Taking advantage of the Great Resignation

Editor’s note: Rick Grimaldi is the author of FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace. Grimaldi has a private practice and is a partner with Fisher Phillips, LLP.

People across the country are quitting their jobs in record numbers. If you’re a business owner, you’ve undoubtedly had a tense moment or two wondering, who’s going to leave my company? But don’t just wring your hands; take decisive action. Smart leaders are approaching the Great Resignation as a time to pause, take stock and really audit their business practices and processes.

This is the perfect time to ask, “What can we be doing better?” Not only is this the secret to keeping the people you have, but it also gives you the opportunity to attract some of the amazing talent floating around right now. 

People aren’t leaving the workforce altogether. They’re leaving old-school environments that aren’t meeting their needs for those that will. When you shift in ways that create the kind of culture people are drawn to, everyone wins – current employees, talented prospects and, of course, the company. 

So how do you leverage this opportunity? What do you absolutely have to get right? Here are 14 tips for becoming a great place to attract and retain talent.

1. Ask yourself: Have we flexed? In a shockingly short amount of time, the employment landscape has changed dramatically. What about your company? Have you evolved to keep up? To answer, you’ll need to audit “what we’ve always done” and ask, “Does this still make sense for a talent base that demands an employee-centric workplace?”

This has to be a permanent shift. While there’s a talent squeeze right now, the new employee expectations are the new normal. Make sure leaders understand this reality. Then, honestly ask yourself, what do my employees, current and future, REALLY want? This is the first step to moving your company in the right direction.

In general, today’s employees value training and development, the opportunity to collaborate with teams, a sense of meaning in their work and an affiliation with socially responsible entities. They insist on fairness, equity, diversity and inclusion. 

If any area of your culture is not in alignment with these values, move to fix any glaring problems right away. Then get set on making long-term changes that will make you more likely to meet the needs and wants of modern workers and protect you from costly litigation and other issues.

2. Once you get a sense of where you are and where you need to improve, ask yourself, do our leaders need more training? Do they understand the attitude shifts your company needs to make? Attracting and retaining talent needs to be top of mind for everyone, and that includes leaders at every level.

Getting employee-centric is about building emotional connections. If leaders inside your company have no idea how to make and nurture these connections, it may be time to take a hard look at the culture you’ve created. Like it or not, if you’re to win the war on talent, there must be some changes in the attitudes of your leaders.

3. Stay flexible and fluid. Since the gig economy exploded on the scene, it has reshaped the American workforce. Consider that today, more than one-third of Americans report that they are participating in one way or another, with 49% of adults under 35 “gigging it.” The flexible nature of gig work appeals highly to the younger generation. To them, the work/life integration built into the gig economy is not a cool trend but a priority, even a value. And companies competing for Gen Y and Z workers need to bake it into the jobs they offer. 

More and more, workers are demanding flexibility in where they work, how they work and when they work. Millennials and Gen Z in particular value work/life integration. As much as possible, accommodate them. If it works for the position, allow fully remote, hybrid and flexible arrangements. In light of the Great Resignation, it’s vital to give employees a work life that suits them.

4. Understand that it’s not just about WHERE people work; it’s about WHEN and HOW.  Many employees want flexibility to work remotely. Give it to them if possible – but be aware that simply transitioning your old practices to Zoom isn’t enough. You need to be truly flexible, and that means giving people the freedom to structure their workday and week in a way that fits into the rest of their lives. 

To the extent that you can, let employees maintain control over when they’re available. Even if a job can’t realistically be done remotely, people may still be able to tailor hours to their own schedule. For example, they might come in earlier (or later) and leave earlier (or later). This often ensures that their work is done at the most effective times and enables employees to fulfill family obligations without interfering with their working hours.

5. When hiring, focus on skills, not academic histories. For decades, companies have prioritized candidates’ educational backgrounds: the schools they went to, the degree they earned, the grades they made. Now there’s a huge shift underway. More and more, employers are hiring based on skill set instead of academic pedigree. This makes perfect sense in a rapidly changing workplace where frequent disruption is a given and in-demand skills are constantly changing. This recruitment approach also makes it easier to build a more diverse workforce.

Hire for the skills you need in the moment and develop them based on how your needs evolve. Just don’t try to lock employees down in the same role long term. Let their talents and interests drive their skill development. It should go without saying, but try to hire people who are excited about learning and growing – education is a lifelong journey now.

6. Put relationships at the top of your to-do list. Relationships have always been important, but they matter now more than ever. Get intentional about building strong relationships with your team. But don’t stop with the manager/employee relationship.

People always say that employees “leave bosses,” but that’s not the whole story. People don’t just leave jobs and bosses. They also leave coworkers and others in the organization. You must pay attention to all relationships in the workplace.

