Much has been said in recent months about the Great Resignation—a mass exodus of workers that caught many employers off guard. Boardroom conversations around the world concur that something has to be done. Unfortunately, the response I’ve seen from many leaders is full of the same old bromides. Common executive ideas (develop tailored retention programs, amp up benefits and compensation, accelerate promotions, launch new training opportunities) show that leaders are not getting the full implications of the employment crisis.
Before I go further, I have a confession to make: I was one of those leaders. I was happy with the way my team at DocuSign was set up pre-pandemic, and I wanted to get back to that comfortable productivity as soon as possible. I had a professional comfort zone that I missed, and I assumed that my employees were in the same position. I was wrong.
One of the biggest blind spots for me was misjudging just how thoroughly the world has changed for employees. It took a few long conversations and some convincing data points, but ultimately I came to a clearer realization. Employees aren’t running away from anything, they are running to something they sense is better.
From my perspective, the Great Resignation is a misdiagnosis. The employee migration issue has two sides, and we’ve gotten it backwards. Rather than think about what leadership can do to prevent great employees from leaving, we need to think about what we can do to attract them in the first place. The losers will ultimately see the phenomenon as a great resignation, but the winners will see it as the polar opposite: what I have come to call “the Great Embrace.”
The key to the Great Embrace lies in what really matters in our lives: our families, our community, and our craft. The pandemic has awakened in the global workforce a renewed desire for meaning, balance, and in responsibility both work and life. The days of expecting employees to be happy with “working for the weekend” are over. They are demanding more—and rightfully so. Evolving to meet their needs won’t be easy, but the cost of failure is a loss of access to the world’s best and brightest talent. Not acting quickly and definitively is an unthinkable proposition.
To move past half measures and platitudes, and to sketch a map that acknowledges the shift to long-term remote work at scale, executives need to understand these five values that make up this rapid shift in our culture. My hope is that in understanding these values, leaders can build strategies to make their institutions attractive for employees who want more:
The Anywhere Economy
While the traditional economy faltered during the pandemic, the Anywhere Economy surged and left us forever changed. Companies like Zoom, Netflix, and Amazon became providers of essential services for work, life, and sanity. Overnight, the grinding commute, the bagged lunch eaten at a desk, and the obligatory break room ping-pong table became relics of a distant past. For many, the pre-pandemic workplace is now laughably obsolete and infinitely undesirable.
Embracing the Anywhere Economy means more personal choice: the freedom to move anywhere they want to live (or never leave), be near family and community or near nature. Practically, it means they are finding jobs that offer an anywhere culture, anywhere technology, and the willingness to help them thrive from anywhere they choose.
As we made plans for the upcoming year, my leadership team sent out a short pulse survey. The results were overwhelming: Moving forward, around 95% of the team wanted to work remotely at least some of the time. For me personally, this was eye-opening. I have a bias toward in-person work, and I needed to listen to the team to understand that what was best for me wasn’t necessarily best for everyone else.
For businesses, the Anywhere still has yet to solve economy challenges with collaboration, innovation, and to some degree, the depth of our interpersonal work connections. Interesting, it brings with it the hope of a revolutionary expansion and diversification of the workforce.
Bold, life-worthy missions
Workers are now choosing mission-forward companies that share their values—and proudly manifest those values in every business decision. What once may have been considered pie-in-the-sky thinking from employees is now concrete and actionable. In a 2021 McKinsey study of US workers, 70% reported that their core sense of purpose is defined by their work, and 65% said that the pandemic has prompted them to reflect on their purpose in life; 36% who had quit their job in the past six months did so without having a new job in hand. That’s how much company vision, mission, and values matter now.
That is not to say that every individual’s purpose in life will become homogeneous with their employer. Nor is it to say that if you’re not the next Patagonia that you have no place in the economy. But it’s undeniable that the global workforce expects their time at work to play a substantive part in bettering our collective future.
A culture of belonging
For many of us, our work family is important enough to be considered part of our actual family. Just like in a loving family, creating a culture of belonging starts with an employee’s sense of acceptance within their team and expands to the way they fit in their department and the company as a whole. When inclusion is sincere and consistent, employees rightly perceive that the organization cares about them as individuals—deepening their commitment and energizing their work.
In this particular area, the shift to the Anywhere Economy might present new problems. For some employees, in-person connection with colleagues might be the most direct path to a deeper sense of belonging at work. That’s normal. There’s no quick fix to this; it’s an issue to solve at the personal level. With our help, managers need to make a renewed effort to reconnect with their teams and find new ways to build a lasting sense of belonging for all.
Coequal to corporate mission and culture is the purpose that can be found in the craft of each job within a company. The joy of developing and perfecting our craft is the second most important thing in life, after our family. For many workers who’ve resigned in recent months, the pandemic illuminated a gap between their day-to-day tasks and their priorities to hone their craft in purposeful ways. In the aforementioned McKinsey study, 85% of front-line managers and employees say they struggle to find any real purpose in their daily grind. Faced with that grim outlook and new, more attractive remote options, it’s no surprise that millions have moved on to pursue an entirely different career—their dream job. Others found more purpose in being a stay-at-home parent and abandoned the job market entirely.
We also know that many workers who resigned did so because they were undervalued or not heard by their employer. In a 2021 study by Edelman DXI, 54% of Gen Z were considering handing in their resignation, citing distress feeling engaged in their work, bringing new ideas to their manager, or even getting a word in during video meetings.
Finally, as the exodus from unfulfilling work continues, employees are embracing institutions with transparent and proactive ESG stances. 5WPR’s Consumer Culture Report found that an overwhelming 83% of Gen Z and millennials seek to buy from companies that share their values. With those two groups now making up almost 50% of the global workforce, it’s no leap to find that they expect the same from their employers.
These new employees come preloaded with the expectation that their employer will minimize negative environmental impacts and take a proactive stance in addressing social issues. They also come with the understanding that diverse viewpoints at work lead to more creativity and better making a company’s record on diversity and inclusion an decisions, critical part of the candidate’s decision process for new job seekers.
As the importance of corporate responsibility grows, expect that definitions within ESG will grow in tandem. Transparency on all human elements including product safety, labor practices, talent management, and data security will be the next beachhead for our dialogue on responsibility.
Short of major corrective actions by businesses around the globe, employees will continue to look for more attractive, meaningful work. They have made it clear where they’d like to go; it’s up to us to meet them there. Winners in the employee embrace of values, meaning, and culture won’t default to pre-pandemic models of employee engagement and retention. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, either. Each institution needs to become mission-forward and people-first in every decision, strive to understand the motivations and development goals of their employees, and commit daily to an exceptional culture of purpose and belonging.