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Is “The Great Resignation” real?

by Dawn McCoy
in Human Resources

After a year of remote work, large numbers of employees are unwilling to return to the office

The third wave of the pandemic is largely behind us and Canadians hope that the impact of the 4th wave will be minimized due to high levels of vaccination uptake. And, as restrictions lift, organizations are happily relocating employees from home to the office, but employees are showing varying degrees of “excitement” about returning.

Last year, when Canadians transitioned en masse to working from home, many employees at all organizational levels discovered the improved work-life balance that remote work can bring. After a year of remote work, large numbers are unwilling to return to the monotony of a desk-job, lengthy commuting times, long working hours, and the lack of time to spend on home and family activities.

Multiple polls show that while there are some employees who would like to work from home full time, and others who can’t wait to return to the office, a large majority of employees would like to have a hybrid arrangement, alternating between home and the office. With high job vacancies in most industries, including municipal government, the best workers will have their pick of employment opportunities, and working arrangements are expected to play a lot into their decisions.

What is The Great Resignation?

There is a lot of buzz around the phenomenon being dubbed “The Great Resignation,” where some experts claim up to 40 percent of employees are planning on quitting their jobs in the next year. Repeated polls validate this, showing that 15 percent of employees are planning on leaving their current jobs, even if they have nothing to go to. A further 25 percent are planning to leave as soon as they find another job.

These are not all Millennials either, as some might expect. Many are senior level executives and managers who are responding to the stress of having to lead an organization through the pandemic crisis and are ready for a change – whether it is a new job or leaving the corporate workforce altogether.

Many employees are not willing to accept a return to long working hours and long commutes, which take a toll on their work-life balance and mental health. They are willing to put in a full day’s work and more if absolutely required, but they are not willing to accept this as the norm … anymore.

Some employers are listening and changing the way employees work. Others are just expecting people will “suck it up” and return to pre-COVID expectations. Some employees, especially those with no alternative options, will “suck it up” and come back to the same job – but you have to wonder how engaged that employee will be, how much time and effort they will be putting into their jobs, and how much time they will spend on looking for something else. Other employers just do not believe “The Great Resignation” is going to be a thing.

Workers may be dreaming of quitting their job as part of the post-pandemic “Great Resignation,” but many employers don’t actually believe there will be mass turnover. According to a May 2021 survey by Tinypulse, on average, Human Resources and C-suite leaders expect only eight percent of employees will choose to quit once COVID restrictions are fully lifted. A quarter believe no one will quit, asking the question, “Where will they go?”

Interestingly, the adaptations needed to allow employees to work remotely has increased the talent pool for organizations in different geographic areas. It is now possible for Canadians to work for a U.S.-based company or a company based in a different part of Canada.

Three Ways to Keep and Recruit Talent Post-COVID

It may come as a surprise that the majority of reasons why employees quit their jobs are actually under the control of the employer – pay and benefits, working conditions, workplace culture, and poor bosses. The first step to finding out if the turnover tsunami is something that might hit your workplace is to ask the employees. A simple survey of employees can identify:

  • what they like about their jobs;
  • what they would like to see changed;
  • what their working preferences are;
  • whether they are considering changing employers; and
  • what it would take to keep them if they are considering leaving.

Just asking the questions will be appreciated by employees, but the next step is to do something with the information you gather. Here are some suggestions that could go a long way to keeping current talent and perhaps attracting more.

1. Offer flexibility

Some employees may want to continue to work from home because it helps with their work-life balance, but others are itching to get back to the office. Many would like a hybrid – working in both locations. Be flexible and don’t expect all employees to follow the same work location schedule. If you are concerned about coverage in the office, tell employees to come to you with a plan on how they will ensure there is coverage.

2. Do ongoing stay interviews

Instead of exit interviews – typically done when a person has either left the organization or in their last week of work – consider ongoing stay interviews. Stay interviews are preferable to employee satisfaction surveys because they provide a two-way conversation and a chance to ask questions and follow up on ideas. They also deal with current employee happiness or concerns, not with how they felt last month or over the past quarter or year.

3. Offer mental health support for employees

Many have been affected by the pandemic and would really benefit from having a professional to talk to right now.

The Great Resignation is a Threat to Business

With employee burnout, a tight labour market, and talent poaching by private industry or other municipalities, the 40 percent of employees who say they are planning on leaving their jobs cannot be ignored. That does not even take the employees who are not actively looking for another opportunity into account. What will this group do when another opportunity with higher wages and flexible working conditions comes knocking on their door?

Polls show a dramatic increase in the percentage of workers now open to exploring other job opportunities when approached by a recruiter. The cost of losing top talent and essential skills can be very high in terms of lost productivity due to worker shortages, reduced quality or services to residents, and the high cost of recruiting and training new employees.

Pre-pandemic, people were changing jobs mainly because of bad bosses, for higher pay, and better working conditions. Turnover was not typically considered a threat to a successful operation. Today, people are largely focused on having some control over their working conditions and retaining some of the balance they became acquainted with during COVID shutdowns.

If employees are dissatisfied with their employer’s response to the request for hybrid working arrangements, high levels of turnover – often for some of the hardest to recruit positions – could pose a real threat to successfully achieving objectives and meeting service level commitments to residents.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in another of Dawn’s articles: Work-from-anywhere requires paradigm shift.


Dawn McCoy is a well-known Canadian Human Resources expert with over 25 years of senior level experience in both the public and private sectors. She is also a university instructor in Human Resources and Business, an HR Consultant, and an accredited Coach.

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