The #1 Question Workers are Asking in 2021: Should I Quit?

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

The number of people leaving their jobs this year is so large that the movement has a name: The Great Resignation. And many experts predict that the real turnover tsunami is yet to come, suggesting that the big bail could peak in the fall.

Business leaders were taken off guard by the magnitude and speed of this trend, especially after dealing with all the challenges forced upon them by the pandemic. Frustrated and alarmed, they wonder:

“Why are my people leaving? What can I do to make them stay?”

The answer to the first question is detailed below. The second question begs some introspection and should prompt leaders to ask themselves: “Is my company a place where people want to work?”

Why Workers Are Quitting

Beginning in early 2020, much of the world’s workforce went into an unprecedented period of quarantine. And while coping with the upheaval brought on by COVID, many people developed new insights about their jobs. The lockdown provided time to think, fresh perspectives, and new ways to work.  

Consequently, when companies began to announce return-to-workplace plans, a large contingent of employees started to weigh the pros and cons of not returning to their jobs. The top reasons to jump ship were the desire for:

  • Broader choices for where and when work is done
  • More potential for growth, purposefulness, and wellbeing

The wearisome months of COVID crystalized priorities for most people, and now many are reviewing their work options with a “you only live once” filter. More than ever before, employees want their work experience to meet their personal needs. And they have leverage because so many people are headed out the door; the quit rate is already at a twenty-year high, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Where and When People Work

Everyone found out how adaptable they were in 2020. Most people working remotely discovered that they could still effectively do their jobs from afar. In fact, statistics show that employees were 13 percent more productive working from home during this period than they were at the office.

Despite evidence that this model works well, many companies are digging in and requiring their staff to return to the mother ship. Some are asking their people to come back even as COVID variants are making inroads into the population, although numerous organizations are delaying their reopening plans.

Leaders at companies like these maintain that working face-to-face is the only way to monitor people’s output and keep things moving at a high level. They want things to go back to “the way they used to be,” citing more cohesiveness, workflow speed, and better communication.

That perspective won’t fly with the legions of employees who experienced the upsides to remote work during the pandemic.

People who worked from home recouped time lost in commuting, investing it instead into their personal lives. They had more agility to cope with childcare and eldercare issues and could opt to work from any place with reliable internet access.  

They also honed a new telecommuting skill set, and many found they could focus much better when working solo. So why would they want to return to the old blueprint after reveling in their newfound flexibility? Again, the numbers make the answer clear.

A recent Future Forum Pulse survey of over 10,000 workers found that 76 percent of employees want flexibility in where they work, and 93 percent want flexibility in when they work. And of those polled, more than half are open to looking for other positions in the next year.

Companies currently having more success with retention understand workers’ reluctance to revert to the old model. Accordingly, many organizations plan to maintain a hybrid workforce, where many people only work remotely while others split their time on and off-site. Others are offering flexible scheduling, allowing employees to choose the days or time of day that they work.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges to managing a far-flung workforce, and the old guard’s stance on the need for a unified, efficient team is a valid one. Simply accommodating people’s preferences about where and when they work without making other major adjustments won’t serve either workers or employers well.

To retain and attract the best talent, organizations need to learn to function at a high level with a flextime, hybrid, or mostly remote team.

The only way to achieve this is to strengthen and improve corporate culture to support the new dynamic.

In the second edition of his book, Culture by Design, CultureWise founder and CEO David Friedman offers specific advice about how company culture can thrive in the evolving work world. He stresses two themes that leaders should bear in mind:

  • Intentionality
  • Flexibility
Intentionality

An organization’s culture is reflected in the behavioral norms of its workforce. Consequently, one of Friedman’s tenets is that leaders must be intentional in defining, coaching, and reinforcing the behaviors that will make employees and the company successful. When they do this, workers absorb and apply that deliberate mindset to how they work and interact.  

For a remote, hybrid, or flextime staff to have a high-performing culture, they need to be even more intentional about everything they do. To assist employees, leaders must leverage technology to align communication, build relationships, and deliver consistent messaging about preferred cultural behaviors.  

Flexibility

As work arrangements evolve, leaders need to adopt a more responsive attitude and a broader understanding that everyone’s needs are different. Friedman advises CEOs to be more flexible, understanding, and compassionate than ever before.

“We need to appreciate people’s individual circumstances and we need to be able to accommodate those differences.”

Many people are leaving their jobs because there’s a “perception gap” between how flexible employers believe they are and the actual employee experience. For example, in a 2021 Gartner survey of over 4,000 workers, 75 percent of executives said their businesses were operating within a culture of flexibility—but only 57 percent of employees concurred.

