Employees across the United States are beginning to transition into post-pandemic work life, as cities reopen, vaccination rates go up, mask mandates are rolled back and offices start the arduous process of recalling their employees — some of whom may not want to come back regularly, or at all. Clearly, it will be a complex transition, complicated even more by indications that the shift will be accompanied by a wave of resignations.
First, due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, many employees who would have otherwise quit their jobs stayed put. Indeed, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey to examine total (nonfarm) quits over the past two years, there were close to 6 million fewer resignations in 2020 than there were in 2019.
As the pandemic subsides, these would-be quitters who “sheltered in place” last year will likely enact their plans to leave. In fact, this surge of turnover is already underway: The resignation rate in March was 2.4 percent, which was the highest quit rate recorded for that month in 20 years. In short, the backlog of resignations caused by the pandemic are now beginning to clear.
We know that generally many employees only stay at their jobs because the costs of leaving are higher than the costs of staying, and this ratio has shifted for many workers over the past year. The costs associated with staying have risen, with many workers experiencing burnout — a key contributor to voluntary turnover. At the same time, some costs associated with quitting have decreased. The pandemic has provided many Americans with an opportunity to reduce expenses, pay off debt and save money. Combined, higher employee burnout and enhanced financial security is a recipe for increased resignations.
But the pandemic has also forced many of us to re-evaluate what’s important in our lives. As a result of this introspection, people across the country are making major life changes — although socioeconomic privilege is an important factor here. But whether deciding to go back to school, start a business, stay home with family more or retire early, these live pivots often involve stepping away from traditional work arrangements.
Finally, the big one. Millions of Americans experienced working remotely for the first time during the pandemic, and at least anecdotally it seems many enjoyed it. Given that humans have a fundamental need for autonomy, the freedom that remote work provides can be very appealing, and the flexibility is a boon to caregivers and working parents. Moreover, although (some) employees may miss seeing their work colleagues in person, a significant percentage of workers do not want to return to work until all of their co-workers are vaccinated, according to a March survey from Harvard Business School Online.
In other words, as companies make plans to end remote work, in many cases forcing employees back into the office, millions of workers are experiencing the most severe case of the Sunday Scaries of their lives.
What is the common thread across these resignation trends? One answer comes from research on human well-being, which aligns with centuries of philosophy in proposing that people tend to pursue two overarching goals in life: happiness and/or meaning. Work is central to many of our lives; as such, the extent to which our job is a positive source of satisfaction and purpose plays an outsize role in whether we feel that our lives are happy and meaningful overall.
When viewed through this perspective, what is driving The Great Resignation is fairly straightforward: The pandemic has made many realize their job does not contribute enough (or at all) to their pursuit for happiness and meaning, and they have decided to invest their energy elsewhere — in new jobs, new careers or in other aspects of their lives (e.g., family, travel, creative endeavors).
For managers at all levels of organizations (some of whom themselves may be contemplating resigning), The Great Resignation presents a challenge. On the plus side, not all employee voluntary turnover is bad. There are still millions of talented workers who are unemployed and eager to re-enter the workforce. Many employees have struggled while working remotely and are ready to return to the office, at least part time.
But the fact remains that turnover is often disruptive and expensive, especially given that the employees who are most able and likely to quit during times of change are the highest performers, and no company likes losing their stars. And it’s likely inevitable.
So what should organizational leaders do? During this transition, it may be tempting to demand that work returns to the way it was and deem employees who do not want to return to the old normal as entitled or uncommitted. But that would be a classic example of lazy management. Instead, managers should recognize that to retain their workers, a new normal may be required. The question is, what should this new mode of working be?
There is likely a great deal of variance from one employee to the next regarding how they are coping with work and life right now. Gaining an understanding of what employees are experiencing, and how to respond, is not something that pulse surveys or town hall meetings are well-equipped to provide.
A more personalized, listen-first approach is needed. That means having one-on-one conversations with employees about their well-being and about how their jobs can be re-crafted to support their pursuit of happiness and purpose. During these sessions, managers and employees must truly listen to one another to build common ground and allow employees to flourish, thereby driving firm performance in the post-pandemic economy.
For employees who are exiting the pandemic feeling burned out and considering a career change, know that you are not alone. The good news is that companies are still trying to figure out how to capitalize on the new ways of working that have been uncovered over the past year, and as they do, the opportunities to find a work arrangement that enhances your well-being will be greater than they have ever been.