With no shortage of alarmist headlines at the moment, the last thing a business owner or HR leader wants to hear is dire predictions of “The Great Resignation”. As we limp towards the finish line of 2021, the prospect of lockdowns lifting and life getting back to some semblance of normal for at least half of the country is what is getting many of us through. Apparently business confidence in Australia is increasing to the extent it is now higher than the global average. Leaders are forward focused, with many developing growth strategies and looking forward to greater certainty and more favourable economic conditions. But what threatens to put a dampener on this are forecasts of a tsunami of employee resignations, nationwide, in the new year.

And if you think about it, this is unsurprising. For the last 18 months, those fortunate enough to still be able to work have been doing little else. As we, particularly those in Victoria and New South Wales, have endured an endless cycle of lockdowns, varying degrees of restrictions and an inability to travel, work has been the one constant. This has been enabled by our increased capacity to work “flexibly” and remotely through improved technology, and has led to many working longer hours. We have been prevented from doing the things that bring us joy, that give our lives balance, help us delineate work from play and recharge from a stressful working day or week.

As with many significant life events, the last 18 months have also caused a period of reflection as people consider what they really want from life. Remote working has opened up opportunities for many that they have never before contemplated, like seamlessly moving to a regional or interstate locations or juggling more than one job. And while working from home has its disadvantages, (particularly when having to moonlight as a primary school teacher…), it has shone a light on a new way of working that many employees will be unwilling to give up.

A recent Gartner survey[1] from April-June this year revealed that the factors that employees look for in a new employer have changed. Work life balance is now a non-negotiable and salary has crept back up the list to number three. Interestingly, career progression and personal development has dropped down the list. Frontline workers (including health care, emergency services, aged care, some public servants and professional services) are inevitably going to be burnt out, and looking for an easier role. Many others, who are home parenting and working, or at home alone, are also experiencing extreme fatigue, and perhaps reflecting on the role that career plays in their lives. .

This recent period of reflection has also made employees more likely to consider whether their job matches their own personal interests or values. Perhaps more alarmingly for employers, employees are less likely to go above and beyond for their employer, with levels of discretionary effort shown to have fallen since last quarter.

So what can employers do to avoid this readjustment translating into a mass exodus of talent?

Start talking to your employees and find out what they want. Businesses spend millions of dollars exploring what their customers want, what drives them, what turns them off. Employers now need to invest resources in understanding their people and, where possible, tailoring an employee experience that aligns with their values, interest and beliefs. This is not just about looking at the tangible benefits set out in your employment contracts, but also the intangible, unwritten agreement that employers have with their employees – the psychological contract. Employers should signal to their employees that they are valued, not just because of the way they fulfil their duties or perform their roles, but because of what they, as people, contribute to the organisation, and their shared purpose.

It is also important to evaluate organisational culture, particularly in terms of people management.

Management style and people management were identified as the top two reasons employees would leave their current employer, followed closely by work life balance. It is not enough to have a clear values statement or vision. Employers need to make sure that the way their leaders are engaging with their teams is aligned.

This will pose a challenge to many employers as, after 18 months of navigating uncertainty, managing people remotely and dealing with the personal challenges and stress of their teams, leaders are also approaching burnout and empathy is, as a result, low. Just as we are anticipating opening up, and ramping up, our workforces are experiencing high levels of exhaustion, increased conflict and low engagement. In order to support our workforces through this next transitional phase, employers should consider engaging with employees to understand what they need, and what this next phase looks, and feels like, to them. It might involve increased resources and support, reduced hours, extended periods of leave, or changes to roles. Explore secondment opportunities (internally and externally), encourage working parents to take leave once onsite learning resumes. Ensure that the gains in flexibility are not lost and consider how this flexibility can lead to increased autonomy and empowerment. Review remuneration and ensure that the resilience, flexibility and efforts of employees over the last 18 months is recognised.

Despite the challenges there is now a welcome light at the end of the tunnel, and the prospect of something different on the horizon is propelling people forward. It is important that employers take steps now to ensure that the experience of work they offer their people ticks the right boxes. The alternative is juggling a recruitment drive in a market plagued by labour shortages. I know where I would prefer to put my energies!


[1] https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2021-09-21-gartner-hr-survey-shows-purpose-and-pay-are-growing-p.