Growth, Purpose, and Wellbeing at Work

During the pandemic, people had lots of time to evaluate what work means to them beyond a paycheck. This large-scale reassessment magnified issues that were already making inroads into retention statistics.

Many studies showed tenuous employee engagement data before the health crisis, and the numbers got even more dire last year. For example, the Gallup State of the American Workplace 2021 survey showed that 80 percent of workers are not fully engaged or are actively disengaged.

Employees who aren’t engaged don’t feel connected to their employers and harbor a “there’s got to be more to work than this” attitude. These are the people susceptible to switching jobs as soon as something shinier catches their eye.

But if they’re paid a competitive salary and have good benefits, what else are people looking for?

Next to flexibility, most workers cite professional growth and feeling connected to and supported by their employer as the qualities they value the most in their jobs.  

Growth

The corporate treadmill is dead. Gone are the days when employers could simply issue paychecks and expect their people to maintain the incentive to do the same job, day in and day out. These days, workers crave opportunities to grow, broaden their knowledge, and increase their capabilities.

Not only do learning experiences pave the way for job advancement, skill-building significantly increases self-confidence and job satisfaction.

And a highly regarded study conducted by IBM concluded that employees working for companies that are not committed to their growth are twelve times more likely to quit.

Considering the high cost of recruiting and training new staff, providing training programs that can build engagement is a sound business investment. Employers that fund opportunities to obtain additional licenses or certificates, sponsor attendance at conferences and webinars, and offer continued education options will develop loyal team members who can perform at a higher level.

Structuring company culture to include soft-skill development, mentoring programs, and an environment where workers are encouraged to be innovative and take ownership is a powerful way to help people grow.

A corporate culture that provides a system for continuous improvement bolsters self-esteem and overall morale—qualities that boost retention.

Purpose

Humu CEO and former Google SVP Laszlo Bock is quoted in Time about the need for leaders to offer a sense of mission to their team.

“The single biggest thing [leaders] can do is make the work feel meaningful. People forget that the thing that would help their teams the most is to give them what they themselves want.”

Many people leaving their jobs don’t feel a bond with their employer. They lack a sense of purpose and meaningfulness about their role within their organization. Those willing to plod on with less-than-fulfilling jobs before the pandemic are now looking for work that makes them feel like they are making a difference.

Deloitte executive Melanie Langsett outlines the concept in the Elevating the Workforce Experience blog series:

“Today’s workers seek to identify with an organization’s purpose, longing to connect at a deeper level to align their personal wants and desires with the organization’s mission.”

Employees want more than working for a company that posts admirable core values. They want tangible proof that the contributions they make through their work matter in the big picture.

Leaders can help workers understand how impactful their roles are by making transparency and interconnectivity building blocks of their company’s culture.

They should have an ongoing commitment to communicating to staff members the value of what they “bring to the table” and how their work impacts the team and the company. When this effort is firmly entrenched in a company’s culture, it will strengthen employees’ alliance with the organization.

Wellbeing

Much of how people feel about their jobs is determined by the way an organization functions: how employees are treated, perform, work together, and interact with customers. The company’s culture is the fulcrum of its functionality—and respect must be at the core of that culture to enable employees to excel and feel rooted in the organization.

To create an environment where all staff members can thrive, it’s up to leaders to demonstrate and reinforce respect throughout their company. To achieve this, they should establish behavioral standards within the culture that honor everyone’s contributions, including:

A framework of behaviors grounded in respect for others provides a support system that motivates workers and fosters a sense of community. People feel empowered to do their best, leaving them less stressed and prone to experience burnout. An inclusive, supportive culture makes people want to commit to an organization.

Strategically Developed Culture is the Key

Executives who understand the reasons behind the “Great Resignation” have an opportunity to make changes to strengthen retention. Those who cling to old models and don’t see the need to be more empathetic, supportive, and flexible will see diminishing returns.

If you’re a business leader, honestly consider whether your company is a place people would want to work today.

  • Do you have principles and behavioral guardrails in place that make everyone feel connected and successful?
  • Do you have a system to keep people engaged regardless of where and when they are on the job?
  • Do you offer people a work environment in which they feel valued, respected, and empowered?

Every company will need to adjust how it operates to accommodate the vast changes occurring in the work world. For many, the most significant shift will be to embrace the concept that employees are a company’s most valuable assets and assess how to preserve them.

And by becoming more people-focused, organizations will not only retain staff. They will also grow more resilient and profitable.   

Explore the CultureWise website to learn more about developing an intentional approach to improving company culture in the modern work world. And learn more about the latest developments in business and culture with a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters the CultureWise newsletter.

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