Is a “mass employee exodus” on the cards after COVID-19

Is a “mass employee exodus” on the cards after COVID-19

Since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, several studies and reports have highlighted the need to change the way organisations are designed, particularly in terms of structural configuration and work organisation, to models favouring agility and resilience in order to better withstand this crisis and prepare for the next ones.

While organisations and work after COVID-19 have attracted some interest, we have found few studies devoted to employees and the changes in their expectations. And yet, it is easy for human resource practitioners to notice the emergence of high expectations from employees when it comes to work organisation – including but not limited to remote working – along with some uncertainty around employee recruitment and retention.

As demonstrated by the annual Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends reports over the past several years, these trends are not new. But post pandemic, they have gained speed and strength. Yes, a hybrid work model is one avenue, but perhaps not for all organisations or all employees. Especially not a “cosmetic” hybrid work model, the type introduced without aligning the work organisation nor making any effort to adapt the company culture, upskill employees, provide support to managers, have the right digital tools in place, etc. Essentially, a change driven by nothing more than mimetic isomorphism – “others are doing it; we’ll do the same!”. 

When I write about organisations, I hold the hypothesis that they should be designed in harmony with the expectations of employees, something Gary Hamel likes to call “management 2.0” (“make organisations that are fit for human beings” – and not the opposite). So what do employees expect from work and from organisations post COVID-19?

40% employees are on the verge of quitting

This question arose from a recent survey published by McKinsey & Company on the Great Attrition, i.e. the coming wave of employee resignations (survey of more than 5,000 respondents across 5 countries): 40% of employees could leave their job in the next three to six months, and the majority of them would be doing so without another one to go to. The McKinsey survey underlines that this trend (the so-called Great Attrition or Great Resignation), which began during the pandemic and seems to be gaining momentum, is broader than initially thought. It concerns a number of countries, industries, company sizes and positions. The main explanations emerging point to two main factors: not feeling valued and poor work-life balance. While it is easy to imagine post-pandemic retention and attrition being major challenges in certain industries where the working conditions are extreme (for example, health, hospitality, logistics and handling, etc.), research shows that the issue is widespread.

In this respect, the case of Google is very interesting. Indeed, the company, which has been the target of criticism for its approach to diversity, has had to formally address its stakeholders and its employees several times to tell them that the post-COVID-19 turnover is normal and there is no cause for concern. Employee turnover seems to be widespread, although the reasons can vary from one industry to another. To attempt to explain this Great Attrition, the McKinsey Company study points out three main problems which organisations have not yet managed to solve:

  • an unmanageable workload,
  • a lack of professional development opportunities,
  • the feeling of not being supported and helped by colleagues and/or peers.

Pay is not enough of an incentive to stay

According to EY’s Work Reimagined Employee Survey 2021 published last May, involving more than 16,000 respondents across 16 different countries, more than one in two employees would consider quitting their job if they are not given some flexibility in where they work, their space, and their working hours. It is interesting to note that, according to this same survey, millennials are twice as likely as baby boomers to leave their company.

Thus, the two studies converge as regards the high expectations of employees when it comes to quality of life at work, identity at work (and particularly socialisation and a sense of belonging to a group), and finding meaning in their work. Pay is still important, but it would seem that it is no longer enough to retain employees if the elements mentioned above are absent. 

For example, the EY survey highlights that the top performers are the ones who leave the most readily when the compensation package – even if attractive – is not aligned with the rest and, in particular, when the workload is not conducive to a good work-life balance. The most effective total rewards approaches seem to be the ones that are attractive salary and bonus wise, but also when it comes to recognition, career development, work flexibility, and atmosphere at work. The results of the two surveys once again reflect the trends already identified in the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report over the last several years.

Return to the office… or never go back?

Among experts in human resources, there is a consensus about the need to improve the employee experience. Hybridisation does indeed seem to be a way to dovetail the expectations of organisations and those of employees… beware of false promises, though: hybridisation is not a cure-all. It is undeniable that there are sociological evolutions impacting on attitudes toward work. What is interesting to note in the surveys presented earlier is that not all companies are aware of the deeper motivations driving employees to resign and they sometimes base their practices on assumptions that do not – or no longer – reflect the realities of the workforce. One only needs to look at the trends before and during the pandemic – slashers, digital nomads, 100% remote or WFA (work from anywhere), etc. – to wonder how aligned and pertinent organisations are (culture/structure/work organisation/employee skills) in the face of these changes.

Just a few months ago, some organisations admitted they were having trouble convincing their employees to return to the pre-pandemic status quo. Some complained, for example, that their employees did not want to come back to the office. Perhaps these employees do not want to come back at all!

It is not so much the return to the office that poses a problem, but rather the return to work as it was organised and designed prior to COVID-19. It is up to HR professionals not to miss the boat and, if necessary, to convince the decision-makers to change their mindset, because it is indeed the attitude toward work that seems to be changing.

This article has been published in French on Focus RH.

Amine EzzeroualiAmine Ezzerouali, Professor of Organisations Management, SKEMA Business School

All author's posts

Close Menu