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The Great Resignation: A Workforce Reckoning

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If you are currently in a role that has allowed you to work remotely while we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, you are likely familiar with words and phrases like “back to normal,” “return to work,” and “hybrid solutions.” You may be less familiar with a quiet, but growing, movement across the corporate workforce that has been named ‘The Great Resignation.’ 

One in every five workers has changed jobs in the last year, with half of those changes being permanent. Work-life balance, higher compensation, and trying something new are the top reasons for these shifts. 

One of the fortunate opportunities of my work is getting a front-row seat to how some leaders think about the steps they should take in these periods of upheaval. We get to observe their response and help them unpack the emotions that inevitably come up.  

Outside of leadership, we listen to dozens of you at all levels of work share your experiences with us and a few major themes continue to come up repeatedly. 

With just over a quarter of workers (26 percent) saying they want to look for a job with a different employer once the threat of the pandemic has passed, we felt it was time to share these themes in the hopes it resonates for you and potentially sheds some light for others. 

Culture Comes from Intention, Not In-Person 

The number one thing we are hearing, and from leaders, in particular, is that without in-person workplaces the culture will fatigue, disappear entirely, or turn toxic.  

Let me be really clear about this: workplace culture is the result of a series of intentional choices we make in our everyday interactions with each other. That’s it.  

Now, is that more difficult virtually? It can be. Is it impossible? No.  

The reality is that I have seen (and worked) for companies for years that were full-time in-person workspaces whose culture, frankly, sucked. It was toxic, it was built on the idea of control and power, and they all had miserable employees and high turnover rates. 

It feels harder right now because we think we were better at culture-building in-person before, but the truth is we simply had more interactions.  

So as opportunities have shifted and more work places experiment with virtual or hybrid workplace models, know that remote work will challenge and require us to be more intentional than we ever had to be before. And I will be the first to argue that is not a bad thing.  

My company has been full-time virtual right from the get-go, and yes, did it have its challenges? Of course, it did. But like any relationship, we have co-created a powerful culture of care and collaboration-and we have done that virtually. 

Impactful Leaders are Partners First  

One thing we have heard the refrain of quite a bit, especially these last six months or so as the world opens more and more, is this idea that ‘people should just be grateful they have a job.’ And these statements coming from people in positions of power say more about their need for control than it does about their workforce. 

We know from the work of Riane Eisler, that human choices are motivated by two binary forces: dominance or partnership. When we allow the allure of power to corrupt our instincts for collaboration, it shifts our relationships at work into this narrative of ‘workers should be grateful they have a job’ when what is also true is the workplaces should be grateful to have workers who are partnering with you, the employer, and giving over to you their most precious commodity: time and energy. 

In my work, I have seen this truth: the leaders who deliver the most impact are the ones driven from a place of a deep desire for collaboration. They understand that regardless of placement in some organizational chart, you are all partnering to achieve a unified end goal. 

Remote Workers are More Productive than In-Office Workers 

It’s true! I know your instinct is to believe that the freedom and autonomy that comes with a home-work environment would mean that team members would procrastinate on their work, or their productivity levels would plummet. 

What we have observed over the last 18 months has been remarkable. According to several recent studies, working remotely from home is far more productive than working in an office setting. Those who work from home: 

  • are less distracted by co-workers, spending 30 minutes less talking about non-work topics, and spend 7 percent less time talking to management, 
  • spend less time avoiding work (15 percent difference), and 
  • are 47 percent more productive.

Remote Workers Are at Higher Risk of Burnout  

With the increased productivity of a remote workforce comes a higher risk of fatigue and burnout for all your virtual team members. We know from research that not only have people sustained their productivity from pre-pandemic but have also increased it.  

The biggest concern for managers of remote team members is that people will not actually shut down and work too much. Fatigue and exhaustion are at an all-time high, simply from being a human in a pandemic. Add to this, remote workers spent an average of 1.4 more days working each month than in-office counterparts, and you have the perfect recipe for burnout. 

You might also like: How to Prioritize Rest in a Culture that Values Overwork 

Leaders Are Experiencing Loss, Too 

When we talk about loss and grief with these workplace transitions, a lot of focus is placed on the worker (and for good reason). Something that comes up for me when I see these discussions, however, is that leaders who have been leading in a more traditional way, meaning in-office teams and traditional methodologies, are likely experiencing an incredible about of loss right now. They may not recognize or realize that their resistance to this virtual migration is even coming from a deep sense of loss.  

Loss of tools. Loss of control. Loss of connection. Loss of familiarity.  

These leaders may have been or felt excellent in the office, and this new world of Zoom calls and limited access to team members can take some time to get used to. Some may never adjust. Some may rise to the challenge.  

I want everyone to understand that no matter what role you play at your workplace, you are likely experiencing a similar sense of grief.  

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Hybrid Comes with its Own Unique Challenges 

Pre-pandemic, most workplaces had either largely remote workplaces (like Atlassian) or entirely in-office workplaces (like Goldman-Sachs). Maybe there was a satellite of team members who worked remote, like Sales teams. But everyone else was in office. 

