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Is the Great Resignation the start of the workers revolution?

The pandemic is receding; the lockdowns are easing; the economy is reopening; the staff are getting back to the office. Well, not really: many are just handling in their resignation letters instead. Perplexing? Welcome to the Great Resignation 2021.

Apparently some 11.5 million Americans quit their jobs in the second quarter of the year and it is still continuing with a peak of 4.3 million in August alone. Not just in US but in the rest of the world as well with some 38% of Brits surveyed toying with the idea of asking for their P45s (that social security form British workers get when they leave their jobs). Another survey, this time from Microsoft, indicated 41% of global workers considering resigning.

Not that much has been written about it at the moment as it is still early days, but the few articles written seems to resonate with what I have been passionately arguing for for some time. So pardon me if I were to return to my favourite topics and challenge management of all stripes over what has been deemed 'effective management techniques' to get 'optimised results' from those human beings we termed as 'human resources' or 'human capital'.

A survey from Limeade on why people quit has been quite instructive. I reproduce the highlights below:

The five main reasons why employees quit:

  1. Burnout: 40%

  2. Company going through organizational changes: 34%

  3. Lack of flexibility: 20%, Instances of discrimination: 20%, Contributions and ideas not being valued: 20% (three-way tie)

  4. Insufficient benefits: 19%

  5. Well-being not supported by the company: 16%

What the job switcher sought out in a new job:

  1. Ability to work remotely according to personal preference: 40%

  2. Better compensation: 37%

  3. Better management: 31%

  4. Better company reputation: 29%

  5. Better work-life balance: 26%

  6. Flexible work schedule: 24%

A quick glance will inform us that other than organisational changes driving 34% of the resignations (largely this probably result from companies having to restructure their operations in the post pandemic world but that's another article), all the other factors in both lists are to do with, or at least have roots in, the way people are treated in the work place and/or their priorities in the work-life balance.

Armed with this knowledge, let us look at the key root causes of why people are resigning in the Great Resignation.

How people are treated

Our problems started with the first lesson in our economics class in college, when we are taught that labour is one of the four factors of production. We are a factor of production and are relevant to the subject of economics insofar as we are able to produce economical goods and services. At the micro level, this is reflected in company policies which drives productivity, which increases profits, which increases the pool to pay us 'compensation' (doesn't compensation sound like a consolation for us going through a sacrifice called work?), which economists has long theorised as the main, if not the only, goal of working.

Trouble is that in the same college, they also taught us about Maslow Hierarchy of Needs (somehow, education seems to be a series of disparate topics, not integrated as a single whole, but that's another matter, maybe another article). They told us that once people's physiological & security needs are satisfied - which salaries & bonuses does pretty well - people move onto social and self esteem needs. Somehow, corporate policies have often not moved with their workers' climb up the hierarchy of needs.

The workplace does not recognise our social & self esteem needs as it is built around productivity, which equals salary, which equals physiological & security needs. This is evident in the way managers are primarily assessed and promoted based on their perceived ability to extract greater productivity from individual staff and secondarily, if ever, on creating a de-stressed work environment of collaboration and empowerment. Managerial assessment systems tend to focus on the lagging indicators rather than the leading indicators even though a manager works on the leading indicators to manage workers who produce the lagging indicators.

Yes, many companies have provided work environments to allow staff time to play and interact, but these are adjuncts to the main workplace goal of productivity. It is like the workplace is the main building where productivity takes place and we walk into an annexe of the same building to play and interact. We are only allowed to switch on our social and self esteem needs in a time & place determined by corporate policies.

Even when benefits are integrated into the workspace, staff quickly understand that the benefits are really still not for them but for their productivity. Once the allure wears off, Googlers will tell you that the reason for the fancy food and gym at work is so that you stay in the office longer without any need to go home. Recent Google policies to reduce compensation for those working remotely from out of town betrays a preference to keep staff in the office. To do work.

If separating our social & self esteem needs from our physiological & security needs feels bad, it gets worse why we work for someone who have reached the self actualisation stage and couldn't understand why we mere mortals need a smile from them when talking and having our egos massaged to get things done when they have paid us handsomely enough. Don't we all know of that superstar CEO who is god to their customers but such a pain to work for (OK, you can substitute painwith another word of your choosing).

Is this why we feel so undervalued at work: That Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has become part of that '90% of what I teach is not relevant when you work' mentioned by the college lecturers of our HR practitioners? And feeling undervalued is what the Limeade survey tells us why people quit. The solitude of home away from the workplace during the lockdown gave staff time & space about how they are treated and many realised that they are happier when not in the office & especially not in the presence of that manager. Small wonder that many chose to resign, when called to leave the home where they work among people who loves them and to return to work in the office to work among people who view them as factors of production.

