In recent weeks, there has been much talk about the work-related impact of the pandemic. In particular, the Great Resignation. This term was coined by management professor Anthony Klotz to describe the high levels of workers in the US – and other countries – currently thinking about resigning from their jobs. According to Professor Klotz, “How we spent our time before the pandemic may not be how we want to spend our time after.”
Given how the pandemic has interrupted business-as-usual, a wave of worker resignations is probably not the most surprising thing to happen. Nonetheless, it is essential to understand why such a phenomenon is happening and how organisations can turn a potential crisis into an opportunity for improvement.
Of course, people resigning from their jobs is not new. The reasons people quit are many and varied and don’t always reflect dissatisfaction with the job itself. For example, you might leave your job if your partner has obtained work in another city and you are relocating with them.
But where the decision to resign is voluntary, that decision generally reflects the view that the costs/benefits of staying outweigh the costs/benefits of leaving. So, let’s look a bit more closely at the factors people weigh up in deciding whether to stay in their job or quit.
Why people stay in jobs
According to some HR professionals, employees will stay working in an organisation until something causes them to leave. This view suggests that decisions to stay working somewhere are passive. Moreover, that staying is the default position rather than an active decision. This may be the case for some employees, particularly those in unskilled jobs. They may think, “It’s a job, it’s an income…unless I get fired, or something better comes along, I might as well stay here.”
Other HR specialists believe that choosing to work in a particular organisation in the first place and then choosing to stay there reflects an active effort by the employee to engage with the organisation, its mission and their role within the organisation. This is more likely to be the case for people in skilled jobs. Indeed, if this were never the case, there would be no such thing as an employee choosing to continue working somewhere even when they know they could be paid more elsewhere!
For people who actively choose to stay in their job, there is a range of factors that contribute to that decision, including:
- They believe in the organisation’s mission and vision.
- Their work gives them satisfaction and a sense of purpose.
- They have opportunities for professional growth and development.
- Their work efforts are appreciated and recognised.
- They are asked for their ideas and input.
- They feel trusted.
- The pay and benefits are good.
- They can achieve their desired work-life balance.
- They have a good relationship with their manager(s) and co-workers.
- The organisation has a positive culture that delivers integrity, transparency, fairness and consistency.
The relative importance may vary from person to person or may change throughout a person’s working life.
Why people leave jobs
As noted earlier, people leave their job when the reasons for leaving outweigh the reasons for staying. Those employees who are only passively attached to their current job don’t need much to shift the balance. The prospect of a better paying job, a more secure position, or a job that better suits the person’s lifestyle can be all it takes.
For employees more actively connected to their current position, the reasons why the balance shifts towards leaving are often more complex and aren’t necessarily just the negative version of the ten factors listed earlier that contribute to the decision to stay. Indeed, unless an organisation has undergone a complete change of management and direction, it is not all that likely the organisation’s mission, vision or culture have changed since the employee decided to work there in the first place.
Moreover, organisations that provide professional growth, development opportunities, good pay and benefits for their staff are likely to continue those practices unless something significant happens that prevents them from doing so.
What is most likely to change for such employees is the people around them. This can impact whether they have good relationships with their co-workers and managers or their work efforts are appreciated and recognised. It also includes whether they feel trusted, and whether they are asked for their ideas and input. When these things go pear-shaped, employees start looking for new opportunities elsewhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on every aspect of our lives, not least of which is our relationship to work and the drivers for staying in, or resigning from, our jobs.
The first work-related impact of the pandemic was on who was actually able to work.
As nations responded to the pandemic by shutting down “non-essential” activities to limit the movement and interaction of their populations, large numbers of employees were stood down, furloughed, casualised, or sacked. Those who could remain employed by working from home readily agreed to do so. They knew they were lucky to still have paid work. Unsurprisingly, they were in no hurry to quit their job. Likewise, in Australia, where many workers could remain connected to their suddenly non-existent job through the Australian Government’s JobKeeper scheme, they were incentivised to stay in that position to continue receiving a regular income.
So, all the usual considerations for whether to remain in a job or resign went out the window for most of the workforce. The key concern was financial security.
The second work-related impact of the pandemic – for those who continued to do productive work – was how people worked.
For those in the “essential” workforce who continued to work onsite, every interaction with others was distorted and complicated by the need for social distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). Work previously tiring became absolutely exhausting. Workloads that had been barely doable became ludicrously unmanageable. Exhaustion and burnout became a new reality for these workers, but the knowledge that their skills were essential and not readily replaced kept them in their jobs.
