What Business Leaders Need to Know About the Great Resignation

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

As we begin to emerge from the depths of the pandemic and take steps towards recovery, it’s understandable that many employers are eager to put the disruption of the past year behind them and return to “business as usual.” Employees, however, are less eager to return to the status quo – and it’s driving a seismic shift in the employment landscape. We are, after all, in the new normal.

Data indicates that upwards of 40% of the global workforce is considering handing in their resignations. Texas A&M University professor Anthony Klotz first warned of this impending “Great Resignation” in an interview with Bloomberg Business in March of this year, explaining that “When there’s uncertainty, people tend to stay put, so there are pent-up resignations that didn’t happen over the past year….and these numbers are multiplied by the many pandemic-related epiphanies – about family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means.” 

In this installment of our #GreatResignation4Change series, we’re going to look at what this shift means for business leaders and employers, along with actionable recommendations to help you weather the Great Resignation by meeting your employees’ evolving needs. 

What do employees want?

As we detailed in Part I of this series, while the pandemic certainly served as the tipping point, the reality is that this “Great Resignation” has been years in the making, and fits into the larger movement towards purposeful work that has been ramping up over the past decade. A Forbes article from 2018 called it the “purpose revolution,” explaining that “more than ever, people are making purpose-based decisions as employees, consumers, and investors. They want their work and money not only to provide for their own material needs, but simultaneously to help create a better world.” 

Looking back even further, we can see these same themes emerge in a groundbreaking piece of research from Net Impact in 2012 called “What Workers Want.” The report breaks down the categories and attributes that students and employees care most about in their jobs into three categories:

  1. The non-negotiables: this includes things like financial security, a positive culture, and work environment.
  2. The differentiators: these are the elements that turn a good job into a great job, and include things like working at a company that shares your values and the ability to make a positive impact on the world through your work.
  3. Less important: this includes things like company prestige. 

And although this study categorized purpose as a differentiator, in the years since it was published, purpose has increasingly become a non-negotiable. That means that even paying a higher salary isn’t enough to offset a lack of purpose and values alignment. In fact, many people are even willing to take a pay cut to work at an organization that aligns with their values.

In the face of massive layoffs as a result of the pandemic-induced financial crisis, employees realized that there really is no such thing as job security. They are also seeking more rewarding and meaningful work after having time to reflect on what they really want from their personal and work lives, something we explored further in Part II of this series. In fact, according to research from McKinsey, “Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials were three times more likely than others to say that they were reevaluating work.”

Take all of these factors together, and it makes sense why a Great Resignation is inevitable. And while change is hard and tempting to postpone, there are concrete steps that forward-looking business leaders can take to stave off this increase in turnover by reengaging their employees through meaningful investments in their evolving needs.

Steps leaders can take to curb employee turnover

Companies and cultures don’t transform overnight, but there are important steps that you can begin taking now to make your company a place where current and prospective employees want to work.

Articulate and connect your company purpose, vision, and values to day-to-day work

Now more than ever, employees are looking for more than just a paycheck – they want to feel like their work makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. One of the best ways to foster that sense of meaning is by clearly articulating your company’s purpose, vision, and values – then helping each employee see how their role makes progress towards those shared goals. 

Company culture expert Natalie Baumgartner explains in Harvard Business Review that, “Candidates are seeking workplaces where they can intertwine their beliefs with those of the company, and work together on a common vision of purpose and success. As leaders grapple with how to recruit top candidates and retain employees, they must rethink how they’re shaping and building a culture that unites people around a common cause. Great culture should provide continuous alignment to the vision, purpose, and goals of the organization.”

One of the best ways to do that is to help employees connect their roles to the company’s broader purpose. Baumgartner suggests that, “Employers must develop a culture that reinforces the important role each employee plays within their organization. Encourage employees to examine or reconsider how their role ties back to the greater organization but remember that it’s the company’s responsibility to make this connection crystal clear.”

Helping employees connect their roles to the company’s broader mission benefits all parties. As William Craig explains in another Harvard Business Review article, “Employees who fall in love with their work experience higher productivity levels and engagement, and they express loyalty to the company as they remain longer, costing the organization less over time. Mission-driven workers are 54 percent more likely to stay for five years at a company and 30 percent more likely to grow into high performers than those who arrive at work with only their paycheck as the motivator.”

It’s up to executives and business leaders to clearly define and articulate their organizations’ broader mission and priorities, and then connect the dots to every department and level of staff. Recent research from McKinsey found that 70 percent of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. So, like it or not, as a company leader you play an important part in helping your employees find their purpose and live it. And that involves meeting employees where they are:

McKinsey graphic about meeting employees where they are to achieve fulfillment at work

The McKinsey report goes on to explain that it’s this innermost circle that represents the company’s means of influence as it’s the only aspect of purpose that organizations control “By establishing a corporate purpose that considers the company’s role and contribution to society, and by providing employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact. Companies can also exert influence by improving the underlying health of the organization and its culture, bolstering inclusiveness and the employee experience, and changing the work itself.”

