company, freelancing, job sharing or working project-to-project may be a better fit. 

So what do you do when your star employee shares their intention to pursue a freelance career and leave the company?

Your instinct may be to wish them luck and use their two weeks notice frantically searching for their replacement. But what if you could both benefit from this situation? 

By offering to work with them to create unique work solutions, you may be able to retain your talent while also granting them the freedom they desire. 

Creating unique solutions can take time to figure out, but by showing you’re willing to make something work you’ll likely increase an employee’s feelings of connection and wellbeing which often leads to loyalty. 

Employee benefits as a practical expression of care

In Prudential’s Road to Resiliency survey, three-quarters of all workers factor benefits into their decision about whether to stay or leave a job. They can be hugely impactful at any time (not only as we work through a global pandemic).

Benefits can include large ticket items like insurance, equipment allowances or child care, but can also cover things like gym memberships, reimbursements for phone bills or weekly coffee allowances.

“There’s all sorts of ways to look after employees’ wellbeing,” Dr Pam says. “Connecting employees to good therapists or leisure activities or other things that they can do to take care of themselves and their families. That starts to engender a lot more loyalty as well.”

She says after a long year and a half of uncertainty, “employees really want to know that companies care about them,” and a good benefits offering is a practical way to showcase that care. 

“When organizations did handle the pandemic really well with an emphasis on employee wellbeing, we heard employees say in the advisory services we offered, ‘the way they handled it so well, the culture that they were able to maintain and their focus on employees, I couldn’t have asked for anything more,’” Abby says. “And so on the flip side with that kind of handling of the pandemic, you’re not going to see the resignations quite as much, because they just proved that they’ll stick with you through a global health pandemic. And that fosters a lot of longer term loyalty.”

Retaining talent long term 

The best antidote to attrition is to create a working environment that employees actually enjoy being a part of. Whether that’s through flexible work policies, interesting benefits, common values or unique work opportunities, it’s essential that you listen to your employees needs, keep checking in on them and work together to create a workplace that can not only serve you both but make you both happy. 


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