I’ve been asked by some clients, as well as others who seek my perspective on such things, what Covid has wrought in today’s workplace and how we can adapt to “the new normal.” While my counsel is invariably a response to specific problems arising from largely unforeseen circumstances, what follows is my current thinking on where we are now and why.
The past two years has left an indelible mark on the psyche of workers, altering their expectations and fundamentally shifting the way work gets done. People still want to work and have to work. But in the pending aftermath of the pandemic, many are deciding it’s not worth trading their emotional well-being for a regular paycheque from those whom they’ve concluded care about them as producers more so than as individuals. In the U.S., about four million workers resign every month which signals they’ve discovered a new set of priorities. More than half say they’ve now elevated their health and family obligations over work and about the same number want to continue working remotely. If forced to do otherwise, they’ll resign and move on.
The pandemic was a test of how leaders were able to deal with significant disruption as much as their humanity to see and then pave a new way forward. It upset what we had considered normal in our lives. We couldn’t shake hands or engage in routine social activities. Parenting and work were no longer separate endeavours. We were forced to reassess what mattered and what didn’t. The notion of “work hard now and play later” (perhaps in retirement) was exposed as a farce, especially for younger workers. The so-called great resignation had been going on for more than a decade – the continuation of a long-term trend. We just weren’t paying attention … much as we do with a lot of things in today’s hyper-competitive workplace.
Workers finally concluded they had never worked harder for less – less job security, recognition, stability and personal comfort. The pandemic was actually an opportunity to search for a different kind of meaning in their lives. They discovered things long known to high-performance coaches – that if you do something you love every day, you’re six times more likely to be highly engaged. And working from home gave them the time and distance needed for a different kind of perspective, away from the daily grind, frustrating commutes, unproductive meetings, endless emails, what to wear and the stress of annoying bosses and toxic colleagues.
The reasons for the exodus haven’t much changed over the course of almost two decades. Covid was just an accelerant – it exacerbated what has long been wrong about management practices. As they always do, the chickens came home to roost. While there are differences in how the great resignation is playing out in Canada and in the U.S., the fundamental reasons are (in order of magnitude): leaders and managers who lack an understanding of how to motivate workers, poor performance measurements and abysmal feedback, and putting employee well-being below that of other stakeholders. The meta-data on engagement tells us only 14% of workers trust their leaders to do the right thing. People aren’t exiting the labor market entirely – they still need incomes to support life endeavours. They’re just demonstrating a reluctance to return to uninteresting, dispiriting work and bad management.
Managers need help. They’re unprepared for the pressures and challenges of a different kind of workplace. They feel they’re now “wedged” between leadership and employee expectations: 74% say they lack either the influence or the resources to advocate on behalf of their teams. Currently, their workday has increased by 13% on average, their after-hours work is up 28% and weekend work is up 14%. Managers are now required to send more chats (up 32%) and spend more time in video meetings (up 252%). These numbers, which come from reputable research firms, constitute a rising tide of expectations that is simply unsustainable. Leaders need to understand that, with some degree of accuracy, employees leave their managers not their companies.
In 2021, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in search of something more fulfilling. Almost a third said they were in the wrong job. They either reshuffled their priorities, decided to switch industries or joined the free-agent economy (which has been in existence for many since the early eighties). Older workers are leaving at a more accelerated rate but doing so at younger ages. Buoyed by insane residential property values, accumulated savings from stock markets and less concern about planning for old age, they are making these moves with greater self-confidence. Beyond their higher susceptibility to Covid-related health risks, they’ve realized that burnout isn’t what they initially signed up for. They now prefer to focus on their own priorities – like more time with loved ones and more mentally challenging and rewarding pursuits – than on a tedious, demanding, mundane 9 to 5 existence.
The great resignation is perhaps more an opportunity to rethink how business will be done in the near and far future – about what people really want from their work lives and how to liberate that potential for greatness. As we witnessed the human toll wrought by Covid, we came to better realize our time here is finite. Hence, we started to honestly reflect on where and how we are spending it. Some have concluded this irreplaceable resource is perhaps more profitably invested in enjoying the simple and deeper pleasures of life. The questions workers are now asking include: Do I really like working with these people? Am I respected, trusted and treated fairly? What are my advancement opportunities if I stay? Does my work life validate me as I’d like it to? Indeed, do I really work for a purpose-driven organization that adds meaning to my life?
Prior to the pandemic, engagement levels in 27 countries around the world hovered at about 18%. Resilience – how well workers respond to challenges – ranked about the same. Post-pandemic, those numbers are sinking. So, what can managers do to reverse the trends? For starters, more frequent check-ins are especially advised during times of uncertainty or dramatic corporate-driven changes. A check-in is not a check-up. Well-designed and properly executed 1:1 exchanges can increase productivity by up to 31% and decrease worker burnout, stress and depression by about 15% (O.C. Tanner, 2022). They can also increase worker trust by a factor as high as 15 and resilience levels by a factor of over 40, provided the focus is more on the employee and less on the company per se. And, post-pandemic, they are increasingly seen as an essential retention tool.
Every crisis is an opportunity to learn. Covid is no exception. The pandemic taught smart leaders many things or had their beliefs reinforced – about the need to show up, be humble and vulnerable, the importance of prioritizing, clarity and transparency, and the opportunity to re-examine longstanding assumptions. I hope they also learned that decision making can actually be easier and quicker than previously thought, that things don’t need to be studied to death before something happens, and that the seemingly impossible can be quite possible. No one knows what “the new normal” will look like until it arrives.
What workers seek from their managers hasn’t much changed since I shifted gears into my present calling more than two decades ago. They want appreciation, inclusion, consistency and decisiveness. The troops need to know we’ve got their backs when confusion reigns. In the post-pandemic workplace, those qualities of leadership have never been more urgently required. And I hope employers can now see and address the opportunities more than the problems.