So, there is a familiarity with these two systems for a lot of the corporate world’s leaders. There was a playbook for running an in-office team that is tried-and-true. And over the last couple of decades, we have been building the best practices for running an all-remote company. 

But hybrid…hybrid is something new entirely. And learning how to walk and lead these two worlds will take a lot of willingness to experiment (and fail) on behalf of all the leaders and team members within a hybrid company. 

I think a lot of the discomfort with the idea of hybrid workforces comes from a lack of clarity. But again, as I have had the wonderful opportunity to observe in my work, time and time again it is the adaptable organizations that know how they can explore and experiment without fear that succeeds whenever the market demands they evolve. 

You might also like: I Need You to Keep Leaping with Me – The Importance of Experimentation at Work 

We have to be willing as leaders to reflect and go “If I’m in a place of struggling with these transitions, what is it that I am losing? What am I afraid I am going to lose? What is unclear or what do I feel doubt about my abilities to navigate during this upheaval?” 

You might also like: Increase Your Leadership by Deepening Your Self-Awareness  

2020-2021 Have Been the Hardest Years We May Experience in a Generation 

I may sound like a broken record, but I will never stop saying it: the last year and a half for so many people has been one of the hardest years they will ever experience.  

We experienced the trauma of a pandemic, of racial injustice, of severe weather events, of being separated from our loved ones, and in some cases losing loved ones entirely.  

Many have felt like 2020 and parts of 2021 were lost to time as those months and experiences were taken from us. 

Many people, and caregivers, in particular, felt the weight of their responsibilities grow with the addition of virtual schooling or managing chronically ill or immunocompromised family members’ health, all while attempting to maintain some normalcy at work. 

What I want you to understand is that the collective trauma of this pandemic has irrevocably transformed us as people and as a global community. 

We will all appear different after this than we did before it, and each person’s differences will be unique to their lived experiences throughout this time. 

We Are Fundamentally Different People Now (and That is a Good Thing) 

So, yes. A lot of the loss we experienced over 2020 and 2021 was not great. 

But we also lost a lot of obligations that took up our time. 

And without the noise of social obligations distracting us, we are left with this wonderful space, that can be uncomfortable at times, to reflect and get really clear about what we want moving forward. 

People who were once confined to an office building have now experienced a sense of freedom; they were unaware could even exist alongside their work. 

One of the things that surprised me the most when I started this company was the amount of total freedom I suddenly had. I had spent nearly a decade at a company that touted itself as flexible, and yet you were punished for dipping into the four weeks (generous by USA standards) of PTO they provided. And I was working 70-hour weeks so even if I wanted to take time off, I was, by virtue of my workload, physically unable to do so. And even when I worked at another company that had more flexibility, we were still largely expected to work in the office for a set number of hours.  

So, when I tell you that the freedom that came with this job was unprecedented, here is what I mean: 

  • I do not have to be in an office at a certain time, I can begin work when my brain is ready. 
  • If I need a little sleep to help rewire my brain and find energy, I can take a nap in the middle of the day. 
  • I can walk my dogs over the lunch hour or make it to the post office before they close (finally!) 
  • I can spend my energy in the ways that truly serve me and my company. 

And it is not just me, my colleagues have this same freedom as well. No questions asked. 

And people have now experienced some level of freedom during this remote work experience. And it has been ‘pandemic freedom,’ where their movements have been largely restricted by public health restrictions. So, imagine, when the world opens entirely what could be possible. 

We have been sold this message of ‘there’s no other way to do this kind of corporate work’ and because workers never held power in that conversation, we never had the opportunity to deeply question if that assertion was true. The pandemic has completed shattered the mask of ‘flexible’ work environments and given people the ability to freely be themselves and experience a cohesive work-life exchange. 

A year into the epidemic, most American workers (68 percent) believe that being able to work remotely as well as on-site is the optimal workplace paradigm.  

87 percent of workers who worked remotely during the pandemic intend to continue working remotely at least one day per week once the pandemic is over. 

And remember – people are not working less, they are working differently. And differently is resulting in happier, healthier employees and more productivity than ever before. 

There is No Magic Switch, We Have to be Willing to Experiment 

There are more questions than answers at this point as we create our collective workplace future. And what is right for one company, may not be right for another. There are real, valid concerns we need to solve (How can we mitigate proximity bias to ensure equity for all workers, regardless of location? How can we be more intentional in building relationships?) 

But we must be willing as leaders to acknowledge that these past 18 months have been traumatic and life-changing. That we are all fundamentally different people now and to give space for everyone’s journey forward to whatever awaits them. 

We cannot come to work on a Monday, flip a switch, and say, ‘We’re back to normal!’ There is no normal. There is no new normal. There is only what people will tolerate and create moving forward.  

Ignoring the reality of the pandemic and its effect on the workplace does not make it go away, it will only make your ability to navigate the inevitable evolution of work more difficult. 

From where I stand, for those who are willing to do the challenging work of self-awareness and experimentation, there is no better time to serve your team members and advocate for a fundamental shift in the way we view and approach work. This is a once-in-a-lifetime gift to co-create something. And that something should be better.

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