Ultimately, management skills are the same whatever context they are used in. Managing your co-workers who sits next to you eight hours a day, your difficult boss or a divided team is no different from managing your intimate spouse, your high-expectation mother-in-law, or your fractious cousins. Can we read the emotions of our team members or consider their feelings in our decision-making the same way we do before raising a sensitive suggestion to our spouse? Can we sweet talk that uncooperative team member the way we sweet talk our mothers-in-law? We have the skills; its just that managers are conditioned differently with the autocratic authority empowered in the monarchially-structured hierarchy in the work place.

Family coexisting with the workspace

Which brings me to my next favourite topic: family in the workspace. Corporate policies require us to give our full attention to work. and leaving our personal problems behind, so that we can be fully productive at work. There is this expectation that when we walk through the door of the office, we stop being a father or a mother or a husband or a wife: we become a dedicated professional. It seems like they have hired a lobotomised part-human with all the non-work related parts excised out. But I think I have written enough about it and you can refer to the full article I have written on the topic.

In the pre-pandemic era, managers can choose not to know about the families of their staff and most did choose that. They may find out through small talk or even meet the staff's spouse during annual dinner, but mostly, they are disinterested as family is an overload to their managerial duties. But during a pandemic, manager have no choice but to notice the family: when a toddler bobs into view during a Zoom call, or having to know that calls at a certain hour will be ignored because the staff is dropping off a child at that time. Zoom calls have a habit of making staff seems human to the manager and vice versa, with views of the kitchen making them compare how the staff use the same appliances as them, or that crib in the corner shocks staff because the tyrannical manager they see is incompatible with the image of a doting father.

I am afraid there will be many managers who reels away in disgust at the thought of incorporating family considerations into staff management, like avoiding a venomous potion, but I believe it will give pause to many managers to see an angle on their staff they never considered. Whether they can actually do anything about it is another matter as the entire psyche of being a manager today precludes them from centring work around staff family life. Rather than having work objectives taking centre stage with only occasional adjustments for family considerations, where allowed. Letting staff work at hours when their children are napping or sleeping; or the aged parent under their care is at the daily chiropractor. Or customising, and disrupting the salary scale structure in the process, for a staff reduced hours so that they can tend to their other interests - family, community work, hobbies. Well, any interest, as long as it doesn't conflict with company interests or values - after all, complete persons have other interests outside of work.

Also, managers are not equipped, whether with practical tools, policies & practices or management mindsets, to consider family in the workspace. Salary scales and, more importantly benefits, are almost invariably built around the 40-hour work week, with little flexibility for part-time or shared work: why can't we have a plan for part-time or shared-work medical coverage? Bonuses, increments and promotions are assessed on how much effort and how efficient were those efforts feeding into the output, with not enough focus on the outputs themselves. Because our salaries are still calculated based on the inputs rather than outputs. Which is baffling to me: if a worker were to deliver the outputs commensurate with the salary agreed, why should I care when it was submitted or how many hours were put in - it is irrelevant - as long as they are not distracting other workers (And if the worker delivered the agreed output in a super-efficient or super-inefficient manner, it may be better for the worker to be super-efficient or inefficient remotely out of sight of the more average workers. Managers seem to be focussing on the leading indicators when the worker is producing the lagging indicators). The trouble is that we have not acquired the skills to price salaries in the modern world - pricing hours of work is a 20th century skill while pricing output is a 21st century skill.

But hopefully, some managers can realise the shortcomings of our management tools today will start to change their management styles. And, maybe for those who are not able to do so, can this idea at least plant the seed that will help them reshape the workplace when they get to corporate or industry leadership positions one day?

Nature of work

I learnt a valuable lesson from the shutting down of coal mines as part of the move in the 80s to a post-industrial world. I noticed that miners, whether from Pittsburgh in the USA or Lancashire in England, say "I am a miner". They don't say "I work in a mine". Being a miner is what they are and not what they do. It not just feed their physiological & security needs but also their social & self esteem needs and especially in England, an entire sub-culture developed in the mining communities with identities of communal help and brass bands. Work is not just about the money we take home, it can be much more than that. Work defines who we are. As a result, the negative fallout of Thatcher's closing down of mines became her lasting legacy in some parts of Britsh folklore, as it did not complement the economic argument to close an uneconomic (and now an environmentally-unsustainable) industry with an emotionally-informed implementation plan. Retrenched miners only looked for jobs in the ever-shirking number of mines and most ended up on the long-term unemployment rolls, with its concomitant social problems; it took their emotionally-unencumbered children to escape the depression of mining communities.

This is just an illustration of how far beyond the salary packet that work can mean to some people and managers ignore that emotional link at their peril. Even if not all work identification is that strong, we need to be aware of how different people have different expectations of what work is, particularly the difference in the expectations between the manager and the managed. Today, a generation of millennials entered the work force with no jobs during the 2008 financial crisis and with a cynicism over the fickleness of employers' commitment to them when going gets tough while a generation of Gen Z is entering the work force today amidst a pandemic upturning economic & social life worldwide. Their views of what work is will be rather different from that of the baby boomer leadership, who grew up in post-war deprivation.

