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A good, catchy phrase can often overcome good sense. It remains to be seen whether that’s true about the Great Resignation, which is on everyone’s lips because it is indeed catchy, seems to explain any departures or refusals to return to work we’re seeing in our own workplace, and, perhaps most importantly, allows us to blame our favourite villains in the labour market for any problems.

Like Talent Wars, the battle cry of the 1990s coined by McKinsey & Company, it may prove overdone, ultimately best serving consultants with solutions to sell. What we’re witnessing may be little more than catch-up, as people who felt trapped by events for the past 18 months finally get a chance to act on their work situation, and the peak of the baby boom hits their 60s and considers their options.

But organizations and managers always need to do their best to avoid losing talented staff, so it’s worth examining and tweaking your adhesion efforts. Start with thinking about – and dealing with – bad managers. The leading cause of employees leaving companies has long been bad bosses and it’s unlikely that dynamic has changed much. Who are the bad managers in your ranks, down to the lowest supervisory level? Can they be improved with training? What kind of training? What about those who aren’t likely to improve? Why are you tolerating the situation? As with any business problem, there are no perfect solutions but this needs to be treated as a significant business problem and attacked with vigour (and yes, sensitivity).

We are being told repeatedly that flexibility is key to holding on to staff. Actually, autonomy, an even deeper approach, is a better solution when you can offer it – one of the three modern drivers of motivation Dan Pink identified in his book Drive. But properly implemented, flexibility has important elements of autonomy.

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A problem is that we think too narrowly, seeing flexibility as only about remote vs. in-office work or time off for maternity leaves. A flexibility primer in Harvard Business Review suggests there are five different types of flexibility: schedule; place of work; continuity, the ability of workers to take time off for family, sickness, childbirth and the like without losing their jobs; workload, in which employees can job share, work part-time or otherwise opt for less than a full-time schedule; and mode, the freedom to co-ordinate and accomplish work through technology. “The choices made must be viewed as fair by both leaders and employees. Studies show that when they are, workers who experience work-family conflict nonetheless remain committed to their organizations,” academics Ellen Ernst Kossek, Patricia Gettings, and Kaumudi Misra write. So ponder those five forms of flexibility, and how you fare – and might improve – on each.

A related issue is designing jobs so they are enriching. Our dominant instinct seems to be to create narrow, efficient jobs rather than enrich them and make them more varied. So people are plunked into highly repetitive and thus boring work. “From a psychological perspective, when work is well-designed, workers have interesting tasks, autonomy over those tasks, a meaningful degree of social contact with others, and a tolerable level of task demands: reasonable workloads, clear responsibilities, and manageable emotional pressures,” Sharon K. Parker and Daniela M. Andrei of Curtin University in Australia and Anja Van den Broeck of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, a research university in Belgium, wrote in Harvard Business Review a couple of years ago.

If people are indeed leaving your company, it opens the possibility of promotions for some who are staying. That certainly satisfies promoted employees’ need for progress and recognition (and better salary). But you need to be careful, since if the selection process is not seen as fair, you may wind up with some not-so-great resignations from those who lose out in the competition.

Beyond promotions, there is job rotation. I spent about 12 years of my life being moved from job to job within the same organization, even returning to posts I had held, since there was no upward movement possible internally. And it was lovely – challenging, exciting and fulfilling. So consider job rotation, if it fits with the nature of your enterprise.

Mr. Pink’s second motivation driver was meaning and, of course, purpose is a widely touted leadership technique these days. Unfortunately, it’s often brandished with examples of save-the-world companies, which doesn’t speak to the work world of many of us. But all work helps somebody, and it’s important that your staff see that linkage, accept it, and feel better about their life.

Mr. Pink also cites the need for mastery at work, which raises development. Many organizations set this aside for much of the past 18 months, given other pandemic priorities. Gallup offers three helpful questions to get you going: Does each of your employees have an individual development plan and career path? What roles and responsibilities changed due to the pandemic? How do you create networking and mentoring opportunities for remote employees who may be “out-of-sight, out of mind?” If people don’t see themselves growing in your firm, they will look elsewhere.

Finally, remuneration. The pandemic underlined just how poorly some people are paid, when they could bring in more money with the federal CERB. But even in high-paying jobs, you could be seen by the recipient to be falling short, particularly if they now feel aggrieved, unappreciated and unrewarded for their stressful work situation over the past 18 months.

Fair, proper remuneration is in the eye of the beholder. It’s what industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg called a hygiene factor for motivation, something expected to be there and causing dissatisfaction if not adequate but not particularly stirring effort if present. Obviously you’ll want good postpandemic salary hygiene, along with the other ideas raised earlier to avoid great or even minor resignations in your organization.


  • Toronto-area consultant Donald Cooper says “high turnover of staff is their emotionally healthy response to your emotionally unhealthy business culture. Stop blaming them and fix your culture!”
  • McKinsey & Company’s just-released Women in the Workplace Report warns that as companies embrace flexibility they also need to set clear boundaries to avoid “always-on” work.
  • HR analyst Ian Cook, after an in-depth analysis of more than nine million employee records from more than 4,000 companies, found resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees. Tech and health care are have higher turnover rates, while resignations have decreased since before the pandemic in manufacturing and finance.

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