According to the US Department of Labor, September posted a record-high level of voluntary job resignations: 4.4 million. Since April, that brings the total to more than 20 million people who’ve quit. Most employers are anxious about the mass exodus happening from today’s workplaces. Microsoft’s recent research suggests that 41 percent of workers across the world are thinking about quitting their jobs. Widespread conjecture about what’s behind “the great resignation” ranges from people wanting more work flexibility, higher paying jobs, or simply utter exhaustion from pandemic burnout.
But that means 59 percent of workers aren’t thinking about quitting. I wanted to find out why.
I recently spoke with executives from companies reporting that their organizations are not experiencing higher-than-normal attrition. I wanted to find out if there were any patterns among such organizations that shed light on what it really takes to retain talent in such a volatile time. Among the many insightful perspectives I heard, three practices appeared to be universal across these organizations.
Fostering belonging requires creative efforts to help people feel connected without adding to “Zoom fatigue.”
Leaders determined to stem the tide of talent defections could be surprised to learn they’re barking up the wrong tree by simply throwing money or perks at the problem. If you’re genuinely committed to retaining your talent, you’re going to have to dig a bit deeper.
Foster Belonging and Meaning
The last 18 months have sharply awakened our innate hunger for meaning and purpose. Forced into a quarantine of self-reflection, workers have questioned the value of their work and the sense of meaning it provides. On top of that, the isolation of the pandemic has intensified our desire for authentic belonging. Recent research from McKinsey confirms that these two factors are playing a substantial role in the current spike in attrition. The top two reasons employees cited for leaving (or considering leaving) were that they didn’t feel their work was valued by the organization (54 percent) or that they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51 percent).
One executive I spoke with shed light on the importance of both: “In our organization, we’ve emphasized both purpose and belonging because they must go hand in hand. We want people to feel like everything they do matters not just to the organization, but to each other. We want people to feel a shared sense of purpose as well as fulfillment in their own purpose. We refer to it as solidarity.”
All of the executives cited purpose as fundamental to a culture that retains top talent. My own research bears this out. In my 15-year study of more than 3,200 leaders, for my recent book, To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice and Purpose, when purpose was activated in actions, not just words, an organization was three times more likely to have people treat each other fairly and serve the greater good.
One important factor that jumped out at me among the leaders was that they all emphasized that their cultures of solidarity were established long before the pandemic struck. One said, “If you didn’t have a purposeful culture, you definitely were caught short. And if you were, there’s no quick panacea to fix it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t waste another minute waiting to start creating one.”
While many organizations are busy purpose-washing to create the illusion of meaning, genuinely purposeful organizations embed solidarity right into management practices. Create simple approaches that teach managers how to shape meaningful conversations, asking how their people are progressing with their professional or personal aspirations.
One leader told the story of a manager whose team member had a side hustle as a beekeeper. During one-on-one conversations, the manager made a point of asking, “How’s the honey business going?” Taking interest in an employee’s whole life strengthens their sense of belonging and belief that they matter. Rather than worrying that such personal interests might distract from work efforts, smart managers realize that by taking an interest in the whole employee, you ensure that they bring that same creativity and energy to their day jobs.
Further, the isolation of working from home has fractured our sense of community. Fostering belonging requires creative efforts to help people feel connected without adding to “Zoom fatigue.” Worse, because we’ve lost many of the spontaneous interactions that can happen in common gathering places, remote work has narrowed our digital interactions to almost entirely with the colleagues we work with most, further fragmenting our organizations. One company paid for coffee gift cards for employees to reach out across team boundaries and make connections with new colleagues, broadening their networks and helping them maintain a wider organizational perspective.
Engage Employees in Designing Your Hybrid Approach
According to the McKinsey research noted above, many employers are mistakenly assuming the primary motivations behind mass departures are employees’ desire for higher-paying jobs or greater work-life balance and flexibility. But those factors weren’t nearly as important to people as employers thought, compared to the more relational factors like a sense of belonging or having trusting teammates That said, employers who mishandle the design of workplace experiences may be asking for trouble.
Subscribe to the Ethical Systems newsletter
While nearly 60 percent of employees in the McKinsey survey said they were unlikely to look for new jobs, it doesn’t mean they won’t start. Sixty-four percent of employers expect the current level of attrition to stay the same or increase in the next six months. And with more companies offering remote work opportunities that don’t require people to relocate from homes and communities they cherish, poaching talent will be easier. One executive told me, “I’ve heard horror stories from my peers at other companies botching the transition to hybrid work with irrational one-size-fits-all mandates and policies for return-to-office requirements. All that does is signal to your employees that their needs don’t matter
It’s critical that any policy you put in place has a direct tie to the customers you serve. If your work-from-home policy offers minimal or no flexibility and your justification for requiring everyone to be back in the office is something vague like, “It’s better for our culture if people are physically together,” expect people to resent—and likely resist—it. If you want to minimize disappointment, tie whatever guidelines you put in place to how you serve customers and how you make or deliver products or services, and demonstrate how certain forms of collaboration are measurably enhanced by in-person work.
Make Caring for Others Table Stakes for Managers
“If there’s anything the last 18 months have taught us, it’s how impactful even the smallest acts of kindness can be,” one executive told me. The pandemic has created a greater appreciation for our shared humanity, offering endless opportunities to care for those who are struggling. But in the workplace, it’s not always natural or comfortable for managers to express care—they may feel awkward or unclear on boundaries. But demonstrating care doesn’t have to be intrusive, and not every employee will want or need the same degree of care.
Another leader reflected, “Our people are really hurting. They’re tired. Showing compassion had to become central to our leadership almost overnight. We’ve empowered our managers to step up: sending meals to people’s houses, helping with rent or childcare, or allowing someone to cry when they reach their wits’ end.” For leaders today, empathy and care are now table stakes. Here are some ways to enable leaders at all levels to do it well:
Give managers discretion and resources to offer small acts of care as the need arises. Gift cards for food-delivery apps, handwritten notes of appreciation or concern, and acknowledging moments like birthdays or anniversaries all send messages that you see people as more than workers.
Many people will keep a positive game face, hiding their struggles, not wanting to ask for help. For some, it’s pride. For others, they don’t want to burden already stressed teammates with their concerns. When others see you asking for help or appropriately acknowledging difficulties, it shows them it’s okay for them to do so.
In the McKinsey research cited above, when asked, “Are you experiencing higher-than-normal voluntary turnover?” 47 percent of employers said no. If you’re fortunate enough to be in that group, don’t assume things can’t shift. Find out what it is that’s keeping people with you and do more. And if you’re not in that group, look deeper at why not. Stop throwing money or superficial perks at the problem and start creating a genuinely irresistible culture that people never want to leave.
Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.
Reprinted with permission from Forbes.