7. Get intentional about knowing your people. Managers need to know employees’ goals, strengths and other work-related factors. Hopefully that’s a given. But they should also know their birthdays, who their kids are and where they like to go on vacation. This requires regular human connections, and this isn’t going to “just happen.” You need to make it happen by holding people accountable and creating the right environment. 

There is a resurgence of the old “management by walking around” method happening even on factory floors. When you schedule time to do this, and make a point of having regular face-to-face meetings with employees that go beyond performance reviews, a lot of things will change. This can be challenging with remote workers, but with a few extra steps by managers, it can be done successfully.

8. Start a real dialogue and be open to what they’re saying. Don’t just send out questionnaires or use a passive feedback box. Talk to people one-on-one and give them the freedom to give you hard feedback. Proactively ask questions about their well-being. Are they happy? Why or why not? What can you do to keep them around? The answers may surprise you. The more you involve people in running the company, and the fewer surprises there are, the happier they’ll be. 

One-on-one conversations can help you get a sense of where people are coming from. You can learn who is burned out, who might be planning to leave and who has new ideas around the future of work in the post-COVID era. It’s a great way to take people’s temperature and work together to find solutions to make the transition back easier on everyone.

9. Make employee well-being a top priority. This means checking in with people. Don’t wait on yearly assessments; now we do what’s called a pulse check. When times are tough, we need to know how people are doing daily. Mental health issues are no longer in the closet. They can’t be, in a time when so many have moved past stress and into trauma territory. 

Companies are realizing that psychological well-being impacts not just engagement, but also productivity, performance and every aspect of culture. Do everything you can to promote employee well-being. Keep an eye on this issue as you design benefits, career tracks and work arrangements. And destigmatize mental health issues. It has to be OK to ask for help. 

10. Create a culture where everyone belongs. For the first time, beginning in 2019, the majority of American hires in their prime – ages 25-54 – were people of color. Also, for the first time in 2019, women made up the majority of the college-educated workforce. And the 66 million working women today are expected to grow to 92 million by 2050. Though immigrants make up just 18% of the workforce over age 25 in the U.S. today, they obtain 28% of high-quality patents. They’re also more likely to be recognized as Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine and physiology.

We know diversity and inclusion are important. But organizations that want to thrive go further: They work toward what DEI expert Tristan Higgins calls metaclusivity©. In other words, they cultivate a true sense of belonging. Feeling that they belong is what gets people engaged and allows them to do their best work. 

11. Keep people fulfilled by getting reward and recognition right. Regular reward and recognition for a job well done helps keep people fulfilled and engaged. Doing this right means recognizing things in the moment. 

It’s not about a big yearly ceremony or a group thank-you; it’s more about individual efforts. It’s about noticing when people do something positive and recognizing them the way they want to be recognized. In this way, you help to constantly refill their cup.

12 Carefully manage the onboarding process. Know that people often make decisions to stay or leave in the early days of their job. In a staff crunch, every single hire really counts. It’s vital to check in immediately and see how things are going – and to stay in touch as time goes by.

13. Make sure you manage goodbyes well. In the new gig economy, people are going to leave and come back. And even if they don’t come back, chances are good that they know lots of other people who might be a good fit and will tell them how you treated them. The last thing you want to do is burn any bridges (with good employees).  

With a few exceptions, drop outdated no rehire policies and see what you can do to help with the transition. Remember, it is just business, not personal.

14. Embrace intergenerational differences and bridge the gap between young and older workers. Research shows multigenerational companies do well in performance and productivity. It makes sense: a blend of different ages means you get more diverse perspectives and a synergy that gives you a competitive edge. You can also leverage the gifts of different age groups to boost engagement. To do so, I suggest setting up a bi-directional mentoring program. 

We know Gen Y and Z crave development. Well, you’ve got these seasoned employees who could share their expertise with those less experienced. And reverse mentoring is a big trend now too: how better to engage Gen Y and Z employees than to get them involved in working with boomer employees on the latest innovations in technology or social media? 

Another key to creating a strong multi-generational company is to learn what truly motivates your employees.

Leaders might think all Millennials and Gen Z care about is money, but maybe it’s because that’s all we’re offering them. Research shows that they really want a sense of fit and “skin in the game.” We need to do the work of getting to know them and developing them. Make sure they know where the advancement opportunities are. When we make the effort to give younger employees what they really need, we’ll usually find they’re huge assets to us.

When the status quo isn’t working 

Collectively, the Great Resignation is a gift for employers who are willing to accept it – the chance to reinvent themselves.

It’s kind of a national pause, a national regrouping. From time to time, everyone needs to step back and look at their life and say, “Is this really working for me?” It’s true of individuals, and it’s also true of companies. Very often we find the status quo really isn’t working – and that’s our impetus to shake things up, shift our mind-set and create something fresh, new and energizing.