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Will there really be a ‘Great Resignation’?

14 Jan 2022 By Nicola Callaghan

Nicola Callaghan examines the likelihood that predictions of a mass worker exodus will come to fruition, and how employers can prevent it happening

There has been a furore about the prospect of a ‘Great Resignation’: a mass walkout by employees seeking better pay, conditions, flexibility and benefits. Even the figures suggest that change is afoot, with the number of job positions open in the UK surpassing a million, while in the US 4.3 million workers have left their jobs. 

This shouldn’t be surprising considering the change many of us have experienced in the workplace, but I’m not convinced the Great Resignation will happen the way we are being led to believe. You have to factor in the people that wanted to leave their jobs during 2020/21 and didn’t or couldn’t due to the pandemic, who may want to resign now. That ambition to leave their job won’t have gone away. It may have even grown stronger by a change of focus in what they want from work. Ultimately, their decision was delayed, and they have now entered a more stable period where they have greater freedoms and power to choose a place of work.

Another influence may be an increased expectation from workers to continue working flexibly. Many employers fear not offering these models of work, almost to the point that they put the effectiveness of their business at risk. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that employees do not have the legal right to request flexible working until they have been in post for six months (although the government is consulting on changes that will include the right to request flexible working from day one).

I can see why it is easy to think that employees hold the power in the current job market but they must ultimately fulfil the roles employers need if they are going to retain the best jobs in our economy. If high volumes of staff were resigning, then you would naturally expect to see improvements in attracting recruits, but this is just not the case. These workers must be applying for jobs and we are not seeing any evidence to suggest this is happening for SMEs. Companies trying to expand are finding recruitment far more challenging than retention at the moment. Many workers want change but also realise the importance of length of service after the uncertainties of the pandemic. While some people may be leaving their jobs to retire or take a break, many simply couldn’t afford to do that, especially with the cost of living crisis.

The realities of resignation

You also need to distinguish between people leaving and people saying they want to leave. The noise from people saying they want to leave may be heightened, especially among lower-paid workers who feel underappreciated and underpaid. It is in these roles where power has shifted the most, which can be seen in the demand for HGV drivers. Despite their claims and the results of recent surveys, many employees probably won’t act on their desires to resign, choosing security instead. 

It is human to think things will always get better, but many of us worry the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The reality often is that employees will attempt to seek small, less radical improvements with an employer they know, rather than risk it elsewhere. 

Can employers relax? 

Although we do not believe that the scale of the Great Resignation will be as significant as predicted, there is a growing demand from workers for flexible, hybrid or home working. Employers not reacting to these changes do so at their peril. Those that respond by saying they can’t manage the performance of people working flexibly will be viewed as dinosaurs. 

We have seen a significant increase in flexible working requests, and it has become a popular question for candidates to enquire about during the recruitment process. Employers shouldn’t be afraid of speaking to their employees. Ask them what they like about working for you and what they don’t like. If you assume or second guess what your staff want, you will often get it wrong. By asking them you will better understand what is needed to retain them and demonstrate that you are a thoughtful employer.  

You can always explain to your employees why your business simply couldn’t accommodate them. If you do engage with your employees and ask them for their opinion, ensure you acknowledge and respond to their contributions and ideas. Don’t ignore them, as this can end up being more damaging in the long term. You don’t have to do everything on their wish list, but you do need to show you have listened and considered their suggestions.

The big focus is often on pay, but you don’t have to be the highest paying employer in town, especially if you can offer a good work culture. Remember, many workers just want to come to work, understand what is expected of them, be given the tools to do it and be shown appreciation when they have. Will the Great Resignation happen? Probably not in the way that is being reported, but employers should take action to retain workers now. 

Nicola Callaghan is managing director of HR Caddy

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