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Workers Changed, and We Missed It

Here's what businesses need to do to put the Great Resignation behind them.

A man in a suit and tie.

In case you didn’t notice, there has been a seismic shift in the workforce. I’m not referring just to the Great Resignation or the more than 11 million unfilled job openings. I’m also talking about some factors that are major drivers of both.

For many workers, the initial pandemic shutdown afforded them “COVID clarity” around their lives, livelihoods and life priorities, including how they defined professional success. How they viewed the employer/employee relationship was fundamentally altered, but distracted employers just didn’t see it. Businesses that were rightly focused on surviving the pandemic lost touch with the workforce and missed the profound changes in worker expectations and preferences. 

However, the limited flexibility of a broken labor market suppressed normal job turnover. Once the economy picked up and it became abundantly clear that businesses needed more workers to fulfill rising consumer demand, employers’ outdated assumptions left them susceptible to the sea change we’re calling the Great Resignation. Here’s how businesses need to move forward:

Understand worker needs. The pressing challenge for today’s businesses is to reconnect with workers and to better understand their expectations. Worker motivations fall into two major categories: transactional and experiential. Transactional motivation is the tangible compensation people receive for their labor: salary, bonuses, benefits. Experiential motivation includes innately rewarding elements that appeal to our human side: culture, work environment, engagement.  

Transactional elements traditionally were seen as the primary driver for worker motivation. While financial considerations (wage inflation, for example) are still very important, we are realizing the powerful role that the holistic work environment plays in workers’ job satisfaction and retention. The deterioration of the human elements of work during the pandemic has made them a greater priority for job candidates. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management 2021 report Empathy: DE&I’s Missing Piece, 92 percent of workers acknowledge that when looking for a job, they will specifically seek out empathetic organizations. Additionally, workers’ focus has shifted away from remote work and toward broader workplace and schedule flexibility. 

Listen and keep listening. This reset of worker preferences presents a significant opportunity for organizations to redefine the employer/employee covenant. To facilitate this transformation, organizations must start by listening. Ask yourself, “Am I seeking to know more about why employees leave and what they are drawn to?” Empathetic managers, workplace surveys and third-party researchers are all great sources for gathering insights of varied scope and depth on workers’ motives.

Know your people. Work performance relies heavily on the engagement of people. The key to structuring both transactional and experiential benefits (think compensation + benefits + culture) to retain and engage the right employees is how we better understand our people. We must be more in tune with the shifting expectations and needs of today’s workforce to wisely navigate the Great Resignation.

To shape the future of work, an enterprise must always anticipate change and recalibrate operations accordingly. This requires us to first really know the people doing the work. Being flexible in perspective and in operation will allow organizations to maintain a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with an ever-changing workforce. Cultivating the employer/employee relationship will empower organizations to Cause the Effect in the world of work. 

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Photograph by Cade Martin for HR Magazine.


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