It started in April 2021, and it hasn’t slowed since.
That month, a record 4 million Americans quit their jobs. In the months following, droves more workers have continued to voluntarily resign, including another 3.9 million in June. And there’s reason to think this trend will continue; research from Microsoft indicates that as many as 40% of workers are considering leaving their employer by year’s end.
This historic turnover has a name: the Great Resignation. And it has company leaders panicked, as they field growing mounds of two-week notices, scramble to hire replacements amid a talent drought and attempt not to lose additional workers. Between burnout and new, pandemic-born understandings of career possibilities — amid the usual host of reasons for why workers quit jobs — preventing turnover altogether is unlikely.
There are, however, some steps leaders can take to mitigate just how severe their rate of turnover is. We heard from senior executives about the strategies leaders can employ to ensure their companies aren’t capsized by this wave of resignations.
1. Understand what’s worked for workers this far into the pandemic — and what hasn’t.
We’re approaching another major shift in people’s work lives, with companies moving tentatively, in these Delta-dependent times, toward office returns. Within that, it’s crucial leaders take a moment to truly understand what has (and hasn’t) worked for employees over the course of the pandemic.
“Aside from obvious email and Zoom sessions, workers and executives have also been spending time with family, homeschooling their children, building online businesses, investing in real estate, growing gardens, restoring furniture and in general not being treated like a 9-to-5 robot in a cubicle,” Baron Christopher Hanson, a growth strategy and turnaround expert with RedBaronUSA, said. “Leaders must interview each employee to gauge the degree of life freedoms they enjoyed during the entire lockdown and be very careful not to shock them with over-supervision and micro-management.”
Making an effort to tailor employees’ experiences at this stage in the pandemic to include the things that have felt “flexible and freeing and liberating,” Hanson added, is key. And so is understanding that not everyone will have a similar outlook on their WFH time.
“Some employees may have been utterly miserable during lockdown,” Hanson said. “They may be filled with tears of joy to commute back and forth in traffic and return to a cubicle… the point being, there is no blanket answer. Each employee is individual, and each WFH experience was different. How can your company listen to each employee, one by one?”
Understanding how people’s needs and priorities have changed — and making it clear you care about having that understanding — can go a long way toward dampening the Great Resignation’s effects.
2. Provide organizational clarity.
The period after an employee exits — particularly if that employee was high level or sat at a senior level — can have negative spillover effects on those who remain. To keep a single resignation from rippling into a wave of them, ensure your remaining employees have a clear understanding of how their work has, or hasn’t, changed, in addition to creating ongoing clarity around company goals and objectives, said Brian Dean, Founder of Exploding Topics.
“Organizational clarity means knowing what is expected of me, knowing where I fit in the organization, and knowing what my job and responsibilities are,” Dean said. “Here’s the problem: if you’re the boss, everything seems obvious. Because clarity isn’t a recognized need of ours, we undervalue it and underestimate its influence.”
As a senior leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure everyone feels adequately looped in and prepared for how their role or the company itself may be changing.
3. Take honest stock of your leadership style.
As Sai Blackbyrn, founder and CEO of Coach Foundation, puts it: “Employees usually do not quit jobs. They quit bad management and toxic work environments.”
At this critical moment, open yourself up to an honest “reevaluation of your leadership style,” Blackbyrn added, and see whether “you could be causing your employees to seek alternative employment — then change course.” You’ll want to be sure you’re reducing bureaucracy in the organization, publicly recognizing people for their efforts, providing clarity around responsibilities and company goals, and prioritizing employees’ psychological safety.
To take stock of these key areas, utilize regular systems of two-way feedback, Mika Kujapelto, CEO and Founder of LaptopUnboxed, said.
“Gaining regular feedback from your employees on enhancing company culture can help you prevent employees from quitting,” Kujapelto said. “You can also help employees feel more comfortable sharing their opinions by providing multiple feedback channels. Let them choose which ones they prefer that will enable them to be more honest with their feedback, such as using online surveys.”