The older generation who prioritise physiological & security needs surround themselves with the trappings of wealth which gives them security, trappings which the younger generation do not seek as house prices soar beyond what their meagre real wages can afford (in any case, smaller family sizes today means they are more likely to have a house handed down and so have less need to buy a house) or to need that environmental disaster called a car. The younger generation grew up with physiological & security needs satisfied and seek fulfilment at work that feeds their social & self esteem needs. It is said that the younger generations eschew goods & seek experiences and this mentality extends to work. They see work as an experience and not a sacrifice to obtain goods. As a result, when work no longer fulfils, they quit with an unwillingness to sacrifice their limited time for an unfulfilling experience. As in this pandemic.

Expectations that work should be fulfilling means that the content of the work has to be an enriching experience. Content means the way the work aligns with their worldview, or is at least not inconsistent with it. I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of young people in non-profit work today, more more that in the recent past. Enriching means it contributes to their learning and growth as a person. And experience means the context this work and learning takes place in - as they are seeking to fulfil their social and self-esteem needs, they expect immediate affirmation of themselves and their current (not future) work contributions: they do not see themselves as passive receptacles of learning - from a generation who they perceived has failed in their environmental and socio-economic responsibilities. So, when young people finds out that company practices are not aligned with their values, that they are no longer learning or growing, or when they do not feel recognised as a productive person in their own way, they leave. And not having ties to any particular profession or industry, they can move onto some field totally different, where their disgruntled manager's network has no reach.

And to add to this growing population of experience-centric workforce is a sub-culture of baby boomers like me, who has achieved financial stability as well as attained career objectives, so reached all the way to the self-esteem level in the hierarchy of needs. Except of a small number for whom salary levels are a proxy for self esteem, the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in, and each increment in salary offered holds ever reducing attractions. What we seek in its place differs with different persons. It could be seeking other interests: family, hobbies, social interests, social impact. It could be seeking to share what the experience we have accumulate, so that others could find it easier to climb the learning curve than they did. It could be to give back to the community and maybe to leave a legacy behind: leave this world a better place than we were born into. Reasons are varied and the accumulated financial buffers enable us to choose the work that would please us. Managers who are often younger and less experienced than us, will have to learn to take our goals into consideration when managing us.

So, can management styles be adjusted to reach across the chasm of generations to bridge different views of what work is? Or must the manager adopt the mindset of the managed in order to manage the younger generations the way they want to be managed? Will the views of the younger generation change in any substantial way as they get older and settle down with a family? Will they become more like their parents? Questions I am not sure anyone has answers to. Yet.

Here's a video of our interview with Jim where he mentioned some of these content live.

So what do we do about it

I think we are at the cusp of a revolution in how people are to be managed, driven by very fundamental generational changes in value sets. We have probably been inching there since the 2008 financial crisis but the 2020 pandemic, with its overly wide impact on human life affecting almost every human culture, brought us to a tipping point. People all over the world had time and space to think about who they are, what they want and how they want to be treated. Including those who have been chasing material returns over family life for so long, especially in America and among the emergent middle classes in the developing world.

It's about time we view staff as people instead of job titles on an org chart, to be managed as (human) resources for production or to be invested in as (human) capital for numerical monetary returns. We need to re-evaluate how people are to be managed. Companies need to think through their corporate values and consider how much they want to root the idea of people as people into their entire value system. Get past the lofty aspirational statements, and start conversations whether they want take those value statements to their logical conclusions in very micro-level scenarios. Does the company become less monarchial and more consultative or even participative? Do business cases need to consider staff well being or even be denominated in staff well being?

Managers need to rethink what staff means to them and how much they want to base the management of staff on those parts of the staff identity that until now is considered as not relevant to work. Are we ready to acknowledge that the whole of the person is relevant in the work space and manage the person accordingly? We need to work through very practical scenarios of how we would want to manage staff. This is not about trendy HR slogans but really a race to understanding the changed dynamics of work that it has been changing for some time. It is a race to patch up the leaking boat of people management techniques before either party decide to separate to the detriment of both and to the society as a whole.

This is not an easy exercise and none of us has a solution. While I have had a head start in thinking about the subject but even the effects of the pandemic has been beyond anyone's expectations. I have not seen any complete solutions on this subject and the few articles to be had on it merely outline the steps we need to take to start the conversation in a structured manner.

What else is there to say but that its a brave new world. A revolution is in the offing. We, as managers, have to be part of the solution rather than the dinosaurs of the management world. The first step is ours to take.

About the Author:

Jim Khong focuses on helping Malaysian SMEs to fulfill the strategic aspirations of the owner-CEO. He helps by creating a roadmap that will consider all aspects of the organisation including required changes to the system, processes and people as well as the existing & planned organisational capabilities and business plans.

As one of the few GST consultants in Malaysia with hands-on GST experience in the UK, Jim assists smaller listed companies or larger SMEs by reviewing the operations of the company for how GST impacts the company and propose solutions & train staff in those solutions.

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