The Great Resignation: why are knowledge workers quitting en masse?

This WORKTECH Academy briefing looks at why so many workers are leaving their jobs, how large firms are struggling with the return to the office, and what to expect at this autumn’s in-person WORKTECH event in Copenhagen

Since the pandemic started, large organisations have reported unusually high levels of staff attrition. In early July 2021, a Labour Department report in America revealed that a record of four million Americans had quit their jobs in April alone. It has sparked a phenomenon that media outlets are calling ‘The Great Resignation’. It begs the question, in times of economic uncertainty why are employees choosing to leave their jobs?

A recent global survey by EY goes some way in uncovering the answer. It found that over half of surveyed employees worldwide would consider leaving their job post Covid-19 if they were not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work. But ‘The Great Resignation’ is more complicated than about simply offering flexible working – it affects different groups of workers in different ways.

The EY survey went on to discover that the workers most likely to move jobs include managers and leaders, those with technology or finance roles, and caregivers. Those most likely to stay in their current roles include baby boomers, individuals with more than 10 years of tenure, and those in government and education roles.

‘A willingness to change jobs in the current economic environment is a game-changer…’

Attitudes to job retention differ by age, with millennials twice as likely as baby boomers to quit. For this demographic group, flexibility has become a non-negotiable component of work.

Liz Fealy, EY global workforce advisory and solutions leader, comments on the report: ‘Employees’ willingness to change jobs in the current economic environment is a game-changer. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that flexibility can work for both employees and employers, and flexible working is the new currency for attracting and retaining top talent. Employers who want to keep the best people now and in the next normal will need to put flexible working front and centre of their talent strategy.’

The impact of mass resignation across the global workforce can have devastating consequences for even large, established organisations. Staff attrition is an expensive and productivity-sapping process. Clearly, a new approach to staff retention is needed as organisations chart a path out of the pandemic.

While the statistics for employee resignations over the past six month appear damning, there are unique opportunities organisations can take from this. Firstly, they can recognise that flexibility is the holy grail for employee retention. Where flexible working isn’t possible, they could offer employees new career directions or programmes to refine and enhance their skillset as an incentive to stay with the company.

Diverse teams have a proven track record of being more engaged and successful. In a cognitive intelligence study done by MIT engineers, researchers observed that successful teams were more diverse and outperformed non-diverse teams by up to 35 per cent. As organisations review their new strategies for talent attraction and recruitment, casting the net further and employing outside of the traditional remits can pay.

Whether The Great Resignation is real or not, one universal truth is that employees are looking for something more from their employees than they did before the pandemic. Whether it’s a more flexible work policy, or simply an incentive to turn up to the office, organisations need to seriously rethink the opportunities to attract and retain their best talent.

Office return thrown off course

As autumn draws near, the great global return to the office is not going to plan. Apple has become the latest large business to delay its plans to bring people back to the workplace. The emergence of new variants of the virus and the slowness to vaccinate people in some countries mean that the coronavirus crisis is still very much with us.

Apple had been planning a phased return from October and CEO Tim Cook even announced which three days he wanted to see staff back in the office – Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now these plans are on hold until January 2022.

‘Apple’s delay follows similar calls by firms to push back plans deeper into the autumn…’

Apple’s decision to delay follows similar calls by Microsoft, Google and Uber, all of whom had targeted a September return only to push their plans back deeper into the autumn. Uber rival Lyft has announced it does not expect to see office staff back until February next year.

One group unlikely to be dismayed by the stalling of Apple’s plans are some of its own employees, who have written to the company’s leaders to complain that the official three-days-per-week office policy is too inflexible. Some Apple staffers are understood to have quit their jobs in protest.

Generally, it appears that the larger the organisation, the tougher the challenge in orchestrating the return to the office. According to an occupier survey of 130 companies in the EMEA region by real estate advisor CBRE, small firms with less than 100 employees are moving much faster to repopulate their offices than large ones – 80 per cent have fully reopened compared with only a third of the largest companies.

Copenhagen calling

WORKTECH Events is staging its first in-person event since the start of the pandemic in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. The conference will be held on 6 October 2021 at the Danish Architecture Centre, and it will host speakers from Lego, WeWork, EY, and Zaha Hadid Architects.

The line-up of expert speakers will discuss their experiences with the pandemic and sessions will include subjects from high-performing workplaces to using the office building as a platform for outstanding employee experiences. Book your place at the event here.

This WORKTECH Wednesday Briefings, we reach out to our 10,000-plus Academy members, WORKTECH attendees, speakers, partners and sponsors while WORKTECH’s professional conference series continues through our virtual platforms. This edition is posted 25 August 2021.
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