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The Great Resignation Is Here; Is Your Company Culture Ready?

People don't just quit a job; they quit bad workplace cultures. The great resignation is an opportunity to fix yours.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 29, 2021

Instead of trying to retain talent, embrace the undergoing workplace revolution

The Great Resignation is here and no organization is safe from its transformational effect. 55% of Americans are looking for a new job, 41% of global workers are considering quitting or changing professions this year, and 38% of UK employees plan to leave in the next six months to a year.

Is the workplace undergoing a revolution – or just the aftermath of months of isolation and burnout?

There are various reasons people are seeking a change in what has been labeled the Great Resignation.

The pandemic has caused a lot of us to refocus and reevaluate our priorities. Like every other crisis, it simply accelerated what was already boiling up.

Turnover is not new. However, the mass exodus that is happening today is an unusual phenomenon that requires a different approach. Don't fight workplace transformation; embrace it.

What's Driving the Great Resignation?

People don't just quit a job; they quit bad workplace cultures. Retention is not a strategy. Rather, you must address the underlying issues of the broader system – your culture.

But, first, let's review what's driving the great resignation – or, more specifically, who.

The great resignation is not a phenomenon that's happening across the board. As this in-depth analysis by people analytics firm Visier shows, not all reasons are made equal.

1. Resignations are highest across mid-career employees – they have the right level of experience most companies need to fill open jobs

2. The tech and health care industries are being affected the most by resignations – fields that had experienced increased levels of workload and burnout

3. Low-wage workers are looking for more money – they want to seize the day knowing job seekers have the upper hand

4. Unhappy employees were in holding mode during the peak of the pandemic

5. Many don't want to go back to the office – they want to avoid the commute or are worried about contracting COVID-19

Some workers are leaving jobs that aren't the best fit for them, looking for those that better suit their skills.

The pandemic has been especially brutal for women. They suffered a disproportionate number of layoffs, took on more home responsibilities, and made more career sacrifices to deal with homeschooling and a shortage of childcare.

The latest Women in the Workplace study reported burnout at even higher rates than last year. One-third of women are considering downshifting their careers – either temporarily or altogether.

Unsupportive working environments forced people to quit, too.

Several companies doubled down on bad behaviors, as shown by a recent Stanford study. They didn't support frontline employees and had more lay-offs to protect the bottom line. Additionally, controlling managers reward presenteeism and expect employees to be always on. It's no surprise that we've seen a surge in the use of workplace surveillance programs.

Culture has always played a vital role. However, the pandemic made issues more evident, increasing people's willingness to act.

As Alison Omens, chief strategy officer of JUST Capital, told BBC: "Our data over the years has always shown that the thing people care about most is how companies treat their employees." Salaries and benefits are important, but so are job security, learning, career growth, and diversity.

Flexibility has become a must-have for most employees. People refuse to compromise autonomy. Organizations need to default to asynchronous collaboration, allowing people to manage their schedules.

The most important transformation is the need for fulfillment. People want a job that matches their personal values, not the other way around.

As Mark Hamrick, Bankrate's senior economic analyst, told CNBC: "There have been a lot of epiphanies and reckonings that have occurred during the time with respect with how we're prioritizing ultimately our values, and of course how work fits into that."

The pandemic has amplified the gap between what people want and what companies deliver. We are not machines at the service of productivity. Working from home eroded the barrier between professional and personal life, amplifying the need to integrate both.

For some people, the way their employer treated them precipitated the desire to leave. A poor company culture pushed them to a breaking point. The pandemic made priorities more evident for many: they want a job they love, not one that just pays the bills.

The pandemic accelerated a workplace revolution that was many years in the making.

Great Resignation or Great Retrospect?

People finally had time to reflect on their relationship with work – and many weren't happy with what they uncovered.

A study by Personio shows that key reasons driving the great resignation are: a reduction in benefits, a worsening work-life balance, or a toxic workplace culture.

Burnout is both a warning sign and a symptom of deeper problems. According to a survey by Insider, 61% of employees are currently at least somewhat burned out. Most respondents believe that burnout has worsened – how employers treated people is to blame.

A study by Queen's University, Canada, and the University of Essex uncovered that we are spending less time thinking about others and the future, thus losing a sense of connection.

As the authors explain, "Normally, people spend a lot of time thinking about other people and planning for the future in their daily lives. We found that both of these thought patterns were disrupted during lockdown."

Future thinking is generally associated with positive mental health outcomes. A lack of social interaction decreased social thoughts. The fact that it was reduced explains the sense of detachment and negative emotions.

Burnout is more than the result of isolation, working long hours, and exhaustion. It's a mental state of depletion. People are fed up with the current conditions of work.

People are going through a period of great retrospect, not just resignation.

We are wired to associate work with self-worth. This period of reflection has uncovered a disconnect: we want to get back to doing meaningful work.

