When employees are working at an office, it can be easier to spot someone who may be thinking of quitting. Phone calls taken outside, extra time-off requests, and a detached attitude could be indicators they’re interviewing elsewhere. When everyone is remote, however, it can be harder to spot.
“The key warnings signs . . . are often related to whether that employee is engaging in what we call withdrawal behaviors,” says Angela Hall, associate professor in Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations. “Withdrawal can take two forms: physical or psychological.”
Fortunately, research from meQuilibrium, an employee resilience solution, found that most employees—60%—have no intention of quitting. “But 7% are perilously close to jumping ship,” says Andrew Shatté, chief knowledge officer and co-founder of meQuilibrium.
To catch those as well as the remaining third who might leave if a better offer came along, look for these five behaviors that could indicate you have a potential vacancy on the horizon:
Employees likely to quit are absent from their jobs more than double the time of those who had no such intention, according to Shatté: “Even when on the job, they show more than double the presenteeism—impairment of productivity, engagement, and performance,” he says. “Telltale behavioral clues include getting emotional—particularly anxiety, frustration, and sadness. They are less positive in their outlook and show all the signs of clinical depression and clinical levels of stress. Their anxiety and stress often manifests as procrastination, insomnia, and a constant need for reassurance.”
Absenteeism is a classic physical withdrawal behavior, says Hall. “The employee is not around as much as before,” she says. “This can take the form of showing up late to meetings, not going to meetings, starting work late, ending work early, and requesting for more time off than usual. In a remote environment, you won’t see that employee logging on to virtual meetings, leaving those meetings early or logging onto them late.”
2. A sudden shift in attitude
Psychological withdrawal signs center around a lack of engagement with work, says Hall.
For remote workers, signs may include always having the camera turned off during meetings, showing less enthusiasm for the work, distancing themselves from their boss and co-workers, and reduced productivity, she says.
Behaviors don’t have to be negative. “If someone who’s a natural complainer stops complaining, chances are they’ve devised an exit strategy and are simply biding their time before they leave,” adds Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume, a résumé-writing service.
3. Late email replies
Research conducted and published by Academy of Management scholars Heejung Byun of Purdue University and David A. Kirsch of University of Maryland found that how quickly an employee responds or doesn’t respond can be correlated with their likelihood for leaving. Delayed or failure to reply can be an indicator of turnover.
“Say you notice I’m not as responsive as usual,” Kirsch explained. “Or I’m responding to some emails quickly, and others I’m just letting sit for a day or more. I’m out of rhythm, out of the timing norm you and I have developed. We’re suggesting that may be an indicator of a possible future separation. Maybe I’m not tuned in; maybe I’m thinking about something else.”
Kirsch warns to not jump to conclusions. “Now, it could also be that my kid’s been sick,” he says. “Or it’s the pandemic. That’s why we suggest if HR managers notice this type of behavior, it may be a signal of possible unrest, a decline in fit with the organization, and may be associated with future turnover.”
4. Late-night log-ins
Online activity is one of the most overlooked indicators that an employee may be preparing to quit, says Joe Payne, president and CEO of Code42, cyber security provider.
“In fact, the number one indicator that someone is about to quit is that they take files,” he says. “They may put them in Dropbox or Gmail or on a thumb drive. They almost always do this before they quit.”
And they won’t do it during normal working hours, Payne adds. “They often work off-hours to exfiltrate information,” he says. “Ironically, this makes them easier to spot. Our data shows that a departing employee is more likely to sign on at an irregular time to transfer files to a personal cloud or storage device thinking that they’re less likely to get caught.”
5. New LinkedIn activity
If any of the previous behaviors have you wondering, a good way to confirm those suspicions is to check the employee’s LinkedIn profile.
“If you notice a flurry of activity on LinkedIn seemingly out of nowhere, it’s a good signal that they’re brushing up their personal brand for a job search,” says Augustine. “If they edit their headline or adjust their industry to something different from their current job, it’s a sign that they’re trying to reposition themselves for a career change.”
What you can do
If an employee demonstrates these signs, it may or may not be too late. The most important step is to reengage employees. To reduce the chances of valued employees’ exiting the organization, Hall says it’s imperative that employers conduct regular check-ins with employees.
“Provide regular, developmental feedback to workers,” she says. “Recognize employee achievements. Openly acknowledge that working in a remote environment is difficult. And regularly solicit input from employees regarding how the employer can improve their remote employee experience.”