Over the last year, the news has been full of articles about the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, and how businesses are struggling to get employees back into the office. The truth is, these are all phenomena which have been emerging for years, or naturally fluctuate with economic cycles. People leave, people become demotivated, and look for greater balance. However, since Covid, we’ve seen these trends skyrocket, due to a combination of businesses playing catch up after a two year lull (spiking business activity and advertised jobs), employees burning out, and a labour shortage in some economies as people have left industries and countries. This has left businesses with a painful pinch-point, battling with sky-rocketing attrition and wage demands, vacant positions and overworked employees—in a market which is still bridled with uncertainty and inflation. We need to do something about it, and fast.
As leaders and HR professionals, if we look at these trends one by one, it would be easy to think that the solution is increasing compensation and letting people work from home a couple of days a week. That’s what people are moving for—right?—more money and a bit of flexible working? Sounds simple.
Unfortunately, the reality is a lot more complicated. If you piece these trends together, what it actually signals is a complete change in how people view their work: it is no longer just about having a good manager, pay, and buying into a business’ larger purpose or sense of mission. People are looking at jobs, and their careers, as a part of their lifestyle. (I say this as one of those who has changed jobs and career in the past two years!) Particularly as with house prices and the cost of living higher than ever, households now need two incomes just to buy and run a house. So people are asking themselves: How do I create a lifestyle that I actually want? And how does work support that?
This makes it a lot trickier for businesses.
Suddenly, the real debate is no longer about the salary range we put on to a job description. The real question, and the more interesting one, becomes how to attract the best people—how do we help create employment experiences which fit in with their desired lifestyle, and which work for us operationally?
The short answer is, it is completely dependent on your leaders.
Right now, most companies have enterprise wide people policies, and leaders often have a certain number of FTE, or headcount, and hire people into those positions. Once in, leaders “manage” their teams to try and optimise their performance during the time they are in their role, and try to keep team members happy and engaged so they stick around. When someone in the team wants to move on, they often apply to internal and external positions, completely unbeknownst to their manager. By the time they resign, it’s too late, and it becomes about rushed counter offers and negotiation of notice periods to try and keep high performers and some form of business continuity.
However, when we think about creating a model that works for individuals and their teams, it is exactly that: it must work for the individuals and the teams. People functions will struggle to create suitable company-wide policies that will provide the flexibility required, and businesses will either lose great people, or be inundated with flexible working requests. To attract and retain the best people, leaders need to truly understand the life that their team members are trying to create, and the part work plays, and have the skills to design a team structure that works for all parties, and be flexible over time.
For businesses that can get this right, the benefits will be huge: through such mature, open dialogue, they will not only be able to effortlessly attract the best talent and intrinsically motivate them, but also create a much more flexible model which can respond quickly to changing customer needs, and market opportunities. Businesses will also get much more notice where people are looking to move on or try something new, as they won’t be afraid to say it, and leaders can then proactively help find them opportunities inside the organisation, rather than losing them altogether.
So how do we do that?
First, we need to create the right environment for open dialogue by fostering an honest culture. This needs to be role modelled from the top, with leaders showing radical transparency, and speaking much more openly about the good news, and the bad. To bring this to life, if someone leaves, rather than sending a quick email that they have “sought other opportunities,” have the real conversation about why they left, and what we got wrong—did we not pay them enough compared to our competitors? Did we not think enough about career development? And what will we learn from it as a business going forward? And on the other side of the coin, championing teams who make internal moves across departments, or who are working in new and flexible ways, and the benefits for the business and the individual.
Then, the most important piece is changing how leaders have conversations with their teams. To really understand someone’s motivations—and connect those to the bigger picture—requires a combination of strategic, operational, and coaching style leadership. Most leaders are skilled in the first two, but have never been taught to have transformational development conversations. Train your leaders, and your people, on coaching relationships, the questions to ask, and how to get the most out of their time in the company. Make sure both leaders and their teams are aware where in the business is hiring, and make it a leadership responsibility to help them identify and move into their next role, and think bigger than just their immediate team or department.
And finally, make sure these behavioural and cultural changes are reinforced by processes, and remove anything that doesn’t. Ask yourselves, does our performance management look at just current performance or career planning? How do we make it as easy as possible for people to move internally—from finding the role to securing it? For some companies, this has meant complete removal of what is getting in the way, rather than bringing in something new. For example, Accenture consulting has removed their performance management processes altogether, in favour of more regular, career-based conversations. You may need to remove point-based interview scoring based on experience, to preferencing internal candidates. It could also mean completely rethinking headcount processes, and supporting leaders to manage a people budget and being able to use that on a mix of permanent, freelancers and secondments to create the agility needed.
But what we do know is this: in our current economy, the previous model is no longer an option.