The Great Resignation: How Millions of People Quitting Could Change Work for All of Us

the great resignation

COVID has presented deep challenges to almost every aspect of our lives over the past 18 months. The way we travel, the way we interact with each other, and the way we spend our free time have all shifted, but perhaps nothing has seen greater upheaval than the way we work.

If you told your boss two years ago, before the pandemic struck, that you would love to do your job from your living room or bedroom and that you could be trusted to get all the necessary work done as needed, you probably would have been laughed at (at best).

Flash forward two years later, and the current way that most of us who are lucky enough to be able to do our work from home is not only normal but expected.

Employers and employees have had to be extremely flexible during the pandemic and allow for new realities that used to be unthinkable. Now though, that flexibility and freedom are being seized upon by employees who have seen the light and decided that flexible working is for them — and are willing to quit their jobs if they can’t get it.

A recent research survey conducted by Microsoft found that 41% of the 30,000 global workers surveyed were considering leaving their jobs this year as the pandemic winds down. In the UK and Ireland, 38% of workers surveyed by research group Personio said the same.

Millions already have in both the US and the UK in a trend that has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’. While it’s yet to happen in Australia, signs are already indicating that we’re about to see the same mass wave of notices being turned in here.

So, what exactly do people want from their roles and how can employers and employees best prepare themselves for the post-COVID return to the office that will keep both parties happy? Here’s what you need to know.

Give Me Flexibility or Give Me Death

As we return to the office, many of us aren’t willing to go back to the same conditions we had before. According to the Microsoft report, employees want their lives back from work in a way that they had been granted during the remote work trend, arguing that ‘working to live’ and not ‘living to work’ is their ambition.

Working from home, it must be said, is a pretty sweet deal. The commute is non-existent, the food choices are better, and you can wear whatever you want. What’s more, people report having a greater work-life balance during the pandemic, with the proximity to loved ones and family members a huge benefit to them.

That’s not something we are willing to give up.

“We’re on the brink of a disruption as great as last year’s sudden shift to remote work: the move to hybrid work — a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home,” the Microsoft report stated.

On top of the obvious benefits in remote working come the challenges that we’ve all faced over the past 18 months. The stress and anxiety of the pandemic have caused a global mental health crisis and employees are feeling burnt out and less willing to put up with rigid and demanding working conditions. Plus, the lack of separation from work afforded by an office has us feeling like the work never ends.

Younger employees feel disconnected from work, and many of those who have just entered the workforce will only have met their colleagues in person a handful of times. That lack of bonding and support is causing many to feel separated and disengaged from their company.

At the other end of the spectrum, the older generation, who could be nearing retirement anyway, are choosing not to go back to the office purely for avoiding the sheer hassle of the hybrid work situation. Many are also concerned about a lack of COVID-19 safety protocols in place and the possibility of working with people who are unvaccinated.

During the pandemic, many employees stayed at companies that they might otherwise have left purely for the financial security that was afforded to them. Now that the pandemic looks to be being reigned in, and job listings are going up, those who would have jumped ship earlier are deciding that now is the time.

All of this has meant that employees are quitting in droves in search of better, more flexible jobs.

Play Time Is Over

Employers see the situation very differently. Many organisations have been badly hit financially by the pandemic and feel the flexibilities they have granted employees ought to be repaid with loyalty and hard work.

They need to make money to ensure the organisation stays afloat and are thus pressing their workers harder while expecting them to return to the same working conditions that were in place before the pandemic.

Pay increases, as so many employees are currently looking for, are off the table for similar reasons.

While this might make good financial sense, the Microsoft report notes that companies need to adapt to the changing needs of their employees if they are to retain and grow their staff.

Organisation leaders need to show that they are directly engaged and listening to the needs of their staff. Greater cross-team collaboration is needed as well as fostering authentic relationships between co-workers who may not know each other very well.

While hybrid work scenarios might be beneficial to some, ensuring that proper face-to-face time also occurs is essential for employee satisfaction and retention.

The Times Are a-Changing

While all of this sounds like a challenge for employers and, more broadly, the economy at large, the great resignation could be an opportunity to bring about meaningful, long-term change to workplace culture and the way companies invest in their employees.

Aaron McEwan from global research and advisory firm Gartner spoke on an ABC podcast recently on the topic in which he explained that pandemics often reshape global society on fundamental levels.

It’s no ‘end of feudalism’ that the Black Plague brought about, but COVID could very well “rewrite our psychological contract between employer and employee,” McEwan said.

He expects these changes to hit Australia sometime in March of next year as we return to work — and the old way of doing things clashes with the new.

“The way that we work, particularly in offices, is leftover from the 20th century, arguably the 19th century”.

“We work nine to five, because that’s when the sun is up. We worked in offices, because chances are no-one had a computer in their house, let alone a fax machine or any of those things.”

Radical problems demand radical solutions. With a fed-up and exhausted workforce who know their value and have been thinking long and hard about the nature and reality of work, employers need to figure out a way to support their workers in a way that benefits both parties.

“Companies will have to start … selling the work to employees.”

His advice to employers is to see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to “reconfigure work so that it’s actually designed for this new world that we find ourselves in”.

That means that hybrid work is probably here to stay, at least partly. Microsoft advises that those companies who allow their workers to work from home when they so choose will likely see greater employee retention and satisfaction than those who don’t.

However, it goes further than that, as remote work has proven that work can be done from anywhere. And we mean, anywhere. Global organisations are likely to see employees expecting or inquiring about the possibilities of working from overseas, from remote areas, or from tropical beaches.

We know, for example, that 43,000 Australians made the move from urban to rural living during the pandemic and those people are unlikely to want to give that up if push comes to shove.

And, let’s face it, who amongst us is not dreaming of a massive, round-the-world tour when international borders reopen?

What McEwan suggests is that companies who offer benefits such as these may be more likely to attract and retain independent, resourceful employees who want the freedoms that the pandemic has both offered and denied them.

“I’m talking to a number of our clients at the moment about the potential of, in this fierce competition for digital talent, the idea of giving employees a round-the-world plane ticket a the beginning of the year and saying ‘work from whichever office we have in the world, wherever you like'”, McEwan says.

“How many of us would be sitting there going ‘wow, imagine if I could be a backpacker but I could also own a home and do all of those things that I want to do’?”

Those ideas tap into our deep desire for adventure and we know that inspires, fulfilled people make the best employees.

Plus, opening the doors to global, remote talent means accessing a far broader base of prospective staff. That makes the employment market not only more competitive, vibrant, and exciting, but could also enable greater access for those groups who are shut off from traditional employment.

The brave new world beyond COVID is stacked with possibilities — if we have the courage and trust to seize them.

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