One issue that keeps coming up in conversations today is the great resignation. People leaving their jobs, companies hiring or looking for talent, employers with very different positions on remote work and work from home policies, youths and quiet quitting… its being called the great resignation, or the great attrition. But what’s really happening here, what does that mean for us, and more importantly, what can we do about it?

And we begin by understanding what the great resignation is. Also called the great attrition, and the great reshuffle depending on your country, it was noticed that persons resigning from their jobs en masse from around the start of 2021, a trend which peaked at July/Aug of 21, but effects have continued into March / April of 2022.

We have seen unemployment jump in countries throughout the world. So the big question around this trend is why? Why were workers quitting?

Labour Demand and the Pandemic

Essential workers: At the onset of the quarantine restrictions, we saw the forced need to work from home, a reality that very quickly highlighted those who were essential workers and who were free-loading their way in the company.

Technological unemployment: The shift to online also meant adopting technology to automate some tasks, optimizing staff sizes, outsourcing jobs to contracted vendors or simply not hiring new workers to fill positions

Crisis cuts in staff: mass layoffs, downsizing and pay cuts at the onset of the pandemic restrictions and continuing through the duration of the restrictions in many cases. This was a function in part of available cash in hand, and in other instances commitment to the workers. In one HBR study researchers found some companies had cash in hand but no commitment to the staff, and were just as likely to layoff as those without cash. Other companies with available cash pledged commitment to their workers and kept them – perhaps at lower costs or reassigned posts.

Supply Side During the Pandemic

All these were on the demand side, companies hiring and firing. On the supply side, everyone was stuck at home, some flooded with additional work, and others languishing listlessly with a foreboding sense of stagnation and emptiness. Here we saw additional effects – shall I call them human effects:

  • Divorce & Disruption: Some families got closer together, spending more time and rebuilding relationships. Other found themselves estranged, and not really liking the relationships they were in. Higher divorce rates per 1000 marriages were reported globally, and some say we haven’t yet reached the peak.
  • Coping Mechanisms: boredom and loneliness are not good ingredients on a normal day, especially when mixed with anxiety and depression. We saw rises substance use and abuse, with increases in alcohol, narcotics, and commensurate with this we saw increases in addition rates. Centre for disease control and prevention stated a 13% increase in substance use in June of 2020 – at the start. And other sources report an increase in overdose deaths.
  • Competing income: Also featuring during this time was the issuance of government grants to those displaced, with some persons choosing to not work, or work less, in order to access the grants. Others saw immediate or emerging business opportunities – particularly with the online trade, and chose to go that route – globally we saw reports of increased business registrations during that time.
  • Reflection & Reprioritization: Being stuck at home, with no or low distractions, access to the world of information, fostering stronger bonds within your social circles and networks, many had the time to rest, reflect and in some cases recover or heal. So we started to see more content on work-life balance; the attractiveness of remote work for e.g.; persons signing up for degrees and online courses, and stuff like that.

Now it was a question of no longer running the rat race – but instead defining what direction do you want to take in life, what matters to you, and what pathways can take you in that direction faster, further. What boundaries you want to set, and what you see as acceptable for meaningful work-life balance. Some discovered a passion for cooking, or gardening, for e.g.

All this was happening throughout 2020 and part of 2021. Fastforward to mid 2021, and the waters get a even cloudier with additional layers of complexity

  • Vax-to-Work: As the covid strain became tamer – omicron and delta, etc., and as vaccines became more widely accessible, restrictions began to be lifted, seeing a surge in demand by many to return to the familiar. So, companies began opening back, and scaling back up. However, many insisting on a vax to work requirement began to see resistance. With the vax having no history, some persons had concerns over taking this experimental drug. Others had concerns with its efficacy – there were no guarantees.
  • Health-wise: In the return to work there was little trust in the safety at the workplace – going out to work meant potentially exposing your family to illness contracted in the workplace. Yet others had being pushing hell hard during the pandemic, and were simply burnt out.
  • Re-training & Re-tooling: new processes, new technologies, new colleagues in some cases, meant persons had to reorient to the workplace, even as they try to safeguard their health. In some studies, persons opted to resign rather than have to re-train and re-tool – they just weren’t up for that struggle. Others just wanted change – to not have to go back to the same routine and bland existence they faced before. All this of course while companies were trying to get back on their feet, or back at scale, and looking for talent. So the gamble paid off for some persons, we saw in reports where persons re-entering the workplace experience a 8-10% increase in salaries.
  • Back to the Office: we have the now famous quote by Elon Musk – return to the office or pretend to work somewhere else. We saw the return to the office policy feature for many companies, and the dedication to remote work by others – AirBnB for e.g. announced its policy of a permanent remote work – and it makes sense – if you would expect anyone to encourage persons to delink work from location, it would be AirBnB.

Quiet Quitting

Into 2022, and we saw the war with Russia/Ukraine, and of course in our last episode we spoke about the effects on inflation – high inflation, high unemployment, increases in mortgage rates – its all a balancing act, and for companies this meant having to battle increased costs in raw materials, paying higher salaries for acquiring talent, alongside low demand… requests for pay increases by staff was not something that could be entertained. So what do workers do?

Well, here comes Zaid Lepplin talking about quiet quitting – what we would otherwise call work-to-rule, or following official working rules and hours exactly as stated, to reduce output and efficiency, and it goes viral. 3.5 million views on TikTok. What I find most interesting are the comments – none of this is new. Some called it working smart, not hard. Others say it’s a matter of setting boundaries. Yet others stated this is the name of what they have been doing for months or years – with no difference. Same pay, same recognition, less stress. Quite a number of persons indicated they were doing this until they actually quit, others castigating it as poor work ethic, and what I find staggering, in the hundreds of thousands comments on the video, 1 person said they didn’t do that, didn’t have to, they love their job. One. Single. Soul.

So it seems that now we are in a work to rule environment – especially among the Millennials and the Gen Zs. Is it justified? In some cases absolutely. Companies posting record profits taking away a dollar an hour. In other cases its simply a tantrum. No material work history, no value-adding experience, but expected increase. Is it practical? Again, horses for courses – in some cases you can do this and get away with it. In others, working less hours or in ambiguously defined job specifications can cost you your job. What is alarming is the immaturity of performance tracking in all of this. As I indicated earlier – some said same pay, same recognition, less stress. It begs the question what exactly are employers doing, if not managing or leading their team?

Where do we go from here?

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