As people set up desks in their living rooms and COVID erased commutes, expectations of the workday quickly shifted. Workers learned they didn’t need to spend hours in an office (or a car), and found their productivity often increased. Couples juggling traveling schedules were reminded why they were couples in the first place, while others sat for breakfast with their children for the first time in years, and found they liked it.
The result is a workforce that now feels empowered and is demanding more from employers— and they’re more than happy to move on if those requests aren’t met.
“What COVID did was unprecedented, where all of a sudden the employee has a voice and is using it,” says Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “Historically, choices like this were very much in the province of the company.”
Companies are trying a variety of strategies to cope with the Great Resignation, including measures like hybrid work, higher salaries, stipends for equipping home offices and even paid sabbaticals. Many have been wary to mandate a return to the office, both out of very real public health concerns and the possibility that employees would simply say “no thanks.” Still others firms are resorting to more punitive actions to keep people from fleeing. Goldman Sachs, for example, is considering clawing back vested stock from people who leave. Google has also floated a reduction in pay for those who relocate or work remotely.
The service and hospitality industries have been hit hard by defections, with many workers re-evaluating their options. While seven percent 7% of positions remain unfilled in the U.S., more than ten percent 10% are open in food services and lodging, according to February 2022 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The professional and business services sector, including jobs as varied as architects to accountants, is also seeing higher-than-average resignation rates, now at 3.2% compared to the national rate of 2.9%.
Fuller believes that while some industries could see a traditional return to in-person work, others will need to rethink how work will look for their employees—and even ask them for their input, within reason.
“Some companies unwisely said to employees, ‘What do you want?’ And they got an eight-year old’s Christmas list,” he says. “They don’t have to throw out everything but they have to reset and incrementally improve. They have to experiment.”
Here are ways some of the bigger firms are working with their staff to find the right balance to keep employees from walking out the door.
“We’re doing mid-year career conversations and using them as an opportunity to strengthen these relationships and talk to employees about how they’re doing and what they need in work and flexibility. So many have children and parents at home, and we want to be closer to what their needs are. So we’re evolving our workplace model, combining office time and flexibility. We’re using this concept of jobs and work, and where does it make sense to have the freedom of where they can get their work done. We think some jobs are better served by people in the office together and some can be done in the home environment. Because we don’t see ourselves going back. We will go forward and this hybrid approach will be our future.” –Laura Mattimore, senior vice president at Procter & Gamble
“This year, we introduced a number of new benefits, including a wellness-reimbursement benefit of up to $3,000 annually that people can use for expenses like financial planning, tuition reimbursement, fitness equipment and services, childcare for children over the age of 5, and eldercare. We also launched “choice days,” which gives people an additional two days off per year to use however they choose, and we increased our 401(k)-match program to help people save more for retirement.” –Lori Goler, head of people at Meta, Business Insider
“Before the pandemic, there was an expectation that between the hours of X and Y, you pretty much worked for your employer. Absent any other reason, you were sitting at your desk during those hours. I think that has fundamentally changed, and won’t go back to how it was. I think it’s fundamentally shifted to a dynamic where, if the work gets done, nobody’s terribly interested whether the light on Slack is green between 8 in the morning and 6 at night. I think we can never put that back in the box, and that’s a wonderful change.” –Catherine Lenson, chief people officer at SoftBank Vision Funds, Protocol
“Every quarter, we conduct “engagement pulses” to check in with employees about top-of-mind issues and concerns. We’ve found that employees who aren’t invited to participate in an engagement-pulse meeting are 21 times as likely to leave Cisco than their invited counterparts. We’ve also done more work to understand people’s career trajectories within Cisco, examining the velocity of promotions for groups and individuals. As a result, we’re proud to have promoted 30% of our workforce over the past 12 months. –Francine Katsoudas, executive vice president and chief people, policy, and purpose officer at Cisco, Business Insider
“We’ve come to realize that some want to spend time overseas to catch up with family, or parents not wanting to miss out on dinner time. It comes at very little or no cost.” –Lily Valentin, head of operations at Adzuna, Financial Times