In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber makes a powerful argument against the rise of meaningless, unfulfilling jobs and their consequences. Those with bullshit jobs pretend their role is not as pointless or harmful as they know it to be. As the anthropologist explained, they create a "profound psychological violence."

However, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, as I wrote here.

A study by Barry Schwartz shows that many janitors find their jobs meaningful. Their job is not just about mopping floors, but taking care of the people who live in the hospitals they clean.

We work not just because we have to, but because we want to. In addition to economic needs, we want to enjoy what we do (play), connect our job with our identity (purpose), and perform at our best (potential).

As Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, wrote, "The best way to avoid a worker shortage is to make sure your employees don't quit in the first place."

"The best way to do that is to treat them with respect through your actions," he added. "Compensate them fairly, proactively make sure they don't burn out, treat them as adults, don't micro-manage them. This stuff isn't hard."

Don't Fight the Great Resignation – Embrace It

Organizations failed to invest in people's development and happiness. Prioritizing cost savings over people's growth is a decision that's hunting companies down.

Now they are desperately figuring out how to make employees stay. Usually, this involves offering more money, a fancy title, or empty promises ("things will get better").

Offering people more money or a promotion won't make them stay. And, if they do, it will just delay their departure – short-term rewards never turn demoralized employees into happy ones.

Embrace the great resignation. Reflect on how to improve your company culture. Here are some key steps to get you started.

Focus on the System

The Great Resignation is a result of systemic issues. Instead of focusing on retaining individuals, focus on the system. What are the structural problems within your culture that are forcing people to leave?

Codifying your culture will help you understand what's working and what's not. Map the real culture together with your team. Assess each of the building blocks to identify areas of improvement and prioritize the course of action.

Uncover underlying patterns and mental models. Observe the interconnections among the different elements – make the invisible, visible.

Reset Your Team's Purpose

Why does your team exist? What's the long-term impact you want to create in the organization, society, and beyond?

Having a purpose is critical to reconnecting people with meaningful work. However, most organizations have purpose statements that are meaningless or unauthentic. That's because they're usually disconnected from people.

One exercise we do with our clients is to have team members complete their personal purpose first. Not only do we invite them to reflect on what matters to them, but we also use what drives people as a foundation to define what drives them to work together – the team purpose.

Listen to your people

Active and continuous listening can provide real-time visibility into your culture's issues and make employees feel supported.

Data shows that people who reported to women were more likely to say their boss cared about them and checked in on them. However, most women in senior positions don't have that support for themselves.

Are you regularly checking in with your employees to address workload or health issues? Do you promote a psychologically safe environment so people can share their work-life challenges?

Your employees are human beings, not human resources. Connect with them as people. As Sean Michael Morris eloquently wrote about engaging people in virtual education: "We don't teach to a screen; teach through the screen." Every learner is a human.

Put Learning and Development First

The paradox of the pandemic is that while formal education suffered, informal education skyrocketed. It led to a surge of hobbies, language learnings, and experimentation. People discovered not only the value of spare time, but also a reenergized pleasure in learning.

Unfortunately, most managers are clueless about their teams' development reality. A study by LHH uncovered that while 80% of senior leaders believe they have allowed employees to improve their digital skills, only 43% feel they had.

Help people reach their true potential by creating opportunities for exploration. Don't assume what people need – just ask.

Prioritize Wellbeing

People's expectations have changed and mental wellbeing support is an excellent example of it. Once a nice-to-have, it has become vital to prevent burnout.

The pandemic has reminded us that our lives are precious. People want more human, psychologically safe, and equitable workplaces. Your company culture should protect mental health and well-being.

Freshworks implemented "Fri-yay" days off every six weeks and the #AndIt'sOK program to help employees handle the additional stresses of juggling stay-at-home life. The company stills has attrition, but fostering wellbeing hasn’t gone unnoticed by employees.

Say Farewell with Grace

Not everyone is unhappy with their company – some just need a change. And, even if some employees leave because they are not happy, the way you say farewell to them says a lot about your culture.

Rather than treating people as traitors for leaving, be grateful for what they did during their tenure. A farewell ritual is a great way to show employees that you value them for who they are, not just when they were part of your team.

Team rituals are meaningful experiences that help say goodbye. Go beyond the typical exit interview. Recognize people's contributions. Show them that you care by practicing one of these rituals.

The Great Resignation Is Here

Could this Great Resignation bring about meaningful, long-term change to workplace culture?

Definitely, yes. And you can play a huge part in making it happen.

The pandemic accelerated a change which was already in place, shaping people's expectations towards leaders and organizations.

A salary increase will never offset a bad company culture. People will never forget how employers treated them during the pandemic. As Carl W. Buehner said, "They may forget what you said - but they will never forget how you made them feel."

Rather than playing defense, take the initiative and embrace the revolution. Your company culture will determine whether or not you thrive in the new workplace.

The Great Resignation is here; are you ready?

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