Great Resignation?

empty office cubiclesThere’s been a lot of talk lately about the so-called ‘Great Resignation of 2021’. The premise is that a large number of employees, since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, have been hanging onto jobs that didn’t make them happy, and their collective pent-up frustration will lead to mass resignations and changing of jobs, even careers. And there is certainly evidence of that in some sectors; in the hospitality and foodservice industries, for example, employee resignations began spiking in the spring of 2021.

There’s one group of employees included in discussions about the Great Resignation that I’d like to focus on here: temporarily remote workers. In those cases, the theory is that having had the experience of working remotely, employees won’t be willing to return to the office post-COVID, and will quit en masse if they’re compelled by policy to do so. I have a somewhat contrarian view on this: for these employees, I don’t think a Great Resignation is going to happen. At least, not in the way it’s currently being described.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for companies that were perfectly happy to allow (ahem: expect) their employees to work from home when it suited them during the strictest lockdowns, and are now – for no good reason – forcing them to come back to the office. I do believe that we’re in the midst of a transition that will ultimately see those companies fail to attract the kind of employees they need, and I’ll say more on that later. First, a recap of what we’ve learned.

Employees went to work remote – at least for now.

If COVID workplace lockdowns showed us anything, it’s that sooooo many of those meetings – as the meme goes – could have been emails after all. Companies nimbly (or, in some cases, not so nimbly) did what they needed to do to keep their employees doing the work they needed done, from home. Necessity being the mother of invention, all the reasons (ahem: excuses) that this couldn’t be done fell away. Instant messaging took the place of drop-in conversations at office doors and cubicle corners. Video calls were swapped in for in-person meetings. Emails kept doing what they needed to do. And VPNs kept it all reasonably secure.

And, amazingly enough, the working world didn’t come to a grinding halt. Companies learned (to varying degrees of success) to manage their employees’ performance by the results they achieved, rather than by how many hours they spent at a desk. Clients and customers were still served, deals were still done, projects were still completed, and the economy kept ticking along. There’s no data to suggest that productivity broadly lagged during this time; on the contrary, evidence suggests that most employees who are allowed to work remotely produce at the same level as in the office, if not higher. Not too surprising, when you consider the many distractions for attention that are present in every office, and how much more time is spent in in-person meetings to arrive at the same result as a virtual one.

I’ll digress for a moment here to say that we did lose one thing that perhaps we had undervalued: genuine connections with other people. Social relationships are the glue that holds working relationships together, and that suffered when people couldn’t be together in the same place. There is inherent value in people who work together spending some time together – not just on Zoom or Teams, but in real life – and even companies and teams that move to remote work will need to find ways to make that happen. What I refer to above as unchanged is what matters to employers: productivity.

Surprise: people liked working from home.

For the employees, though, things really did change when they hurriedly packed up their desks and created makeshift home offices. For many, the most significant difference was the disappearance of their commute. The time (30 minutes twice a day? An hour? More?) that they used to spend behind the wheel of a car or on public transit was returned to them. For sleep, for yoga or a morning run, for time with family; that lost time was theirs again. Just as importantly, the pointlessness of that lost time was highlighted. When I can get just as much – even more! – done when I’m working from home, people started asking themselves, how on earth does it make sense for me to spend all that travel time just to do the same thing somewhere else? Look at all the money I’m not spending on gas or transit tickets. Look at all the carbon I’m not putting into the atmosphere!

It’s not just the travel, either. When people work in an office, we take a few moments every once in a while to rest our brains – stretch our legs, maybe, or just lean back and count ceiling tiles. When that same downtime can be spent throwing a load of laundry in, or tidying the kitchen, even more quality time is returned to our lives, to be spent however we choose. When someone can walk the dog around the block when they’re finished eating their lunch, instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds in the office kitchen, it turns out that their quality of life improves rather dramatically.

Therein lies the foundation for the ‘Great Resignation’ theory as it applies to this group: employees demonstrated that they were just as able to do their jobs from home, and they grew to really like it, therefore they won’t be willing to leave it behind, and they’ll quit. There’s only one hitch: supply and demand.

For better or worse (my vote is ‘worse’), we’ve created a society where for most families, it takes two people working to support their lifestyle. Even accounting for household cost savings (childcare, for example), most of those families aren’t able or willing to make the compromises required to get by on one income. Therefore, for this group to take part in the Great Resignation would require a roughly equal number of jobs to be available which would allow the employee to work from home. Sadly, we’re not there yet.

So, what’s going to happen now?

To sum up, here’s my prediction. Most companies will try – at least in the short term – to put things back to the way they were. Most employees, out of necessity, will go along with it. Many of those employees will do so grudgingly. For these folks, the ‘Great Resignation’ will instead be the Great Sigh of Resignation. At least … for now.

Keep an eye on the horizon. I promise you this: the people who discovered that they were just as productive, and much happier, working from home will be looking for opportunities that allow them to do so. Forward-thinking companies will be asking themselves if they really need people keeping office chairs warm every day, and deciding that they don’t. Those companies will have access to a broader pool of candidates because they can hire anywhere, and a better caliber of candidate who wants the opportunity to work from anywhere. And ultimately, they will win the best employees.



Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash