The Great Resignation – Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But there’s a note of finality about the phrase that’s misleading. After all, for the 4.4 million Americans who quit their jobs in February, their stories didn’t end when they resigned.
An important question to ask here is: Why are people quitting their jobs?
More than half of the workers who quit did so to find work accommodations better suited to their preferences, “reconfiguring” their careers based on where they’d like to work (home office or office), who they want to work for (overwhelmingly, it turns out, themselves), and what values an employer should have (ie– their values).
Turns out we’re in the early days of The Great Reshuffle, and no one’s quite done shuffling yet. But company policy, whether geared to accommodate current employees or attract new ones, is going to impact the future of the workforce in ways we’re already starting to see.
From Business Insider:
Companies like Tesla and JPMorgan, which are requiring employees to come into the office five days a week, will skew younger over time. They’ll attract tons of new grads at relatively low salaries who want the bustling social life and career opportunities of a full-time office job — but they’ll struggle to hang on to those workers as they get older and start their own families. And assumably, these companies will be struggling to find new workers? By contrast, companies like Dropbox — which has adopted a remote-first model — will skew older, attracting experienced professionals with families who come at a premium salary.
The article is quick to assure that neither model is better, “they just come with different trade-offs, and therefore require different business models that cater to their respective demographic strengths.”
But a demographic shift like that portends more than just “different business models.”
Yes, it will impact whether companies with full-time office mandates retain the top talent they need to fill senior-management roles. And, okay, sure, it might also determine whether the businesses that get rid of their offices will be able to attract the entry-level workers they need.
But a split like that is also the recipe for something far more interesting.
For starters, what do businesses really lose when employees walk away? And what does it mean when employees are quitting instead of going back to the office?
People bring more than just their labor to work– they bring their “stuff,” too.
Extra stuff, human stuff; a lot of stuff that might not add to workplace productivity but that contributes to workplace je ne sais quoi.
For example, let’s take “point-of-view.” POV is more deeply considered than an opinion, and different than a belief. It’s informed by the way you’ve lived your life and also by the people in your life. It’s unique to who you are, but can also be shared in-part by others who have things in common with you.
We know how important different perspectives are in terms of diversity. We also know that to reap the benefits of certain perspectives, you’re going to need certain people.
It’s complicated, hard to measure, and, I’d argue, businesses are going to miss it when it’s gone.
And what about the workers that leave? After the dust settles, and they’ve been “reshuffled” into better company at a new company– one that presumably is a better fit for their lifestyle, where people who work like them agree with them, and see each other face-to-face or on Zoom as regularly or irregularly as they like – will leaving have cost them something, too?
As William Davies pointed out back in a 2019 meditation on Brexit, “exit” has long been understood as a right consumers hold in reserve. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it. If enough people feel the same the manufacturer will get the message, “and either improve its product or get driven out of the market altogether.”
In a free market, “exit is the default way of expressing oneself.”
But the workplace isn’t the marketplace. It may be “the fundamental right of any investor, customer or business to leave when it suits them,” but “the relationship between employers and employees” should be different. It should involve “negotiation, trust, and occasional conflict.”
What happens when it doesn’t?
What if underlying one aspect of this is a “fantasy of escape;” an “ideal of withdrawal?” Will the workers who reshuffled resign again? How many times can you leave before leaving loses its power? And when does exiting undercut the skills a person needs to be able to stay?
I’m not saying I know what’s going to happen. I’m not even making a prediction. What I am saying is that there may be something useful in Davies’ description of Brexit, which, if nothing else, was its own sort of Great Resignation:
The vote for Brexit was a ‘no’ to many things: wage stagnation, mass immigration, local government cuts, Brussels, London, Westminster, multiculturalism, ‘political correctness,’ and who knows what else? Political scientists and pollsters can spend as much time as they like disentangling one factor from another in an effort to isolate the really decisive one, but Leave’s greatest advantage was that it didn’t have to specify exactly what was being left. As the gilets jaunes are presently showing, ‘no’ has the capacity to mobilize a more disparate movement than ‘yes’, without there having to be any consensus on what is being negated. Leave was a coalition of rejecters, a great refusal that didn’t require a positive or viable programme in order to flourish.
The UK made its exit years ago now, and they’re still in the thick of what could be described as a pretty violent reshuffle.
Back on this side of the pond, it might be that this resignation/reshuffle is the start of “ The Great Bifurcation” that some predict. But it might not.
I’d wager that we won’t really know what the Great Resignation – where everyone is quitting their jobs – meant until the Great Reshuffle 2022 shakes out. The reasons people say “no” are complicated. We’ll know where we’re headed when they start saying “yes.”
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