As voluntary turnover continues to hit all-time highs, the “Great Resignation” is becoming less of a trendy, new term and more of a constant and growing source of concern for HR and business leaders.
Many are reacting to the prolonged retention challenges by investing heavily in talent acquisition—a necessary, but not the only, component of a smart strategy, says HR veteran and IBM CHRO Nickle LaMoreaux.
“I worry when we talk about the Great Resignation that it kind of assumes the answer already: People are going to resign. I think that’s a little premature,” she says. “Talent acquisition is absolutely important in a dynamic and hot labor market—there’s no question—but I don’t want HR teams to take the easy way out.”
Instead, she says, HR should look closely at what the Great Resignation is really all about: Employees are taking ownership over what they want from their careers, where and when they want to work, how they want their personal goals and professional purpose to align; ultimately, she says, it’s their “Great Reevaluation.” HR needs to follow their lead and reevaluate how the company is meeting employees’ evolving needs.
“This is an opportunity for HR departments to be working with business leaders and managers to re-recruit existing employees,” LaMoreaux says.
Much of that work should center on culture. Aligning culture with the growing expectations of employees requires HR and business leaders to embrace agility like never before—even at an institution like IBM, which dates to 1911 and has one of the world’s largest workforces, with more than 250,000 employees globally.
“You don’t last as a company for over 100 years without having something enduring in your culture; dedication to our clients, innovation, trust, inclusivity have always been hallmarks of IBM,” she says. “But there have been some recent shifts in my time.”
To that end, in addition to traditional engagement surveys and mini pulse surveys, IBM hosts “Ask Me Anything” sessions in which employees companywide are invited to interact directly with CEO Arvind Krishna. And it continues to expand its global “jams”—improv-style brainstorming sessions across functions and job roles—that allow employees to take an active role in company innovation.
Such transparent communication with both employees and candidates is becoming the “new expectation and norm” for organizational culture, particularly in the age of the Great Resignation, LaMoreaux says.
Any corporate cultural reevaluation today should also take into account the potential of learning and development as a retention tool.
Several years ago, IBM launched its THINK40 initiative, requiring employees to complete 40 hours of learning a year—they far surpassed that goal, with the average employee participating in nearly 90 hours. That commitment to learning can pay off for both the employee and company: At IBM, the “most avid learners” were more than 40% more likely to get promoted.
To support that aim of internal mobility, however, HR needs to again rely on transparency and feedback to ensure their reskilling and upskilling programs are tailored to what employees want and need, LaMoreaux says, and that workers understand and believe in their ability to grow and move within the company.
“HR has a critical role to play in not only developing new programs that allow reskilling and upskilling but also in ensuring employees are aware of career opportunities available to them before they assume they have to go somewhere else,” she says.
Another culture-related factor that has prompted employees at some organizations to head for the door recently is the question of flexibility. IBMers have had access to flexible working arrangements and schedules for years—company leadership even coined the term “work/life integration” two decades ago—but its definition of flexibility has evolved in recent months.
Instead of allowing employees to just flex their schedules or work from home occasionally, IBM is now focused on “measuring outcomes instead of activities.” Sustaining that approach has meant empathy is in the driver’s seat.
“We did manager training globally [on empathy] because it became a critical part of how we managed things when work and home became totally integrated—it’s not just at one point in time on one day a week or because someone needed to pick up their kids and leave early,” LaMoreaux says. “It was now a constant.”
LaMoreaux, who has worked in HR at IBM for more than 21 years and took on the top HR position in August 2020, says the role of empathy in leadership—particularly as companies reassess culture in the wake of the Great Resignation—has been one of her most crucial realizations as she’s settled in as CHRO.
“That was actually one of the benefits of taking on this job during the pandemic—there wasn’t a rulebook so we knew we had to listen to our employees, to our market, to our business leaders,” she says. “That idea of co-creating with empathy because we’re in uncharted waters has been one of the defining moments for me in taking on this role, and it’s one of the lessons I’m going to continue to carry with me.”