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Is It the Great Resignation or the Great Reprioritization?

Workers aren't quitting en masse; they're reprioritizing their needs.

Key points

  • The Great Resignation assumes that workers are quitting en masse, but this isn't the whole story.
  • Research suggests that the pandemic is causing employees to reprioritize their work values.
  • Organizations that align their work culture with employees' newfound priorities will win the war for talent for years to come.

This year, the questions on many leaders’ minds are: “Are my employees going to leave me?” And, to use a popular term, “Is a ‘Great Resignation’ in progress?” Are people quitting their jobs at a scale and pace that we’ve never seen before? Not exactly. I recently conducted a study to more fully understand this phenomenon, and it would appear that it’s actually a "Great Reprioritization" instead.

Some 4 million people quit their jobs in April. But the spike in the quit rate is partly due to pent-up demand after two years of employees sitting tight during a volatile economic environment. We’re also relatively on-trend with respect to the rising quit rate over the last decade. The other commonly cited statistic behind the assumption of a Great Resignation is that as many as 95 percent of the workforce is considering leaving their organization. It’s important to note, though, that considering is not the same as leaving, and the fact that employees have an eye out for new opportunities has been the norm since LinkedIn became a household name.

I’d argue that it’s less important to know whether employees are considering leaving, and more important to understand why employees are considering leaving. Along those lines, I recently collected data that uncovered several trends that might help reframe this conversation. The findings demonstrate a more tangible understanding of what employers should be considering and addressing.

Worker motivations to leave

I first conducted a review of published research in peer-reviewed journals in the organizational behavior field. The review uncovered that there were 14 overarching reasons why employees might want to leave an organization. Next, I recruited participants to complete a survey using an online panel data service. The sample consisted of a demographically diverse (age, gender, marital status, etc.) set of 233 full-time employees across a wide variety of industries (manufacturing, health care, real estate, education, and information technology). Each participant responded to the following question: Assume that each workplace condition could be defined as “very bad.” From there, participants indicated for each category whether they would a) not begin a job search, b) begin a passive job search (i.e., entertain alternative options), or c) begin an active job search (i.e., inevitably leave the organization).

The categories below indicate the five reasons that would most likely cause an employee to begin an active or passive search:

  1. Financial needs. The compensation is not competitive.
  2. Work-home balance. The work is so demanding you don’t have enough time or energy left to enjoy non-work activities.
  3. Remote work policies. There's a misalignment in remote work preferences and organizational policies.
  4. Current job disinterest. You don’t like the day-to-day tasks of your job.
  5. Concern about job and organization stability. You are worried your job might go away.

And here are the five reasons that would be the least likely to spur a job search:

  1. Stagnation. There are limited opportunities for moving up in the organization.
  2. Need for autonomy. The job/organization doesn’t allow you to make your own decisions.
  3. Lack of growth. There are limited opportunities to be challenged or learn something new.
  4. Inclusion or belonging. You don’t feel like part of the “in-group,” or you don’t feel like your uniqueness is appreciated.
  5. Social impact. You don’t connect with the value that your organization is offering to customers or society at large.

Across all 14 categories studied, approximately one-third of the respondents said that if that category was very bad, they would begin a passive job search. The real differentiator came from which categories would provoke an active job search. The top three—financial needs, work-home balance, and remote work policies—were the only categories of concern for which 50 percent or more of respondents reported that they would actively job search. If organizations are worried about actual turnover, this is where they should start.

Worker sentiments and needs

Financial needs will always play a role in turnover intentions. This finding isn’t new. If employees sense inequity, they’ll look elsewhere. But the fact that employees are putting just as much value on work-home balance and remote work policies is the most relevant and revealing aspect of the study.

These two categories are highly representative of current conversations regarding the “return to work.” Organizational leaders are struggling to accept the fact that employees are less willing to go back to the “good ol’ days” in the office. Employees want the option to forgo commutes and in-office disruptions, thereby broadening how they can manage their work-home integration. But this shouldn’t surprise leaders: For the last two years, employees have been asked to maintain their current workloads while dealing with the ambiguities and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. With burnout comes a longing for balance.

Organizational leaders are also conflicted about whether to mandate that employees begin returning to the office. A minority of firms are requiring employees to be onsite full-time, though the vast majority is coming up with some version of hybrid work. Organizational leaders must approach their workplace arrangement decisions with eyes wide open and recognize the importance of flexible, virtual options for employees.

Hybrid work is now accepted to be the norm, but there is a great deal of variation in what hybrid work entails. The extreme, and employees’ preference, tends to be a fully optional arrangement: The office is available if needed, but not mandated. Compromise solutions, such as mandating specific days or a certain number of days, however, are untested waters. It’s unclear whether employees will view these decisions as satisfactory with respect to their preferences for work-home balance and/or their desire for remote work options.

Flexibility is nice, but so is structure

Three noteworthy findings were relatively unexpected. First, employee preferences specific to flexibility—the expected days and times one needs to be available—were not a high priority. This suggests that employees are less concerned with showing up or logging in at predetermined days and times, but they want the option to do it remotely if needed. This aligns with what I’ve suggested recently for hybrid organizations: Start replacing informal, impromptu, in-office interaction with semiregular, structured team building sessions to ensure that collaboration, trust, and rapport can continue as before.

The second unexpected finding is specific to the three categories that entail opportunities for learning, growth, and development. These categories have typically been top of mind for employees. Employees commonly report that they want to continually broaden and refine their skills because it translates into higher compensation, promotions, or opportunities to work on initiatives that are more fulfilling. Interestingly, the findings of this study show that stagnation, lack of autonomy, and lack of growth are some of the least important job search triggers right now.

A third surprising aspect entails demographic trends or lack thereof. I analyzed whether there were differences between specific subgroups, such as between genders, races, having children or no children, having a working spouse/partner, ages, and career stages. One might assume that our priorities, especially in work-family balance or remote work preferences, would differ by some of these factors, but nothing substantial surfaced. The only minor difference was that early-career employees had remote-work preferences as their biggest job search trigger, followed by financial needs, but work-family balance dropped out of the top five.

These findings show that employees are taking time to reprioritize, which may not lead to resigning. If leaders approach the situation with grace, organizations might be able to capitalize on these newfound priorities to not only retain employees but attract new ones. As workers return to the office, leaders should proceed with great caution, transparency, and open-mindedness. A failure to do so might instigate a mass exodus of employees that are interested in more accommodating opportunities.

This post also appeared in Fast Company.

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