The Great Resignation: A Signal for the Future of Work
By now, most people have heard of the Great Resignation i.e. a mass exodus of employees from the workforce. Millions of employees throughout the United States (U.S.) have voluntarily resigned from their jobs within the last year and a half during a global pandemic. According to the U.S. Labor Department, a total of 4.3 million people resigned this past August. Yes, 4.3 million! If you’re not alarmed by these numbers or compelled to learn more, you’re at risk of missing an important opportunity to implement change now.
For far too long, the U.S. workplace has perpetuated a hustle culture that has left many feeling overwhelmed, disinterested, and burned out. With increasing costs and familial responsibilities, what options does one have but to work? Most people work to survive. How can you survive without a job?
The twin pandemics of 2020 led millions of people to begin reassessing what truly matters to them. This assessment included a consideration of the type of place they want to devote their time, energy, and skills to. Not so surprisingly, these pandemics resulted in a shift in mindsets with regards to what matters most. This paradigm shift led many to voluntarily exit their current place of work, to seek new more fulfilling work, deal with familial responsibilities, become entrepreneurs, or take a long-overdue mental health break without a foreseeable plan.
As we consider these shifts in the workplace, it is important to consider what this means for the future of work. The Great Resignation is a signal for the future that cannot be ignored. If you willingly choose to ignore these signals, it is quite plausible that your business may not succeed in the future.
As The Great Resignation turns into the Great Reshuffle or “boomerangs,” ask yourself, What do employees want? What do they need? How will our culture shift to meet these expectations?
Below are some recommendations as you navigate this new, increasingly interesting new normal (in no particular order).
Vulnerability is not the norm anywhere, including in organizations. However, if we learned anything from this past year and a half, it is that regardless of who we are, where we come from, and what we look like, we are bound together as people and are more similar than we are different. While communities of color are at greater risk for exposure to COVID due to racial and ethnic disparities and have died at alarming rates in comparison to others, none of us are immune from COVID or its overall impact across the world. We are all afraid in some way, but leaders who can embrace and model vulnerability within the workplace are the most effective. Vulnerable leaders are more likely to create wholehearted cultures where employees feel comfortable and confident being their authentic selves, feel psychologically safe, and are not afraid to take risks. Vulnerable leaders can make a choice to have courageous conversations and utilize storytelling to foster greater community, connection, and overall courage.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as core values
Many organizations publicly committed to DEI following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. If this is you, what has changed? Who is holding your company accountable? Organizations must prioritize this work now and in the future. While we know the business case for diversity, its benefits span beyond the bottom line. You will get further by building an inclusive culture that bridges and bonds. We can no longer ignore race and the impact racism has on how we hire, promote, retain, develop, and treat our employees. What is your process? The future is inclusive and your organization must get on board now or deal with the consequences later. Most diversity programs fail because organizations fail to use tactics that actually move the needle. Organizations cannot resort to old tactics to solve long-lasting problems. If these tactics worked, why do we still have the same problems? Organizations desiring to commit fully to DEI must be consistent in their efforts, monitor their progress, and set up mechanisms for accountability. If you care about all of your employees, DEI will become one of your core values and you will do whatever it takes to live into these values.
Prioritize mental health and wellbeing
For far too long, there has been a stigma around mental health in the workplace. Leaders and employees have suffered in silence for fear that others may find out that they are not okay and may benefit from additional support. This has led to increased depression, suicide, and more recently resignations. However, mental health challenges are the norm in today’s workplace, and it’s time you get serious about the culture you are part of and whether it lends to wellbeing. Research shows that women, people of color, and those of the LGBTQ+ community reported higher stress levels, and were more likely to feel loneliness or isolation during the pandemic. What are you doing to support these communities? Beyond access to mental health treatment, what adjustments could be made to employees’ schedules and workloads to create more balance and time for rest and wellbeing? Are there other offerings your company could make available to ensure employees do not have to choose work over themselves and their health?
Embrace empathy and flexibility
Your employees do not want to return to the office full-time. This may be disappointing to hear, but it’s true. Once employees adjusted to working from home, many realized that there was no valid reason why they had to be in the office every day or even at all. Gone were the lengthy commutes, added costs, and distractions of the office. In addition, productivity eventually increased. For mothers, women in leadership roles, and Black women, the workforce became even more burdensome leading many to exit. The truth is, women and people of color do not have fair, equitable experiences at work. Workplaces that demonstrate empathy tend to have less stressed employees with greater morale. Increased morale and engagement lead to better retention. How can you seek to understand i.e. demonstrate empathy for the experiences and circumstances of all of your employees? How will your actions change to reflect your concern? Could flexibility with remote and hybrid work be part of your future?
Create a culture of psychological safety, belonging, and trust
As humans, we are hardwired for connection. We want to belong. When people don’t feel connected at work, the result is less engagement, less productivity, and less retention. This of course impacts an organization’s bottom line. It costs to replace employees and to have employees who are not invested in an organization’s culture. Oftentimes blame is placed on employees for these circumstances, but in today’s workplace, we have to be accountable for ourselves and the culture we allow within our organizations. Do your employees feel psychologically safe? How do you know? What about belonging? What have you done to ensure all employees feel they belong? Is additional training necessary to support this work? And last, do your employees trust your leadership? If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, now is the time to get intentional with finding out the answers. The health of your employees and organizational culture depends on it.
Never stop learning
What you once knew about employees’ needs and intrinsic motivations is no longer true. How will you use the events of the past year and a half to learn as an individual stakeholder and as an organization? How will you adjust your policies, practices, and outdated ways of being to be more future-forward? To be more human-centered? What technological advancements can help you to attract and retain talent? What additional learning and support do you need to shift the culture of your organization and nurture employees? Are you willing to invest the resources to do so?
In addition to this, the future requires new tools and techniques. How will you rebuild your workforce? How might design principles assist with creating virtual and physically inclusive spaces? How open are you?
Invest in your people
Leaders are tasked with visioning the future of an organization. The pandemic disrupted the traditional workplace as we know it. Leaders at all levels of an organization can benefit from coaching to help them navigate this new terrain while prioritizing their own mental wellbeing. Leaders must show up vulnerable, demonstrate empathy, be flexible, look after themselves and their employees, and most importantly, build a culture of belonging. All of this must occur while also leading in the moment and simultaneously planning for the future. Executive and peer coaching can support this work. In addition to coaching, research has shown the benefit of mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace for employees of all levels. These, including social capital, are required to succeed in a hybrid, ever-changing workplace.
Furthermore, new skills are needed. The skills of the past will not carry us into the future. This new focus on skills must include and prioritize soft skills. Soft skills are what will allow us to have a more human-centered approach in life and work.
Plan for the future
We live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world which means there is no foolproof way to know what is coming. Our uncertainty does not mean that we cannot take precautions to prepare for the future i.e. a post-pandemic workplace. Scenario Planning is a strategy all organizations across all sectors should consider. This form of strategic planning requires organizations to identify basic trends e.g. Great Resignation and its impact, uncertainties e.g. Great Attrition or Great Attraction, and ultimately use what is known and factual to make a variety of predictions of what could happen in the future and how they should prepare for these scenarios.
Are you planning for the future? What have you done and what will you do to co-create a workplace you’d feel proud and comfortable belonging to?
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Written by Lakeya Cherry