Create opportunities for employees to leverage their skills for social impact

In addition to helping employees see how their day to day role fits into the broader company mission, Net Impact suggests that “employees also need to understand how their skills can be applied to specific impact-related activities, either as part of their job description (such as through product or service development), or as an initiative that goes above and beyond their daily role (such as starting a volunteer program).”

There are many forms that this can take. For example, offering stretch assignments that support social good is a proven way to retain and develop your employees. That can come in the form of one-off projects custom designed for the employee, or in the form of an organization-wide CSR or Corporate Volunteering program

Wanjira Kawame, Business Development & Program Manager of MySkills4Afrika program, shared that for Microsoft employees who participated in skills-based volunteering stretch assignments, “Having a positive impact in the field in turn has an impact on how the employees feel about working for Microsoft and their day to day jobs – the value of the experience doesn’t end when they return home.” Data from exit surveys confirmed this, finding that 94% of employee participants reported that the program led to positive development in their leadership skills and competencies, and that the program resulted in learnings that will change the way they work in the future.

Be proactive about professional development, with a focus on innovation

When you invest in your employees, they will in turn be more willing to invest in your company. As certified coach and business consultant Porschia Parker-Griffin explains, “If ambitious employees don’t see a path for them to grow and progress their career in your organization, they will often start pursuing other positions. Encourage your managers to discuss different training and promotional opportunities within your company, to gauge interest among their teams.”

This can take the form of company-wide programs or individually tailored plans for each employee developed in collaboration with their manager. As Margaret Rogers explains, “impactful development happens not [only] through formal programs, but smaller moments that occur within the workplace: on-the-job learning opportunities that are wholeheartedly catered to the worker’s unique needs and challenges.”

Rogers goes on to explain that creating an environment of learning is foundational to employers being able to offer employees this kind of personalized training at scale. Accomplishing that involves taking steps like:

  • Asking more questions to gain insight about your employees needs: Just like a social enterprise must understand what its customers need to produce the most useful products, managers must understand what their employees need to give them ideal learning opportunities. Taking a human-centered design approach is a valuable way to ensure you’re solving the problems that your employees actually face – not the ones you think they are facing. 
  • Creating more on-the-job opportunities: Formal training is great, but it can lose its impact if not readily applied to the real world. Rogers suggests taking advantage of on-the-job “learning moments” that engage employees in real-time problem solving while helping them step outside their comfort zones, practice, and build confidence.
  • Offering varied learning experiences: Not everyone learns the same way, so offering a variety of ways for your employees to engage in professional development activities is a good way to put the power in their hands. Options can include things like a stipend for an online course, on-the job training, and even mentorship arrangements. It’s worth noting here though that experiential learning has been proven to be the most effective method of adult learning – so however your employees choose to learn, make sure they have an opportunity to then apply those learnings to real-world situations.

Develop meaningful partnerships that allow employees to collaborate on solving big problems

No single actor or company can solve our most pressing global challenges alone, and that’s where partnerships come in. Rather than reinventing the wheel to build a program from scratch that tackles a specific issue, first see which established actors are already operating in the space and where your support could make the biggest difference.

Let’s take Tableau as an example. Tableau is a software company with a mission of helping people and organizations better see, understand, and leverage their data to solve problems. Through its Tableau Foundation Service Corps program, employees have the opportunity to volunteer their data expertise with Tableau grant partners to help mission-driven organizations like Community Solutions better leverage their data for social impact. 

Partnerships like this are a win-win: employees who participate feel more connected to their company’s mission and their own sense of purpose, while grant partners receiving volunteers are able to build internal capacity they otherwise would not have been able to. Creating opportunities for your employees to apply their skills in new contexts and environments also fosters a two way exchange of innovation, sparking new ideas that can inform the way employees approach their work back in their full-time roles.

As our partners at Resonance and Catalyst 2030 have found, collaborating with multiple partners allows us to tackle bigger problems, which in turn leads back to creating more of a sense of purpose and seeing impact, plus creating more opportunities for human connections.

In Summary

Adapting your company to the “New Normal” of work may seem like a barrier to forward progress, but in the long-term, it’s just the opposite. And the companies who start taking meaningful action now to create the opportunities for purpose and impact that employees crave will find themselves better positioned to not only weather the Great Resignation, but to emerge as a leader once the dust has settled.

Keep these tips in mind to stave off Great Resignation turnover at your company:

  1. Articulate your company purpose, vision, and values, and connect them to employee’s day-to-day work
  2. Create opportunities to leverage their skills for social impact
  3. Be proactive about professional development, with a focus on innovation
  4. Develop meaningful partnerships that allow employees to collaborate on solving big problems

Looking for more customized support? Reach out to us for more customized support developing programs that engage employees while developing future leaders