Why we’re in danger of missing the point about the ‘Great Resignation’

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It’s been symbolized heroically as some silent workers revolt against bad employers, those intent on forcing office workers back to a workplace they’ve become accustomed to being separated from during the pandemic.

As with all hyperbole, it originated in the USA

A report from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics outlined a record 4.3 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in August alone (an estimated 2.9% of the national workforce).

Whilst impressive at face value, it should be noted that records have only been recorded in recent times and are still not reflecting a time in the 1960s and 1970s when people quit their jobs on a more regular basis than we see today.

So, what about us here in the UK?

As per usual we have taken to it in our own peculiar British manner. The most we can muster is either a HR study telling us that almost a quarter of workers are only ‘actively planning’ to change employers in the next few months or that the number of people quietly googling ‘how to write a resignation letter’ has increased in greater numbers in the last few months.

Not so much a quiet revolution, but a stoic national commitment to “keeping calm and carrying on” regardless of what is being thrown at us post-pandemic. And anyway, isn’t this population part of the pre-COVID19 working world who told us in no uncertain terms already that 85% of them were either not engaged with their work or are even actively dis-engaged? (source: Gallup’s 2017 State of Global Workforce Report).

Countering the hype curve

Work was failing us long before this black swan event, and recent spikes are purely an outworking of factors borne out in the last 18 months, namely the opening up of the job market post-lockdown on vacancies and from employees who’d previously been hunkering down. Out of work employees coming off furlough, fear of a deadly virus, some existential awakening (more focussed on childcare amongst women than a false belief there was a spike in bankers becoming artisan cheesemakers) and other sobering realities combine to counter the ‘Great Resignation’ hype curve.

Indeed, according to the ONS Labour Force stats here in the UK, we can now counter this by seeing three associated themes:

  • Resignations as a percentage of overall numbers, are back to only pre-COVID19 levels
  • People are quitting jobs for new ones in their own industry, leveraging their move to get better pay rates. Indeed, we are still grappling with our modern, digital problem that we aren’t yet seeing the creation of enough valuable, future-proofed jobs
  • Overall activity is still primarily driven by our volatile low-skill sector, still working through its post-Brexit implications for a possible resurgence in wages and conditions to attract a smaller, and more localised, labour pool

    Building resilience

For HR leaders, the important thing is not to get caught up in the hype or react to the minutiae of an unfolding and yet polarised post-pandemic debate on such as things as homeworking versus the office productivity battle, for example.

What we are seeing are the realities of unpredictable market forces, the complex nature of people, and our subsequent need to build organisations capable of withstanding such further events.

And there will be more, whether a descent back into lockdown or some other event we can’t currently predict. The old organisational system has been dying in front of us now for decades and the recent pandemic just accelerated that process at a pace that has caught many HR functions cold.

Therefore, whilst the very nature of the old social contract – 40-hour week – grows increasingly irrelevant, the design template of a resilient organisation is at least becoming clearer amongst those at the top end of the productivity, innovation, and market-dominance curve.

It’s a mixture of positive, employee-first thinking, enabled and powered by clever workplace tools and an obsession on using evidence (data and mastery) to inform our solutions.

It’s about embracing an expanded role to where HR products, interventions and technology must add value to the employee’s experience, and that ask is becoming both more personalised and demanding by the day.

Embrace the challenge

If you haven’t done so already then embrace data, dial up technology for both utility and insight, and experiment with interventions that employees truly value and want. And what they want post-pandemic are employers to offer more freedom and support to do their work and less opportunities to be disengaged by toxic ancient HR rituals from presenteeism to the middle managers’ obsession with meetings and beyond.

In my career, I’ve seen off the fall of the berlin wall and the demise of the bipolar world we became accustomed to since WW2; Y2K and the exponential rise of the machine, the 2008 Global Financial crisis, the dotcom boom and the arrival of the digital age leading us all inextricably towards singularity and its dark vision of Armageddon.

I’ll survive the headline-fuelled ‘Great Resignation’ and so will everyone else in HR and business.

We embrace new problems and we solve them, that’s the very interaction that has fuelled civilization for as long as Adam was a boy.

Until the next time. Seize the opportunity.

Barry Flack, speaker and writer on the world of workBarry Flack has been involved in business change for over 25 years, working in senior HR and talent roles across global enterprise and high growth startups. Barry tells it like it is, and was recently recognised as one of the top 30 Global Influencers in HR Tech.


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