Whatever we choose to call it, the United States is currently experiencing a movement of mass resignations. Some 3.8 million Americans quit their jobs in April of this year, setting a single-month record. In August we set yet another record: 4.3 million people decided to call it quits. Most recently, it was reported that a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.
The driving forces behind this movement range quite a bit depending on the industry. For some, particularly white-collar workers, the pandemic introduced new novelties like work-from-home and more flexible hours. Perhaps these workers were able to spend more time with their families or find space for extraprofessional pursuits and the return to the pre-pandemic office commute is a big nonstarter. They might rather look for new opportunities that will afford them the flexibility they desire if their current companies are unwilling to accommodate. For others, particularly those who work in the hospitality and service industries as well as those considered “frontline” or “essential”, the pandemic accentuated brutal and often dangerous work conditions and brought with it a wave of raucous customers, made worse by long hours and measly benefits. Many of these workers are leaving their jobs in search of better pay, safer conditions, and decent treatment in their workplaces.
At the root of all these experiences is one common reality: the pandemic has dramatically shifted the ways in which many of us think about work, life, and the balance between the two. After suffering a collective trauma, people have been left to consider whether they should work to live or live to work, and to rethink how their workplaces should value them. To quote WIRED Ideas Contributor Kathryn Hymes, “In the face of abject loss and society-level trauma, how does work bring meaning to our lives?”
If this movement is speaking to workers, let’s just say it’s hollering at employers. More and more corporations, companies, and businesses are watching their people willingly walk out the door. Employers can say au revoir and assume turnover rates will eventually improve, or use this moment as an opportunity for reflection on their business practices and employees’ wellbeing. Some larger companies have already started introducing remote work as a permanent option, while other businesses have started offering higher wages and, in the case of restaurants, industry novelties like paid leave and benefits, in order to attract employees.
While we can hope that these valuable improvements will expand and eventually become the norm, maybe the solution to “The Great Resignation” can’t be found in surface-level changes. Yes, more flexibility, better pay, and increased benefits are all positive changes that can certainly attract prospective employees and improve morale. But if these changes are simply being made by employers looking for a quick fix for a poor employee retention rate, will that be enough to really change the culture that got us here?
Maybe the solution lies not only in specific structural changes but also in leadership style.
At Le Shag, Jen Donovan is proof that leadership matters. Le Shag has not only been unaffected by the “great resignation”; she and her team of stylists have experienced record-breaking salaries since the start of the pandemic. While she obviously understands and appreciates that the pandemic has been brutal and devastating for so many individuals, families, and businesses, the onset of the pandemic really inspired Jen to take time to get closer to her team. She felt it was an opportunity to really connect with them personally; to make time to listen to their concerns, learn what it is that they want to do with their careers in the long-term, help facilitate in making that happen, and help them form valuable connections in the community. In the face of a crisis, she formed deeper connections.
“They’re all amazing people,” says Jen, speaking about her team. “They are all super loyal as friends and coworkers.”
Creating a positive work environment has always been important to Jen. For her, achieving that all boils down to leadership. “A good leader,” she believes, “doesn’t just think about themselves. They think about their team, everyone who is involved with their team, and what affects their daily lives. What makes them happy and what makes them want to be productive.” She also believes that to be a good business leader, she has to listen to all opinions.
“I’m definitely somebody who really loves working with a team, so I love hearing their ideas,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t agree, but I’ll try them because they’re good ideas. They’re not my own, always, but that’s really what I think creates a good work environment. You don’t just make it about you, you make it about the whole of the team.”
She also feels like a lot of it boils down to ego. “A lot of business owners,” she reflects, “they just have this one direction that they want to follow because it’s their vision. And I get that. But in today’s world, I feel like we all kind of want to work as collectives and add in our own twists on things. That’s really when things become bigger and better.”
Jen’s approach to business leadership has not only been successful for her; Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, argues for the benefits of a similar leadership style in his article, “The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership” in the Harvard Business Review.
Business leaders and managers often believe good leadership requires vision above all else. Vision, they believe, provides direction and inspiration for employees, driving them to want to achieve. But, as Petriglieri points out, “in a crisis, people don’t need a vision to inspire them–they’re already raring to act.” Instead, by focusing on strengthening the cultures of their respective businesses, bringing attention to employees’ experiences and concerns, and focusing on the present crisis rather than only the future solution, leaders and managers can provide an increased sense of security when their companies or businesses are faced with challenges. This can certainly be applicable to the current movement of resignations, which comes after the COVID-19 crisis and, most likely, a crisis of leadership as well. As Petriglieri puts it, “people never forget how managers treated them when they were facing loss. And we will remember how our institutions, managers, and peers, held us through this crisis — or failed to.”
It is understandable why employers may view the “The Great Resignation” as a crisis in and of itself — no one wants to see their company or business in a precarious position. But maybe if owners, leaders, and employers can choose to use this time as an opportunity to pause, listen, and reflect, “The Great Resignation” will be remembered not as a crisis, but as a turning point in American work culture. Only time will tell.