4. Recognize burnout as an ongoing threat, and protect your team from it.
Many organizations made statements about the importance of mental health toward the start of the pandemic — then fell right back into old ways, submitting employees to overly taxing workloads and unrealistic expectations. If your company is going to make it out of the Great Resignation intact, though, a culture of burnout can’t be present, said Antti Alatalo, CEO and founder of SmartWatches4U.
“To curb burnout-related resignations in your company, ensure that you are placing high importance on employee mental health and wellbeing,” Alatalo said. “This could be in the form of allowing more respite days or more flexibility in schedules and workload. You could also provide well-being resources, such as free subscriptions and apps.”
5. Tap into the gig economy when possible.
One practical way to protect workers from burnout? Utilize the growing market of freelancers for the extra work departed colleagues have left behind, rather than expecting existing team members to absorb it.
“My advice to business owners is to embrace the rising gig economy,” Jacob Villa, Co-founder and Marketing Director of School Authority, said. “This means outsourcing some of your work processes to freelancers while keeping a small core of full-time employees for essential positions. At the moment, this is a more tenable solution than growing talent from scratch, only to have them join the Great Resignation when they have accumulated enough experience.”
6. Resist the urge to fall back into formality.
Being vulnerable and transparent with employees takes time and intention, especially when traditional leadership models haven’t prioritized those things. While the start of the pandemic saw a rush of authenticity and vulnerability at work, this many months later, some executives may feel a pull to fall back into older (read: easier) ways of transactionally relating to employees. Don’t, advised Darcy Eikenberg, a leadership and career coach.
“During the pandemic, a lot of leaders abandoned old-school, formal communication processes and instead shared more authentic, personal messages with their people,” Eikenberg said. “Resist the urge to return to more structure and formality, and keep experimenting with ways to connect with your teams in ways that work for them. Successful leaders found it’s okay to not be fully prepared, or for video to not be polished. Real life, real-time communication will continue to be the expectation, so keep it up even when it feels awkward or hard.”
7. Give people a reason to stay (besides the money).
Why does your organization matter today? If you can’t articulate that, neither can your people, Eikenberg continued.
“There’s a reason your company exists that’s bigger than what most may see on the outside, but are you talking about that reason?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be a ‘save the world’ message, but maybe it’s about the lives of the customers you serve, or the connection between what you do and something else.”
Making a fresh effort to connect employees to the company mission and vision may be even more important now after so many months working remotely, Cecilia Hunt, CEO of JourneyPure, said.
“Working remotely and having less interaction with coworkers may have caused some employees to lose sight of what the organization is working towards,” Hunt said. “By reinforcing the company’s mission and vision, telling stories about how the company is making a difference, and showing employees how they’re contributing, employees may feel that their work at the company has a purpose and want to stay to continue contributing.”
8. Accept some turnover is unavoidable — then, double-down on not letting it dent morale.
One of the biggest threats of the Great Resignation is the impact it can have on remaining employees’ morale. Once abandoning ship starts to feel like a widespread pattern, hanging onto those who haven’t yet left becomes harder and harder.
Take this opportunity to pour resources into encouraging those who remain, Jonathan Broder, Co-founder Of Digital Vaults, said. And do it sooner rather than later.
“When teams often change and lose members, remaining employees can feel like they’re lost,” Broder said. “Friendships can be broken. Professional networks are disrupted. People feel isolated. Manage this situation by encouraging everyone and keeping their spirits up. One way to do this is by holding a team-building event that can introduce employees to each other and keep that sense of belonging.”
Approaching your team from a place of empathy can go a long way, too.
“Always be available to listen to your employees,” Broder added. “The Great Resignation is affecting them as much as it is affecting you. Your empathy with what they’re going through can go a long way to help them cope.”
But while empathy and team bonding are integral to morale, remember they’re not a complete substitute for the practical rewards a company can offer. When one employee quits, see the possibilities for opportunity that brings for other workers, Stan Kimer, President of Total Engagement Consulting, said.
“This is a great opportunity to promote those who do stick around and give them interesting assignments where they can prove themselves,” Kimer said. “Help employees to see that when some leave, there is opportunity for them. Do not overlook your diverse talent; consider giving a junior employee a stretch assignment, and don’t assume an older employee doesn’t still want to grow and advance. Look at ways to promote and engage a wide variety of talent.”
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