2 keys to stopping the ‘Great Resignation’? Flexibility and trust

Employers need to give workers more autonomy to prevent them from walking out the door, experts say.
By: | July 20, 2021
(Image: Adobe)

A new class of workers is emerging from the pandemic: If these employees don’t like your post-COVID policies or practices, they’ll move on, searching for greener deals. And you may be left with big employment gaps and even bigger retention issues.

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Between February 2020 and February 2021, a net 2.4 million women and 1.8 million men left the labor force, according to Pew Research Center. During this time frame, employment dropped by 8.5 million, a loss that Pew says could take more than three years to recoup.

The Resignation Wave report by Visier, a people analytics firm, found that resignations have risen this year in technology and healthcare (burnout may especially be a factor) but not in finance and marketing. From August 2019 to August 2020, resignations also increased in every age group except for those between 20 and 25, who are considered entry-level professionals.

What’s causing the exodus? Many organizations have sought to track why employees have left over the last year, with burnout, concerns about work/life balance and fears of COVID among the potential reasons.

See also: Why this recruitment technique may be key for today’s market

Perhaps central to all of these factors is flexibility—or a lack thereof. Based on a global survey conducted by professional services network EY, 87% and 88% of respondents believe workplace flexibility is important in where and when they work, respectively, says Elizabeth Fealy, global deputy for the people advisory services practice at EY.

She believes the genie is out of the bottle regarding hybrid work arrangements: Employees not only want this flexibility, they expect it.

But, in designing for such formats, HR needs to focus on employee teams, not individuals or the company as a whole. First, identify groups that typically work side-by-side and then determine the core hours and frequency in which they must work together in the office.

Likewise, rebrand the office as a destination where employees come for certain purposes like collaboration, networking or onboarding. Fealy says that will help keep people together and enhance camaraderie and, ultimately, retention.

Some organizations are seeking to hang onto their talent by reinvesting in employee development with various workforce segments to discover what enriches the employee experience in new hybrid or remote models, Fealy says. For some, it may be leveraging new technology so employees can better collaborate with co-workers, on or off site. Just make sure there’s an equitable employee experience for all individuals, whether they’re working from home or the office, she adds.

“Employers and the workforce will figure out the right rhythm through this agile experimentation that will happen over the next six to 12 months,” Fealy says. “The most successful will be the ones that focus on teams.”

Related: 4 ways tech can help you retain women

Meanwhile, companies requiring employees to return to the office without any options for flexibility may see attrition soar, adds Lorrie Lykins, vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).

Lorrie Lykins

The organization, which discovers and advances emerging practices in human capital, recently surveyed 348 employers, primarily throughout North America, about the top 10 factors driving talent loss. No. 1 is burnout (67%), followed by lack of advancement opportunities (48%), compensation (46%) and a requirement that employees return to the workplace after working remotely (34%). Another 28% cite not offering flexible work options like hours worked or location.

“Organizations are really at risk for losing high-performing or critical talent,” says Lykins, adding that, to reduce turnover, some executives are encouraging open conversations about employee mental health. “Some CHROs say their employees want more flexibility and autonomy. But their CEO is hellbent on getting everybody back in the office.”

HR professionals stuck in the middle can arm themselves with data, says Lykins. Survey employees. Share the results.  If senior executives still disregard them, she says, they will be setting up the organization for disappointment and some very tough lessons.

“Refusing to treat employees like adults is going to have dire consequences,” she says.

What employees want, and how the organization responds, matter for retention. Yet, 56% of 4,500 employees surveyed from five countries by Limeade Institute stated their employer never bothered asking their opinion about returning to the office.

Lindsay Lagreid

“That’s how not to build trust,” says Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor for the Institute, which researches trends involving employee wellbeing and engagement. “If you don’t know what employees want, HR can’t build retention strategies based on their needs.”

The Limeade research also found anxiety about returning is rampant, with respondents pointing to COVID exposure, losing scheduling flexibility and returning to a commute among the reasons.

Meanwhile, HR professionals shouldn’t look at flexibility as a temporary solution—slapping a Band-Aid on the issue and hoping it will disappear. To support long-term retention, Lagreid suggests hiring independent contractors to lighten workloads, which can generate more flexibility and reduce employee burnout or stress.

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“Having people-centric perks and practices is going to be very important,” Lagreid adds. “Creating an employee experience where employees feel connected to the purpose of an organization, get energy from the work they’re doing and the workplace feels human and positive, is going to be incredibly critical to the success of businesses.”


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Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.