(ABC4) – After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the workforce – furloughing, laying off, or sending employees to work from home – many expected that folks would be eager to get back to work when the world was open for business again. But, that didn’t end up being the case.
Many workers, especially those working in the service or food industries, found that unemployment checks provided more money than their previous jobs, and they decided that they no longer wanted to work long hours for minimal pay.
Because of this, staffing shortages have been decimating the workforce, particularly the service industry. But, aside from the shortage of workers, employers are also finding it difficult to retain the ones that they do attract.
“We’ve had record levels of quits,” says Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research and a visiting economics professor at the University of Utah. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
According to the latest data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2021 saw 6.3 million job separations, which is an all-encompassing term referring to quits, layoffs and discharges. 4.5 million of these were quits, which marks a series high, increasing the quit rate by 3 percent.
According to Baker, there are two main reasons why people are quitting their jobs now more than ever.
Firstly, the current labor market is very tight.
“The unemployment rate came down much more quickly than most people had expected,” he says. “So that means people have choices.”
In addition, Baker says that the pandemic is putting an increasing amount of pressure on workers, especially those in public-facing positions that are expected to enforce controversial policies like mask mandates.
Because of this, it seems many are making the choice to find work that is less taxing. But it isn’t just service industry employees that are quitting, either. Employees with office jobs are leaving their work, too.
Caitlin Kalinowski, a top product engineer and member at Chief, a network for women in executive leadership, thinks this might be cultural shift stemming from tide shifts brought about by the pandemic.
“We had to slow way down in the pandemic and I believe many of us changed our relationship to how we see our work as part of that,” she says. “I believe some people got even more engaged with their work, and there are other people that realized that their work wasn’t working for them.”
One of the big changes brought about by COVID-19 was – of course – the shift to working from home. While many have noticed the benefits of this style of work, Kalinowski says it could get tricky when managers aren’t so keen on having a remote team.
“Workers have already redefined their relationship to being in-person with work,” she says. “Some employers have caught up, and some employers haven’t. This is actually a concern I have for the country right now, that the people giving the jobs aren’t caught up yet with what the people who have the jobs want and need.”
Baker agrees, adding that if employers insist on in-person work after this remote period, some employees might not be willing to relinquish the freedoms that come with a work-from-home lifestyle.
“Before the pandemic, it would have been seen as very unreasonable to work remotely, but that’s not the case today,” he says. “I don’t think this is a permanent change, in the sense that we’re going to see very high quit rates over the next 5 – 10 years, but I think we’re seeing a shuffling.”
But as for right now, Kalinowski thinks there are ways to address the employee retention crisis from within. She says that, because the COVID pandemic has been hard on everyone in different ways, empathy is a great place to start.
“One of these principles of being a good manager and a good leader is knowing our people,” Kalinowski, who is head of her own team, says. “This is a time when there’s a disconnect, because of the pandemic. I think it’s important for leaders and managers to realize they probably don’t know their employees as well as they normally would.”
And indeed, over the course of the pandemic, we’ve all been through the ringer. Some people may have different living situations, be dealing with a loss, or be caring for a sick relative.
“Why empathy is a superpower, especially now, is that I think in order to retain our employees we have to think outside the normal way of doing things,” Kalinowski says. “One of those is not to assume that we know what our employees’ expectations are or what they want right now, and ask them.”
Another way to for employers to incentivize worker retention, Baker adds, is through tangible benefits, like health care, paid vacation, and a 401k. In high turnover sectors, like the restaurant and food service, he adds that many bosses have started to offer bonuses for employees who stay in the job for a designated amount of time.
This is also a time when employees have been empowered to stand up for what they need from a job which might, Baker and Kalinowski agree, suggest an end to the more authoritarian style of leadership of the past.
“You had cases in the past and in a labor market where it’s hard to find a job an employer could tell you: ‘You want to get off 10 minutes early to pick up your kid who is sick at school? Too bad,’ Baker explains. “That doesn’t work in a tight labor market, because that worker is going to go: ‘Well, I’m going to go pick up my kid. If you don’t like it, you can fire me and I’ll go across the street and get another job.’”
In addition, because workers have grown accustomed to taking charge of their work-life balance through work-from-home culture, they are less likely to respond to dictatorial leadership. And when they are faced with a bossy boss, many choose to find work elsewhere.
“I do think this is going to be a time where bottom-up companies who are worker led and worker driven are going to do much better, on average, than more authoritarian, top-down cultures,” Kalinowski says. “If those types of cultures don’t take an empathetic stance towards what their employees want, there will be a pretty quick realization, I hope.”