A cramped house of kids learning alongside parents working from home.
A new habit of answering emails after hours and on weekends.
A never-ending loop of being stuck indoors for over a year.
A risk of exposure to a deadly virus.
Are we really all that surprised that employees are set to leave in droves? More than burnout, people are languishing—other known as going through their days in a state of bleary-eyed emptiness and stagnation. And it’s a direct effect of the toll this pandemic has taken. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant, explained to The New York Times, describing it as 2021’s “dominant emotion.”
Clearly, people aren’t just tired—they’re beaten down. This sort of exhaustion can inevitably can lead to some deeper reflection on what you really want and what you’d rather let go of.
According to the Achievers Workforce Institute’s fourth annual Engagement and Retention Report, a staggering 52% of employees said they intended to look for a new job. In describing the report, the surveyors write, “We suspect that going through a crisis has highlighted company values and culture, causing employees to become more discerning about the type of organization they want to work for.”
The most crucial area of concern, according to their findings? “Work-life balance.” So as the second pandemic summer continues, it’s critical that leaders redirect focus from obsessively worrying about the “Great Resignation” and towards lessening the burden on teams. And as a leader, I see the benefit we can find when we think outside of ourselves.
How can we minimize the stress employees are facing? How can we remedy the phenomenon of languishing? To respond to these questions, I racked my brain to compare my own experiences with outside research. From this process I’ve found there are three keys to helping keep employees aboard long after this crisis is over.
Take wellness (vs. a productivity) inventory
“Receiving 2 a.m. emails” and “being expected to answer their phone while they’re having dinner with family” were just two of unhealthy practices people have been dealing with, and are rightfully sick of.
As noted in the Achievers Workforce report, one in four of those surveyed (25%) named work-life balance as the top reason they’d job hunt, with nearly as many (23%) saying it was the main reason they’d stay at their company. “This shows that organizations must focus on balance to attract and retain employees,” the report highlights. “Knowing whether your employees are satisfied with their current balance should be your first stop.”
I’ve been CEO for over 15 years. Over the course of that time, I’ve written excessively about the pitfalls of a 24/7 hustle culture; how toxic and unhealthy it is for workplaces. I’ve advocated, instead, for a culture that values wellbeing over productivity at all costs. In the end, it’s why I believe we’ve been lucky to have a low staff turnover, with a 5% annual churn rate.
But I attribute these results to continual self-evaluation; in taking stock of our work balance policies—both inside and outside of the office.
For example, we don’t place hard deadlines on our staff, nor disrupt their sleep with excessive emails. We take these policies even a step further by encouraging employees to delete Slack from their phones and not reply to emails during weekends. Upholding these values is one of the primary ways we help minimize their stress.
“When employees were asked what had impacted company culture during COVID-19,” the surveyors noted, “one in four said there had not been enough effort to keep remote workers connected.”
Ask yourself the following: what does connection actually mean?
A helpful hint: it’s not overloading employees with a steady flow of Zoom meetings. Remote work will become a permanent fixture of our lives well beyond the pandemic, so it’s on us to create a positive work culture even from afar. Many leaders tend to conflate connection with the bonding that comes from physical proximity; but I disagree with this line of thinking.
As a founder, maintaining employees engaged has always been a top concern for me. And what I’ve learned over the past year, especially, is that connection comes down to open communication; in humanizing your emails, your meetings, your messages, and making team members feel appreciated for their contributions.
And equally important: Don’t just recognize people’s big accomplishments. To transcend languishing, Grant tells us to focus on small wins. And I believe this equally applies to letting our team know they’re valuable on a regular basis.
Don’t skimp on feedback
At my company, we’ve upheld a tradition of demo days, where teams get the chance to informally present their work—it’s a great way for me to hear their concerns in a stress-free setting. I’ve also found it makes our team feel validated and heard, and helps me understand what’s working and not working.
We’ve also set up other policies like conducting employee surveys, encouraging transparent exchanges, and providing mentorship opportunities—to ensure we’re really listening to everyone’s needs. Keeping this kind of open dialogue not only clarifies intent, it also helps prevent misunderstandings from taking root.
As my company has grown and weathered multiple storms, I’ve taken great pride in maintaining a stable and willing team, despite challenge after challenge. I don’t have all the answers but in my view as a founder, companies’ focus shouldn’t be solely to avoid a mass exodus—but to create a company worth staying for.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.