For those who could work remotely, every interaction was mediated through online meeting platforms and new tools to facilitate remote collaboration. The office dynamic was turned on its head, and the line between work life and personal life was blurred until it was no longer visible.
The upside of working remotely was greater autonomy and flexibility for many workers, as well as less time spent getting ready for – and commuting to – work, with a corresponding increase in time spent with family. The downside, particularly for those with carer responsibilities, included the distraction of home-schooling children and other care-related activities.
Thus, for these workers, while some experienced a different kind of burnout from having to juggle too many responsibilities at once, others experienced new flexibility that caused them to question their acceptance of the old status quo.
The third work-related impact of the pandemic was how people came to view the business-as-usual work model.
During the pandemic, it suddenly turned out to be possible to do a whole range of things that were previously considered impossible, impractical or unfeasible. For example, the idea that someone might work from home a few days a week was previously dismissed as disruptive to teamwork or likely to reduce productivity. But during the pandemic, we saw that whole teams could work from home and still function effectively as individuals and as a team. We found ways to connect, communicate and collaborate virtually, and we developed innovative solutions to other issues of working remotely.
The result has been a reluctance by employees to accept an automatic return to the way things used to be before the pandemic. Moreover, having been forced by the pandemic circumstances to think creatively about how they work, many employees want to continue being creative as they reimagine their working life in the new post-pandemic normal.
It may have taken a crisis for everyone to reassess what’s important and to look for new ways to do things, but many people believe we shouldn’t need a crisis to continue along this path.
So, what will happen now?
As a direct consequence of the pandemic’s impact on work, the regular movement of people in and out of jobs has been significantly disrupted over the last 18 months. As vaccination levels rise in the community and the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” work is erased, employment levels will gradually increase.
Some of those who had planned to resign from their job but stayed put during the pandemic may now feel comfortable leaving their job. Others who had prepared to resign may reconsider if the changes brought about by the pandemic have addressed their original reason(s) to quit.
However, if the predictions of a Great Resignation are realised, a great many more employees that had not previously given much thought to resigning will also hand in their notice. Just as the changes brought about by the pandemic may have addressed issues for some employees, those disruptions may have brought issues to light for other employees.
Some of those issues may have nothing to do with work per se. Many people found themselves re-evaluating their priorities during the pandemic, leading to major life changes relating to their work and personal lives.
For people who have decided to return to study, change career direction, start a business, engage more – or differently – with family, or retire early, there is little that a manager can do to dissuade that person from their decision to resign their job.
On the other hand, there will undoubtedly be people who have come to recognise that the “old normal” has not worked for them for some time. Indeed, the break in routine may have highlighted superficial engagement efforts, tokenistic appreciation of results delivered by workers, and worker feedback or input having no apparent impact on the organisation. Over time – or following a significant disruption like the pandemic – employees who experience these workplace issues become cynical, disengaged, and more likely to consider leaving.
This is where managers and senior executives can avert a crisis involving a rush of damaging and disruptive resignations post-pandemic through new approaches to engaging with their workforce.
Turning a negative into a positive
Meaningful engagement between managers and their team members, through structured conversations that draw on the experiences and perspectives of everyone, provide essential insights that can help with redefining work roles, work relationships and work processes.
Structured conversations can be conducted one-on-one or in group/team contexts and work best when used as a regular mechanism for discussing routine work practices. Importantly, structured conversations can be liberating for both managers and their employees. This is because they start from the premise that everyone’s perspective and experience has value and no one person has – or should be expected to have – all the answers.
Best of all, using a structured conversation approach doesn’t have to be costly or particularly time-consuming. Moreover, it can address many factors that tip the balance in favour of workers remaining in their job. Structured conversations provide genuine engagement opportunities and help develop respectful and collaborative work cultures. This means a workplace where employees develop shared understandings of each other’s contributions to the overall work effort.
The conversation is a forum for sharing ideas and providing feedback. It’s also a mechanism for ensuring shared ownership of solutions to work-related issues.
And while your organisation might not have any experience with structured conversations as a mode of engaging employees, it’s never too late to start. It’s also not difficult to implement. There are tools like MEERQAT available to assist you with getting the most from the approach.
The pandemic has delivered a battering to most sectors. But as with most forms of adversity, there are also opportunities for reinvention and improvement on what was there before. As people gradually return to work, wondering what the “new normal” is going to look and feel like, they are already anticipating changes. This represents an ideal opportunity for organisations to take “the leap” and implement new – and better – approaches to engaging their workforce.